Your Place or Mine?
Melinda Chickering, WEEKENDER | Wed, 04/04/2012 1:10 PM |
Food is our fuel for living, but for some of us it becomes life itself. This may be because our diet falls short in quality or quantity, because we overindulge or over-obsess, or because we choose to build our lifestyle around the table. The whole of a meal is truly greater than the sum of its parts – it’s about nutrition, and so much more.
Food is a medium for joining with family and friends to celebrate the bounty of life, forget our troubles, bridge alienating gaps, reconnect with our identities, drown our sorrows and remember our traditions.
I was reminded of this during a session at last year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. The panel discussion swirled around themes of cultural identity as expressed through food, how food both brings us together and sets us apart.
Food tells us so much about place, as panelist John Oseland, editor of US food magazine Saveur, reminded us. He used as an illustration the contrast of the sterile, methodically organized shelves of mass-manufactured food products in a typical supermarket with the elegant chaos of a traditional Indonesian market. The assault on the senses of the latter is more than many less-seasoned Western tourists can bear for more than a few minutes. I couldn’t help recalling my first visit to such a scene, when the overpowering smells of the pasar made an indelible impression.
New Zealand writer and panelist Peta Mathias spoke about how food isn’t just about feeding ourselves but about communicating culture through generations and capturing a cultural moment in time. Food is also a way of transmitting culture across space and time. Preparing and offering one’s own food to others is a way of giving that is available to all of us regardless of socioeconomic status.
This insight called to mind the legends that North American schoolchildren are taught about our Thanksgiving holiday. The pilgrims from the old world and the natives of the new sat together to feast and celebrate their ability to overcome disease, famine and even their wars with each other. At least, that’s what we were taught about the deeper historical significance of this holiday when we travel as far as necessary to be with family and stuff ourselves plumper than a honey-roasted turkey.
Mix and Match
The warm memory of a signature dish from North Sulawesi also got my mouth watering. The Minahasa are rightfully proud of their tinutuan, a simple but hearty porridge made from golden corn, sweet pumpkin and fresh leafy greens, usually finished with spongy chunks of fried tofu and a five-alarm sambal. As a vegetarian, I approached local cuisine during my first year in Indonesia – living in Manado – with a touch of trepidation, but this local flavor proved a friendly bridge between cultures. We could all agree on a brunch of tinutuan.
All of the panelists agreed that the foods we eat in various cultural cuisines illustrate how there is more that unites than divides us. All around the world, we stew, roast, baste or fry the same sorts of foods.
The spice of life for the chef as well as the traveler, pointed out Swiss chef Heinz Van Holzen, is spices. Each cultural pocket around the globe and across Indonesia defines its cuisine with its own signature blend of spices, differentiating food cultures separated by no more than 50 kilometers.
Van Holzen highlighted emphatically the true rarity of Balinese cuisine in Bali’s restaurant scene, which tends to focus on a kaleidoscope of Indonesian, Italian and French flavors. Nearly every restaurant will offer standards, he pointed out, such as nasi goreng, mie goreng, satay and gado gado – but none of this is Balinese food.
Pockets of Balinese culture are expressed in culinary variations from the mountains to the sea, and Van Holzen tries with his Bumbu Bali restaurant and cooking classes to foster appreciation of them. This vegetarian could munch a scrumptious urap (vegetable salad with grated coconut) for lunch daily, although I pass on the babi guling (roasted pork).
Inevitably, the theme of quality versus quantity arose. In the contemporary Western world, millions of people are getting fatter and fatter, fed mostly by what Oseland lamented as “corporate food”. One in three American adults is not just overweight but obese, and Janet DeNeefe couldn’t help raising the concern of the ever-expanding Australian waistline.
My own Little Debbie Snack Cake-gobbling habits as a child were summoned to mind as Oseland spoke of his meat-and-potatoes upbringing in California. Although he seemed to forgive himself, and indeed, all of us, the sin of indulgence in convenience products masquerading as food, Oseland voiced the view that such “corporate food” is actually a potent kind of poison, both culturally and bodily.
We have both reformed since our partially hydrogenated childhood diets and look forward to the day when everyone can access healthy, wholesome, genuine food. Unfortunately, prices today at the farmers’ market can range from “precious” to “obscene” with only the occasional bargain, and only some of us presently enjoy the luxury of shopping there.
It’s all too easy to miss one’s own food, which is really a form of missing one’s own culture. Food helps us mark special moments in time as well as celebrating particulars of place. The dilemma is whether to try to recreate your home’s food in exotic surroundings – and perhaps share a bit of your home culture – or to indulge fully in the local flavors wherever you find yourself.