Freelance writer on the environment and culture
On Oct. 7, amid the bustle of central London, a brief stroll from the leafy haven of Russell Square brought passersby into another world of fresh aromas and sounds — a call to both the tastebuds and the imagination.
The grounds of SOAS University of London played host, for one autumn day, to the Indonesia Kontemporer (IKON) 2017 festival of arts and culture, showcasing a range of Indonesian traditions for all ages.
Starting at 10 a.m., stalls reflecting the festival’s theme of ‘food’ lined the main promenade, advertising classic dishes like bakmi (noodle dish), tempeh and rendang (beef simmered in coconut milk).
“London, in particular, is so multicultural,” explained Aziz Aminudin, education and culture attache at the Indonesian Embassy. “Exposing British people to Indonesian food is important so they can taste the wide variety of Indonesian food that is no less delicious than any other of the world's cuisines.”
The outdoor area also featured cooking demos from acclaimed Indonesian chefs Budiono bin Sukim and Petty Elliot, whose cookbook Jakarta Bites was voted best in the Street Food category at the 2017 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Her cooking demo showed the innovative use of woku belanga (spicy stew) spices, which are crucial in the cuisine of her birthplace in Manado, North Sulawesi, to make a pasta dish.
An ancient tradition explored at the Djam Lecture Theatre was that of storytelling. Wide-eyed youths and onlooking adults were transported by Felicia Nayoan-Siregar, who narrated her self-penned children’s stories that follow Pirok the little orangutan and his friend Komodo in their adventures across Indonesia, with illustrative sound effects dramatized by Sunardi, a gamelan and vocal artist from Yogyakarta.
The fusion of Indonesian elements within a show reminiscent of pantomime was inverted in a performance by East 15, who interpreted classic children’s tales using gamelan and wayang (shadow puppets). The group was composed of BA World Performance students from the University of Essex, inspired by the Javanese Wayang Kancil of Ki Ledjar Subroto, and using modern Western story tropes, such as duelling cowboys. The students crafted their own puppets and learned to play convincingly authentic gamelan compositions.
The climax of the festival was a series of talks around the question "Why is it so difficult for Indonesian cuisine to go international?," exploring the nation’s perplexing absence from the world’s culinary consciousness.
Firstly, Petty Elliot considered the challenges of bringing Indonesian cuisine to the global stage, touching upon the absence of internationally-recognized Indonesian brands, few widely published Indonesian cookbooks and a fundamental limited awareness of Indonesian culture. She reflected, “It’s quite interesting, the top ten Indonesian restaurants in London are actually not pure Indonesian. They are always mixed with Thai, Chinese, Malaysian or Japanese cuisines.”
Elliot shared her hopes for the internationally-untapped regional cuisines of Indonesia, the emerging market of artisanal coffees and the potential for branding Indonesia’s history as home of the spice islands. “There’s a lot of amazing momentum and I believe it will spread, because we have so many things to offer the world.”
TV producer Janice Gabriel, whose work includes food programs for BBC and Channel 4, spoke of the need for better international media campaigns supported by the government to promote Indonesian cuisine. She said, “Food connects people of all ages and backgrounds. More showcases through film, art, live events, television and documentaries could make it easier to invite the world in.”
Gabriel’s love of Indonesian food began in the 1980s while living in Yoygakarta and producing a Rough Guide travel show. She claimed that Indonesian cuisine was seen by many as ‘new,’ with opportunities existing between this limited prior engagement and curious gastronomers worldwide.
Another perspective was offered by Michael Hitchcock, a professor in cultural policy and tourism and board member of the Asia Centre at Goldsmiths University. Gesturing to the audience while holding a Teh Botol carton, Hitchcock claimed, “We need to think of Indonesian food in terms of luxury. I think the luxury market for Indonesian cuisine is something we can see in the future.”
His emphasis on connecting cuisine to luxury was related to his research into traditions practiced within traditional Indonesian courts and during the Dutch-colonial era, such as rijsttafel (rice table), in which an array of rice dishes were served in an ornate procession. The historical presence of Indonesian cuisine in England was demonstrated by a painting of Queen Elizabeth I, with an inset painting of trading ships carrying spices, brought over during the expeditions of Sir Francis Drake, captivating the tastes of Elizabethan nobility.
Musically, festival goers were treated to a range of performances, including both Javanese and Balinese gamelan styles, played by the community-based Jagat Gamelan orchestra, and a performance on the promenade by the London Angklung Ensemble. Ensemble member Virni enthused, “We need this festival in the summer as well! My favourite food was the lamb satay.”
The final musical event, held underground in the Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre, was by the Gado-Gado Ensemble, a London-based musical collective who will soon release their debut record Cosmic Trilogy. Headed by classically-trained guitarist Booboo Sianturi, the group produced a mesmerizing fusion of classical music and traditional Indonesian elements, which were at turns harmonically, conceptually and instrumentally incorporated.
The first piece drew inspiration from the process of making ulos, the traditional textile of the Batak people, followed by a rendition of ‘Kotekan,’ written by I Nyoman Astita, one of the few indigenous composers continuing the tradition of developing rhythmic patterns in Balinese music. Booboo performed with a range of Indonesian instruments. These included the two-stringed hasapi and an extraordinary instrument acquired in Karangasem, Bali, that appeared to fuse a guitar body with keys reminiscent of a saxophone.
Rounding out the program were film screenings of Cita Citaku Setinggi Tanah (Stepping on the Flying Grass) and a 4K, digitally restored version of Tiga Dara (Three Maidens), the 1957 musical comedy classic of Indonesian cinema. (kes)
Jakarta-born, Bali-raised, and London-based, my main interests are environmental and international development issues, and cultural movements. I seek to explore the existing challenges and potentials for change that exist within people and processes at every level of society. Currently working on a folk music documentary, and generally looking to connect with other creatives and change-makers in the global village. Get in touch at www.linkedin.com/in/lawrence-lilley or https://www.facebook.com/lawrence.lilley
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