Today I made potato latkes! So delicious—I had to stop myself from eating them all, and then I did some pilates in my bedroom…
I’m reminded everyday that since I’ve arrived in Indonesia, I have left out explaining something quite important: food. What do people eat? How is food prepared? What are some of the main ingredients? What are kitchen’s like? It’ll take a few blog posts to adequately feed your appetite for curiosity, so here we go…
Before I came here, I had this idea that Indonesian food would be quite similar to Thai, Vietnamese and Malaysian cuisine—my three favorite types of Asian cuisine. All of these countries are clumped together in the Southeast Asian region, and many of them share the same vivacious and palatable ingredients like spicy basil, galangal, ginger, fish paste, homemade peanut sauces, never holding back on the red chili peppers. I grew up eating Thai food despite being half-Taiwanese. Up until this past June, my mother ran a Thai restaurant for about twenty years. She was the cook, an incredible and innovative one at that. Some days better than others. I grew up in the kitchen, watching my mother stir up thousands of incredible meals, examining the flames as they roared several feet into the air, reaching the exhausts, my mother, absolutely fearless. As the various aromas traveled from the stovetops met and delighted my nostrils, I loved watching my mother prepare ingredients. I’d watched as she simultaneously chopped up vegetables faster than I will ever be capable of, as she watched the blaring Chinese news on TV. Every time, I felt a gripping knot in my stomach, nervously watching her fingers move against whatever she was cutting, centimeter by centimeter, the knife’s blade creating a rhythm against the chopping board, pondering “how does she still have all of her finger tips in tact?”
As I mentioned in my Ramadan entry and if you’ve ever worked with me, you know the bottom line: I love being surrounded by food, I love being able to walk around and take my thumb to index finger together and pinch whatever’s sitting around. I wouldn’t call myself a cook, despite being brought up in a kitchen. I’m not too fond of precision, and I like to improvise. I’ll put it like this: when I was little, it was challenging to color between the lines, I preferred to scribble outside of the given boundaries. When I find a recipe, I usually get really excited and think about other great things to throw in, for that extra kick, and end up opening up every cabinet, cupboard and refrigerator compartment while getting a little bit carried away. Usually I’ll have a cooking sidekick who calms me down. I actually loathe using knives, unless it’s a butter knife, in which case, I don’t mind, because they’re not too sharp (and because it means I’m probably spreading something creamy, yum, dairy!). Like most people, I’m very particular about my kitchen environment. I like to make sure things are properly cleaned (as I’m terrified of cross contamination and contracting food poisoning), organized, and have a lot of clean surface area to work with, oh and good music or radio in the background. If the kitchen isn’t well organized, or really dirty with eyesores of smelly dishes piled to the ceiling, I feel handicapped and less inspired to cook, often resorting to having someone else cook for me instead. Wow, I sound lazy. I’m not going to lie; I love being cooked for, especially by my mother or boyfriend (they’re both incredible cooks!), who doesn’t! To an extent, I regret not having cooked more in my life before coming here, but I don’t think it’s ever too late to learn more. I believe cooking is in my blood and in my personality; I like to share, create, and experiment. And like learning the English language among many other things, it takes patience, practice, courage, and self-confidence. Like I tell my students all the time, you can’t be afraid to make mistakes, so I too, must swallow by my own words.
So is it ironic that I’m learning how to cook during Ramadan?
Let’s talk about Indonesia.
In America and much of the Western world, we like to think of the kitchen as the heart and soul of the home. Whereas in Indonesia, the sitting area or living rooms are the hearts of the home, where people drop by to gather, watch TV, share tea, smoke cigarettes, gossip. In an Indonesian village, the kitchen is just another room where the Ibu prepares the food, often before the rest of the family awakens, places the food (sometimes) in another room to sit until people choose to eat (usually people eat at varying times, not necessarily together, or at a dining table, usually in front of the TV). The kitchen set up varies from house to house. In my home, we have three-ish general areas where food is prepared. In the very back, where the chickens live, we have a traditional clay stove, where a giant wok sits on top of burning firewood. This is usually used to prepare stews or high quantities of fried treats. Transitioning from this shed-esque area, there is a makeshift sink area that doesn’t really have running water—there’s a container close-by with water and a bucket, which you scoop and pour into the sink. It’s all bare concrete floors, it’s very dark, no one hangs out back here, unless you’re putting away dirty dishes, soaking beans, or making tea. That area flows into another room that has a two-plated gas stove top, kind of like the ones you take camping. Every month or so, we have to buy a new gas tank for it. Recently, and to my benefit, my host sister revamped this area and made it more efficient and organized. She added more surface area, and shelves with all of the ingredients nicely laid out. There are no counters to cut/prepare things on; all of this is done on the floor. People in my home don’t really use cutting boards, but instead use dull knives while holding the (insert object being cut) in their left hand, while peeling away the skin or dividing it into pieces with the right. This