There once was a princess so beautiful that suitors traveled from all over the land to win her hand in marriage. But the fierce competition kindled acrimony, and the princess, distraught by seeing her people fight, threw herself into the sea. When the villagers waded into the water in search of the fair lady, all they could find were thousands upon thousands of sea worms. Was it the princess transformed? Perhaps a symbol of her flowing locks? Regardless, unlike the lone princess, the worms were plentiful and the village, peaceful once again, shared in their bounty.
With this legend in mind, every year hundreds of Sasak people make the journey to the southern and eastern beaches of Lombok, Indonesia, to catch nyale, or sea worms, and participate in the courting festival known as Bau Nyale (literally translating to “Catch Sea Worm”). Leading up to the event, men engage in ritualistic combat using shields and rattan (a vine-like palm) sticks, riders race horses on long stretches of beach, and vibrantly costumed women parade through the streets in glittering Sasak regalia. Nearing nightfall, groups of men and women head toward the sea where a game of poetic flirtation called pantun takes place. For one day of the year, at the water’s edge, a little cheek is not only encouraged, but might win a mate for life.
As for the nyale, they’re also engaged in a courtship ritual. Although precise prediction can be tricky, sometime after February’s full moon, the worms (triggered by the lunar cycle and other environmental factors) emerge from their coral homes and release their egg- or sperm-filled tails to the water’s surface, where magical mingling and mating can occur. Equipped with nets and buckets, locals wade into the tides collecting the purplish-brown and green sea creatures, which they deposit by the bucket onto tarps or into large bowls for separating and cleaning.
Eating nyale is said to bring beauty, prosperity, and fertility. The worms can be prepared in a variety of ways, but are most often eaten as a soup (kalek moren) with fresh-grated coconut. Pepe nyale features sea worms mixed with coconut and spices, wrapped in a banana leaf, and roasted over the fire. And, for year-round enjoyment, cooks salt and preserve the worms, combining them with fermented shrimp paste (trasi), to form a pungent flavoring that can be ground and added to different dishes.
The worms are valued beyond the dinner table, too, becoming fertilizer in rice patties and, perhaps more importantly, being used as a traditional medicine believed to boost sexual vitality. After all, Bau Nyale is about what these little love creatures signify, and displays of courtship remain central to the annual ritual when ladies dress to impress, and men compete in the hopes of wooing their own princess.
There once was a princess so beautiful that suitors traveled from all over the land to win her hand in marriage. But the fierce competition kindled acrimony, and the princess, distraught by seeing her people fight, threw herself into the sea.