Food scares and unhealthy eating habits lead to a revival of interest in traditional foods among Indonesia’s middle class. ANGIE BEXLEY reports.
Anthropological studies into food tend to focus on class, identity and wider socio-historical and political changes in society. So, what would a project look like that not only attempts to do anthropology about food, but also with food?
The Culture Kitchen FOODLAB is an interdisciplinary and experimental project that aims to understand the changing nature of Indonesian food in middle-class Indonesia and reinvigorate regional cuisines and ingredients using modern cooking methods. The collaboration involves Australian-trained Indonesian chef Jon Priadi and me—together with a number of Indonesian and Australian chefs and artists.
The FOODLAB grew out of a long history of collaborating with artists on cross-cultural art projects. From 2006 to 2010, the Culture Kitchen worked with Indonesian and East Timorese artists on a series of print-based projects that resulted in two exhibitions—‘Recovering lives’ and ‘Thresholds of tolerance’—at the Australian National University Art School. The exhibitions were later shown in Melbourne and Brisbane, and London, New York and Florence.
The project’s departure point was that, while all the participants are connected geographically and politically, they had little opportunity to engage with social realities in neighbouring countries. The project resulted in long-term partnerships that continue to forge social connections through art.
Our current project, based for the past year in Yogyakarta, Java’s cultural capital, draws on this long-term artistic and collaborative basis, but has turned its attention to food.
Yogyakarta has undergone many changes since Jon Priadi and I lived there 15 years ago—in the way people eat, new food trends, the move towards healthy and sustainable eating, and the difficulties people face because of persistent unhealthy eating cultures. We wanted to shine a spotlight on some of these changes, and also engage with Indonesian food.
Although Indonesia’s rising middle class continues its love affair with eating out, a visible change has been the movement from eating on the street to eating inside. While street stalls and the lesehan (low table with a mat) style continue to represent the ‘authentic Yogya’ experience, the supply of cafe spaces with funky interiors and free wi-fi is spurred on by rising demand.
New food trends
One of these cafe spaces, for example, has given rise to a new food trend—in the form of milk bars. The trend began with the evacuation of farmers during the Merapi volcano in 2010. An entrepreneurial university lecturer bought some cattle from farmers and started supplying milk to a few vendors around town. The demand soon grew, and Yogyakarta is now home to many of these fresh-milk cafes (café susu segar) that serve up milk with a variety of colourful toppings such as seaweed, green jelly, and peanuts.
Some middle-class Indonesian friends describe drinking milk as unremarkable—they’ve done so since they were young. Others recount that drinking milk when they were young was a special treat, and that drinking it now brings back childhood memories.
The interrelation of environment, food and sustainability is becoming more popular and represents a creative way of bringing healthy-eating Indonesian food cultures to the fore. The move to indoor eating marks a change in Indonesian food culture, as does the rise of organic farmers’ markets, which are found throughout the city most days. The markets are bustling locales of activity and connection—and a means of raising awareness about healthy eating.
Integrated into this organic food scene are a number of artists interested in exploring environmental and sustainability issues in relation to food and art. Arya Pandjalu is a long-term Culture Kitchen collaborator and was part of a festival this year that put contemporary artists on the stage for a ‘cook-off’, where many cooked their regional specialities. Earlier this year, Jon Priadi held cooking classes at Arya’s Sayap Studio. The idea was that having cooking classes in an art studio would open up a conversation about the relationships between art, the environment and Indonesian food.
Move to healthy eating
Participants were interested in simple watercress salads with raw vegetables served with a dressing of soy, lime and freshly ground peanuts. This met their desires to make food that was healthy and looked beautiful. A topic that often came up in these classes was how to get more vitamins out of food—a concern reflected in Indonesian lifestyle and health magazines that emphasise obtaining a balance of vitamins and minerals, though not necessarily through food.
The desire for and trend to healthy eating arises from constant food scares, such as formaldehyde-laced noodles and plastic found in fried gorengan snacks, and unhealthy eating habits — in particular, Indonesians’ love of fried food. Indonesian friends recounted how they watched a street-food seller melt plastic in a wok and pour it over the tempeh and banana. They still bought the tempeh and banana. When I asked why, they replied: ‘Because we just really wanted gorengan.’
Indonesian food cultures are transforming. The Ubud Food Festival—sister festival of the Ubud Writer’s Festival—was held for the first time this year and was well attended by Indonesians and foreigners interested in food, history, spices and plating—arranging food artfully on a plate.
Indonesians have taken to Instagram with a passion, and rarely is a bowl of spaghetti served without it being posted on Instagram first. The plating session, for example, was one of the best attended sessions by Indonesians at the festival.
The festival provided a platform for foreign and home-grown chefs to highlight Indonesia’s rich culinary heritage. Indonesian hospitality schools tend to focus on producing chefs to work in large hotels and have outdated views on the sort of food that should be served (mostly western) and how to serve it. The festival opened a space to start thinking beyond this.
Jon Priadi and celebrity ‘walkabout chef’ Rahung Nasution are part of a new school that believes it’s time for creative Indonesian food to take centre stage—food that is made from the freshest and sustainable of ingredients, looks beautiful, and fulfils an educational function to encourage awareness about Indonesia’s rich culinary heritage and the possibilities of its transformation.
Priadi’s ‘Malacca Strait duck’, which featured in his cooking demonstration at the festival, is an example of this mission. The slow-braised duck, inspired by the idea of Indonesia’s travelling cuisine, honoured the spice route through the Malacca Strait. The dish represents our wider project—to celebrate the inventiveness of Indonesian culinary culture and histories, and adapt them to constantly changing local tastes, ingredients and interpretations.
The Culture Kitchen FOODLAB is in the process of relocating to Jakarta, where we will undertake a comparative study of middle-class culinary consumption. This will involve broadening our network of artists and chefs who are interested in issues related to sustainability and the environment. Chief among these activities will be cooking with and for other people.
Working with food is important in this project. We believe that this can uncover a host of issues that are unlikely to be revealed simply by analysing food and cultures of eating—a point emphasised by anthropologist Tim Ingold, who asked: ‘Could not such an engagement—working practically with materials—offer anthropology, too, a more powerful procedure of discovery than an approach bent on the abstract analysis of things already made?’
Artist Arya Panjalu (centre) in a cooking competition for artists in Yogyakarta.