was one of the reasons why I didn’t initially volunteer myself to help prepare meals, because this is a situation just asking for me to cut myself. During PST, my host family got a big kick out of watching me nervously/awkwardly cut the skin off of eggplants…eventually they assigned me a different task…peeling garlic. So needless to say, I have my own way of doing things. Other than the two-plated stovetop, we don’t really have any appliances. Some Indonesians have little ovens, which mimic a toaster oven, that you place on top of the two-plated stove. I’m still puzzled by how you finagle with and monitor the temperature. It’s a bit challenging to make many things when you lack an oven, microwave, toaster oven, and other kitchen gadgets. We do have a blender though (fresh juice, hey!), and I plan to invest the ~$10 to buy an oven quite soon! Many other PCVs have hopped on the cooking train–it’s a bit more challenging for me to find ingredients because I live in a more rural area than many. All the reason to be more creative! Even though our kitchen lacks many things, I’ve tried to not use this as an excuse to give up on cooking, but instead use it as an opportunity to be more innovative with what I create, even looking up raw food recipes. Every one back home has been encouraging me to learn how to make Indonesian food, to share when I return, so I must try—to make a new experience out of everything. Most Indonesian food is deep fried, as it’s easy, requires little skill/gadgets, and it’s cheap to do. Indonesians use coconut oil for all cooking (I miss you EVOO!). Remember that concept of moderation? Well that doesn’t apply here. Don’t get me wrong, fried food is delicious, but my skin will tell you something different—as I perceive it’s a definite contributor to my reoccurring acne nightmare here.
There are not exactly always sweet and delicious aromas wafting throughout homes here, as I don’t detect preparing food to be the most favorable. Perhaps it’s considered a hobby for a handful, but I haven’t seen any cookbooks in my either of my homes here, which is rather strange as it would be an U N D E R S T A T E M E N T to say that my mother in America is an avid collector of all types of cookbooks. And I mean AVID! It’s not surprising to me though, I’m living in a developing country, in a village, where female roles are still very traditional, cooking is another chore, another task, like sweeping the house and doing laundry. Since coming to site, my host mother has been the primary preparer of foods, and it’s not that she’s bad at it, there’s just not much heart and soul in the food she prepares. I’m not a picky eater, just no meat or fish while I’m here. And that’s not difficult as there’s plentiful amounts of tofu and tempeh. Basically my host mother prepares vegetables by boiling them, and then usually deep-frying either tempeh, tofu, or an egg, sometimes with special corn or potato cakes (my favorites). This should all be served with a mountain of rice, the filler, but I usually take about an 1/8th of what normal Indonesian serving is. Once my host mother got sick, and was bed-ridden for a few days, my host sister started cooking, and even though my host mother is healthy again, my host sister has discovered how enjoyable cooking can be, especially when there’s two of us doing it together. Her food is also much more delicious and I can taste the heart and soul she mixed in with it.
This entry is much longer than I had intended and I still have yet to scratch the surface on illustrating what Indonesian food is actually like! I realized that I have a lot to say about food in this country, and I’m still observing and learning more every day. I think I have suppressed a lot of my thoughts on food because I REALLY miss foods I would eat at home, I miss my mother’s cooking, I miss walking into Whole Foods and being punched in the face by all of the colors, variety, and enticing smells, I miss having the choice of what cuisines (something most Indonesians couldn’t begin to imagine) I wanted every day. I had it GOOD, and yes I was definitely spoiled with fantastic foods. Back home I would pay anything for good quality food, and any food in general, really. If you looked at my credit card statements (glad I don’t have to see those anymore!), you’d see the bulk of my $$ was spent on food. But sometimes here, I find myself not enjoying food, feeling like it’s a chore to eat, like doing laundry, it’s necessary. So I want to rediscover the excitement in food here in Indonesia, where everything is local, fresh, raw, unprocessed and has the potential to be something incredibly delectable.
I will close here with sharing that since I have a lot of free time, to keep myself active and busy, I have picked up the some-what challenging task of cooking. I love cooking with my host sister, we sit on the floor, listen to music on my Macbook, while we chat and prepare away. I’ve been exposing my host sister to different kinds of food, and different ways to prepare it. Eating as much fried food as Indonesians do, isn’t healthy, and I hope to change the way my family looks at food. They’ve already told me that since I’ve been here, they’re eating healthier—more vegetables, and they’re actually buying fruit weekly, and on top of that, eating less meat. The PCV group before mine, created a lovely ‘Peace Corps Indonesia Cook Book’ filled with wonderful Western and Indonesian recipes that are all achievable despite lacking many conventional kitchen tools and appliances like we’re accustomed to in America. To gain the trust of my family to let me use the “kitchen”, the first thing I prepared was a ‘no-bake chocolate chip peanut butter raisin cookie’. I decided I’d start with something easy, something difficult to mess up considering the primary ingredients are butter and sugar—ENAK SEKALI!—so I could win them over, to show them I’m capable of preparing something edible, I think I’ve won them over.