Friday, 14 February 2014

Spirals of community life

I am holding onto two of the spikes of the spider shell's shell.
It is cracked open so you can see the spirals leading up to the top of the shell.

The spider shell is a marine animal whose shell has a line of 7 spikes sticking out. The shell and the animal inside spirals up to a pinnacle.

Spider shell visible at the top of frame. This
underwater photo was taken around high tide.
The animal has two long, flexible shafts that can protrude out of the shell and retract. At the end of these are eye balls. Spider shells also have one leg which they stick out of the shell and use to move, quite effectively.  On February 13, I helped our neighbours prepare this delicacy as part of long and ongoing preparations for an April wedding.

Cracking open part of the shell reveals the spirals inside.

As the trailer load of shells indicates, we were preparing the meat on bulk.  Apparently, the spider shells had been gathered at low tide, a long way out on the reef. 

Once brought back to the land, the preparation process begins with [ketuk] breaking open the shells in order to expose and extract the animal from the shell. 

 We got the spider shells out of buckets (see blue bucket full of spider shells and empty red bucket). We held them on the anvil ( Nek As is wearing a glove to hold the spider shell) and then bashed (ketuk) them with the hammer. Then we threw the shells onto the trailer in the foreground.

Extracting the meat

The shell is extremely strong. Even experienced hands like Nek Neng and Nek As required at least 2 or 3 very sharp hammer blows to break a shell open. With this number, I could crack open the small shells, but I needed generally at least 4-6 blows for the larger shells.

After cracking open the shells and taking out the animal inside, the women cleaned off (rawat [sic.]) the ‘crap’ [tahi]; and finally rinsed [bilas] the white meat.

Rawat (taking care of) the meat, involving separating entrails etc.

Rawat: the white meat is kept, while the entrails etc. are pushed
 into the hole in the middle of the table, so they fall ino the tray below.

The two women dressed in blue to the left of the frame are rinsing (bilas or cuci) the meat.
The pink and blue house in the background, Ocean Villa, is where I'm staying.
Spider shell meat has many uses.


Nek As told me they also used to get the shell of a young spider shell, clean it and polish it, and sell it to white people (orang putih) on West Island for 3 ringgit.

Gong gong just taken out of the cauldron and
 strained of the water in which they were boiled.
(“Ringgit” could refer to the currency during the Clunies Ross times, but, seeing as it sold to ‘foreigners’, as it were,  it probably refers to “pounds” or “dollars”. Indeed, people still use the term “ringgit” for dollars”.)

Food and bait

Male spider shells are not consumed but can be used for bait.My Blog “Teach a man to fish” shows how spider shell meat and entrails are  used for bait. The entrails, by themselves can be used to attract fish while angling (in Australian English this is called "burley"). 

Female spider shells we were preparing are specifically referred to as female spider shells.

The legend of gong-gong's some they prepared earlier. From boiled to dried gong gong.
So how did Cocos Malays find out spider shells are edible? Nek Iwat (owner of a local store) related a local legend to Monika. Originally, he said, locals had only used spider shell for bait. An Indonesian told the locals on Home Island that humans could eat spider shell too. And that man’s name was “Gong Gong”. It didn’t sound like a common Indonesian name, so Monika asked if the man might have been ethnically Chinese (as some locals claim they were descendants from the Chinese Indonesians). No, she was told, he was an Indonesian from Banten.

Fried gong gong makes a nice, crunchy snack.
It tastes very similar to crackling.
Another version of the story comes from Haji Wahid. According to him, "Gong Gong" is the name of a Singaporean Chinese who came to Home Island. He was connected with Clunies-Ross (the last 'king' of Cocos), as Clunies-Ross shipped the coconuts to Singapore.

Finally, Nek Kaya told Monika that it was a visitor or visitors from Australia who first started eating gong-gong. Home Islanders learned from them. Whatever the origins, it happened that we were extracting the meat for food.

Ways to prepare gong-gong

As food, gong gong has many uses, people happily listed to me. You can use gong gong for soup. You can dry it for later use. You can also fry it.

A line from the Cocos School Song, recited at school assemblies, extolls spider shell soup.

Gong gong Crackers (Kerupuk gong gong)
Gong gong Crackers (Kerupuk gong gong)

We were extracting gong gong for use later as sate (little bits of meat speared on wooden stick and barbecued over a fire). The meat was then frozen to be defrosted and cooked later.

Preparation of gong gong is labour intensive. Harvesting it at low tide, hauling it back to land, cracking it open, cleaning, to washing takes a lot of time and energy. Monika heard that there is a local couple who actually specialise in doing it, and sell it for $25/bag. They go further out to get big gong gong. So why didn't the people who taught me to crack open gong gong shell just buy it?

Onions, carrots, rice, and spider shell meat. Put them
 together, and you've got gong gong soup.
I think it is because the gong gong we were preparing will be used for the wedding. This wedding often comes up when people talk to me. The wedding they refer to is the wedding of Ashari, the grandson of Nek As, in April. With preparations starting at least two months earlier, this wedding (like most first marriages apparently) will be a huge event for the community. The celebrations, I’m told, will last a week. So, everyday, close friends and family are helping out at Ashari's parents house, giving their time and energy to  prepare for the festivities. In 'return', they are given drinks and, if they happen to be around in the evening, fed. Giving and receiving is already occurring on a large scale at this house and it will increase as we get closer to the wedding.

The spirals of the spider shell might make a good metaphor for the wedding preparations. Initially involved in the preparations are family and close friends. As the wedding approaches, more people will help out. Before the wedding, many Cocos Malays who have emigrated will also return for the rituals. Eventually, the whole community will be involved.

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