It's early morning in Ubud, Bali, and a group of us are dining on a breakfast of pickled eggs, shredded chicken, and crispy crumbles of fried shallots, served over rice, at Nusantara, a stylish restaurant tucked in between the town’s many yoga studios and souvenir shops. Nusantara is the latest addition to Locavore in Ubud, the culinary mini-empire of the Dutch-born chef Eelke Plasmeijer and his partner, Ray Adriansyah, who grew up in Jakarta to Sumatran parents. The duo opened in 2016 with the idea to create a sustainability-driven restaurant using ingredients that are sourced almost entirely from the Indonesian archipelago—from sea salt from northern Bali to fresh seafood from eastern Indonesia. The ingredients are showcased in ambitious dishes like heritage galuh rice porridge with duck-egg yolks, snails, and fern tips or cassava garlic mousseline served with 17 condiments.
Upstairs at Nusantara, there’s a food lab where teak shelves are lined with glass jars and ceramic jugs filled with fermenting ingredients like galangal root and candlenut. This feels like Brooklyn or Berkeley. This is not what I expected in Bali’s acai-bowl belt—or for that matter what I expected from a cruise.
We are on a test run of the SALT (Sea and Land Taste) project from Silversea, a new immersive culinary program that leads guests on field excursions and offers cooking workshops on board—and will launch on the company’s Silver Moon in August. It’s the brainchild of Barbara Muckermann, the company’s chief marketing officer, and Adam Sachs, a long-time food journalist (and departures contributor). The goal is to have guests “eating the food that’s right outside of their porthole,” Sachs says. “We want this to be much more than going to a local market or doing a wine tasting.”
Sachs has spent the past 18 months researching onshore culinary experiences as well as developing menus on board by tapping into his network of chefs, farmers, and other food obsessives around the globe. “We have been going port by port trying to identify the food stories in this very journalistic approach,” he says. Whether it’s working with an Italian farmer who is growing his own wheat for pasta near Ancona (where the ship will set sail on its maiden voyage) or finding a pair of chefs in Bali who have created a farm-to-table empire to celebrate the bounty of the vast Indonesian archipelago, Sachs wants to go deep. And so some of us are doing just that on a ten-day cruise that will take us from Bali to Malaysia and the Philippines, sampling regional dishes and meeting the people who cook and champion some of the most flavorful and multiethnic cuisine in the world.
After breakfast, Adriansyah leads us to the restaurant’s farm, deep in the jungly mountains. One of the workers shimmies up a tree to retrieve a beehive so we can sample honey. Another farmer splits open mangosteens and passes around the sweet nuggets. Adriansyah plucks an edible plant, known as the electric daisy, that basically zaps your entire mouth with a numbing sensation, as if you downed a fistful of Sichuan peppercorns.
Back on the boat, Maya Kerthyasa, a Balinese food journalist based in Perth, Australia, and a member of the Ubud royal family, demonstrates how bold and complex the cuisine really is by preparing her 95-year-old grandmother’s recipes. Kerthyasa lays out the fundamental ingredients that give Balinese cuisine its kick: shallots, ginger, lemongrass, belacan (shrimp paste), candlenut, galangal root, and bird’s-eye chili. We spend the afternoon mortaring and pestling the ingredients into various sambals, Indonesian chili pastes, which I’ve decided are my new go-to instead of Sriracha. The three pillars of the SALT program are ingredients, technique, and people, according to Sachs.
Over the next few days we’ll find the same ingredients and dishes we cooked in Bali in the markets and restaurants of Malaysia and Philippines. “I want people to see how these different cultures overlap and add up in a holistic way,” Sachs says. In the port town of Sandakan, Malaysia, we eat the ultimate in Southeast Asian fusion food. We sample bak kut teh, a Chinese herbal broth with chunks of pork cartilage at a workers’ café; we cook a grilled fish cake known in Malay as otak otak and a mackerel paste cooked in a banana leaf at a kopitiam (coffee shop); and we dine on the most fragrant Indonesian beef rendang. We shop for lemongrass and dried fish at a seaside market with Anne-Mari Cornelius, the executive chef, who will later use them to prepare a locally inspired meal while we watch in one of the open kitchens on board.
The kitchen we visit the next morning on Romblon Island in the Philippines is more rustic—just a thatched roof and a wood fire. Milagros Montero is preparing sarsa na uyang, a street snack unique to this island. She is feeding fresh-water prawns through a hand-cranked grinder with chili, shallots, ginger, and shredded coconut, wrapping the mixture in banana leaves, and then cooking them over the flames. After Sachs slurps down one enthusiastically, I go in for a taste. It’s sweet and fiery and funky in the best sense. Sachs smiles. He’s on to something. The are 7,000-plus islands in the Philippines—there are that many more unique culinary stories to discover.
The SALT program debuts on the Silver Moon, with an 11-day trip from Trieste to Rome, from $10,620.