A man that stands out in the middle of the crowd with his uniqueness, we encountered Charles Toto at the Ubud Food Festival back in 2019. Chato, short for Charles Toto, could be regarded as one of the well-known figures in the food scene. He’s the founder of Jungle Chef Community, a community of chefs that focuses on foraged goods you could find in the jungles of Papua with “the forest is a market for the people of Papua where they can shop without spending any money” as their philosophy. Even way before becoming the Papua Jungle Chef, he started his culinary journey by working in a travel agency as a cook which brings tourists through the jungles of Papua, showing the diversity of its culture through the tribes inland as well as its marine tourism. During the tours, he took that opportunity to do workshops for the kids of the tribes in each of the spots chosen for the tourists. In 2008, he had the urge to create a community where he can teach the kids properly while starting to record indigenous recipes which enable him to conduct food mapping all over Papua.
During the interview we caught him mentioning sago quite often, we wondered why focus on sago while there are other indigenous plants/ingredients that are still a mystery to most Indonesians. He began by telling us that sago is very scarce these days – you could even say that it has almost reached extinction in Papua. His main mission at the moment is to replant sago while trying to get the government to create some kind of law to protect the plant. By this, he hoped that sago won’t merely become another myth that will be long forgotten.
Sago is a product of the sago palm (Metroxylon sagu), but what makes this type of palm tree exceptional is its quality of being beneficial to several layers of our needs. Out of the young leaves, the people of South Papua often use them for clothing and to produce the traditional bag called noken. As for food, they obtain the sago by cutting the trunk in half and scraping the soft inner parts of the trunk which is then turned into flour. It is also the main ingredient for papeda, grilled sago that is a native dish and fills the daily carbohydrate needs with low sugar content. Not only do the inner parts of the trunk provide flour, but they may also find the larvae of the sago palm that is one of their protein sources. And last, the old leaves of the sago plant can be stacked and formed into a roof for the houses, the midrib is usually used for the walls of the houses, and the bark is for the floor. Above all else, the roots produce a source of clean water for the ecosystem around the skirt of sago forest including fish and ferns.
Support his movement to protect the sago forest in Papua by signing the petition here.