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I Communicate Through Food

It’s been three years since I’ve been back in stuffy Jakarta, Indonesia. Motorbikes swarm your vision as you inch and inch down choking traffic. Along the pavements are warung stalls selling some seriously slurp-worthy and fragrant bakmie ayam (chicken noodles) or bubur ayam (chicken porridge), all with a healthy dose of sambal chili and an attractive cheap price tag. How I missed the taste of sambal burning my tongue, and tempeh doused in a sweet sauce of kecap manis (not how trendy white vegans make their tempeh). How I missed the springiness of the noodles in mie goreng with a perfectly fried and crispy egg to grace the top. I missed the creaminess of spicy peanut sauce mixed together with a salad and rice cakes – gado gado is pretty much the only source of vegetables I have in this chaotic city. Now that I am back working for a dream internship in Jakarta, I took it all in, devoured every dish I’ve been craving over the years because God knows you can’t find even the slightest depth of flavor like this in Boston. 

Yet Jakarta isn’t my home. I’m Indonesian, yes, but I grew up in Singapore almost my entire life. Indonesian cuisine stood hand in hand with my childhood, but the capital city itself remains a stranger, a stubborn cousin at best. 

Apart from my apparent separation anxiety from Indonesian food, I was also separated from my extended family for three years. As I walked into my Oma’s home after work, a home littered with memorabilia, or simply pure junk collecting dusk (we never ask), I was immediately greeted with an array of dishes set on the dining table covered by a mosquito basket. 

“Halo halo,” my Oma would say, and kissed me firmly on both cheeks. “Sit sit, eat, what you want to eat, Bel?” 

Oma doesn’t speak great English, and I don’t speak great Bahasa. She tries for me, and I try for her. 

“Iya Oma, saya laper bangat. (Yes Oma, I’m so hungry)” I’d reply back. It’s not often my Oma and I get to spend time one on one. Often the adults, my parents, uncle, and aunt, fill up the conversation and translate what I say to Oma. This time, the kitchen fell quiet as Oma lifted the mosquito cover revealing about 10 dishes sprawled before me. Otak otak (fish cakes – my childhood), sayur lodeh (vegetable soup – my favorite, she knows), siu mai dumplings, har gow dumplings, eggplants cooked with sambal, and a bowl of freshly picked mangoes from her garden already waiting on the side when it comes to dessert. 

Oma asked me about school, the food in Boston, whether I will stay in America after graduation, and I answered swiftly with her cooking unashamedly stuffed in my mouth. But apart from the usual grandma catch-up questions, we ate in silence. It wasn’t the awkward, loud silence that sounded like a broken speaker reverberating between us. I like my Oma enough where silence is welcomed. 

I knew from years of experience that complimenting Oma’s cooking is the way to her heart. Our silence would only break from my incessant “mmms” as I sample each dish with my bed of white rice, and everytime Oma would smile and continue eating her food. 

I told her it’s been so long since I had good Indonesian food, every bite I took tasted better than what I had imagined all this time. Immediately, we had this understanding. We don’t say I’ve missed you, even though it’s been three years. It’s not in the Asian family lingo. But we do enjoy each other’s cooking and appreciate our culture’s cuisine together. My “mmms” to the otak otak is an extension to an “I miss you” to Oma, and all the memories associated with this neatly packed chewy fish cake wrapped in flaky and fragrant banana leaves, how Oma used to peel them for me when I was younger and stack otak otak on my plate, how it would always be the first dish I’m greeted with whenever I’m back. Food isn’t just sustenance. It isn’t even just culture. It’s a way of communicating that encompasses memories and emotions more than words can describe. In the same way Americans give chicken noodle soup to their sick children, my parents gave me the Indonesian rendition, soto ayam (chicken soup with vermicelli noodles). Each dish has meaning not only on a personal level, but symbolizes a family or societal tradition as a whole. Even though I can’t speak fluent Bahasa, my Oma and I still had a conversation of sorts. Even when I struggle with my national identity, food is at the heart of my Indonesian understanding.

Cover photo courtesy of CookPad

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