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Beng Rahadian and his ode to food

Dylan Amirio
Dylan Amirio

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Wed, December 5, 2018 | 08:35 am
Beng Rahadian and his ode to food

Cikini street food: Beng draws up a map of food spots that he frequents and appreciates in Cikini, Central Jakarta, where he works as a lecturer at Institute of Arts, also his alma matter. (The Jakarta Post/Seto Wardhana)

Beng Rahadian’s watercolor illustrations of humble Indonesian dishes are not just mouthwatering but also extraordinarily evocative.

Famed illustrator and comic strip artist Beng Rahadian’s latest exhibition “Cerita Makan” (The Story of Eating) finds him bringing to life the philosophy of “you are what you eat” in vivid but simple drawings that reflect the importance of mainly local food not just to him, but to all Indonesians.

Held at the Bentara Budaya Jakarta cultural center in Palmerah, West Jakarta, visitors can take a tour through the foods that the man has deemed important to him throughout his life, many of them having humble beginnings and humble reasons on why they are significant to him.  

All of Beng’s illustrations are drawn with pure joy and love toward the food that he enjoys. The paintings are mainly done with watercolors, which add distinctive depth to the broths and the little floating spices that are present in these drawn dishes.

In the exhibition’s foreword written by Bentara Budaya Jakarta director Frans Sartono, Beng is described as an illustrator who is prominent and skilled in translating the sensations of taste and its interaction with the eater.

“He not only digests the food that he eats, but through this exhibition, he gives them new life,” Frans wrote.

Currently a visual communications lecturer at his alma mater, the Jakarta Arts Institute, Beng also highlights the importance of the food that has accompanied him through his student life and his current teaching life around the Cikini area.

Masterclass of desire: A masterclass on drawing food according to Beng's style depicted in this exhibition. Masterclass of desire: A masterclass on drawing food according to Beng's style depicted in this exhibition. (The Jakarta Post/Seto Wardhana)

A hand-drawn map, made of watercolors and brush pen, of the surrounding area of Cikini where the campus is located shows the locations of several food stalls and places that he has deemed significant: from the bicycles that sell jamu (herbal drink) to the gorengan (fried snacks) stands in Menteng. No matter how small and quaint these sellers are, the inspiration they give to Beng is priceless.

The sketches of the foods are accompanied with descriptions written by Beng himself on why they are so important to him and the feelings and thoughts that gush through his mind whenever he eats them or thinks about them. Beng writes about these dishes in a poetic way akin to a food critic, focusing mainly on the factors of his enjoyment.

Beneath a lightly sketched drawing of three bulbous and puffy golden pastries, which turn out to be the Apem cakes sold at Mayestik Market in South Jakarta, lies a description of how Beng feels they get him through the day after a morning of sketching in the area.

Another sketch depicts the fluffy exterior yet crunchy interior of the ubiquitous large circular tapioca crackers, known as kerupuk, stored in large tin containers. Beng adopts a loving tone to his description of the Indonesian food staple alongside his interpretations of how important the cracker is to Indonesians such as himself.

Cikini street food: Beng draws up a map of food spots that he frequents and appreciates in Cikini, Central Jakarta, where he works as a lecturer at Institute of Arts, also his alma matter. Cikini street food: Beng draws up a map of food spots that he frequents and appreciates in Cikini, Central Jakarta, where he works as a lecturer at Institute of Arts, also his alma matter. (The Jakarta Post/Seto Wardhana)

Kerupuk are special in Indonesian cuisine. It is like a faithful friend that is willing to accompany you through the sweet, the sour, the tangy and the wet moments taking place in your mouth,” he writes. “We always remember the kerupuk every time we finish our meal.”

It is clear that Beng talks and draws food as if it were his friends. A sketch depicting a sumptuous plate of the spicy and sweet dish terong balado(eggplant with spicy chili sauce) has him talking about the dish as “the close friend of a plate of nasi uduk [coconut rice] that is always on my table for breakfast”.

The composition and pattern of the tempe (fermented soybean) in the terong balado drawing is heightened by his use of blended red watercolors that also depict the thinness of the dish’s red sauce effectively. “The chilies in this dish give a variance of color and texture,” he writes. The drawing itself of the terong balado is rich in patterns and vivid with a lot of colors mixed sensibly together. Deep feelings are done right.

Submarine serving: Beng Rahadian whole-heartedly illustrates the food that means the most to him with care. An example of this is the depiction of a plate of pempek (fishcake), a staple of Palembang where his father was from, and the feelings he went through after tasting it for the first time in Bandung. Submarine serving: Beng Rahadian whole-heartedly illustrates the food that means the most to him with care. An example of this is the depiction of a plate of pempek (fishcake), a staple of Palembang where his father was from, and the feelings he went through after tasting it for the first time in Bandung. (The Jakarta Post/Seto Wardhana)

And some of these deep feelings are also helped by a couple of “collaborative” works between Beng and one of Indonesia’s most celebrated poets, Sapardi Djoko Damono. On a piece celebrating a bowl of bubur (congee), Sapardi’s words accompany the textured yet airy illustration of a usually difficult-to-draw dish.  

Single details of each drawn dish are never left out by Beng, from the smallest of leek chops and bits of corn or shallots on congee to the delicate sugar powder on the Apem sketch.   

Strolling through this exhibition will undoubtedly make one’s stomach’s growl with desire, as Beng’s depictions try their best to fully embody the taste and look of the food.

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Beng Rahadian’s exhibition runs from Nov. 29 to Dec. 6 at the Bentara Budaya Jakarta exhibition hall in Palmerah, West Jakarta.

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