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Food for the soul: Asia Cooking Journey shares joy through culinary treats

Josa Lukman

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Thu, September 10, 2020  /  02:12 pm
Food for the soul: Asia Cooking Journey shares joy through culinary treats

Sharing the joy: Chef Haznizam Hamzah (top left) of W Kuala Lumpur hotel prepares a dish for Malaysian para archery athlete Wiro Julin (down right). The Asia Cooking Journey program donates food for both medical workers as well as disabled athletes, alluding to initiator Natalia Tjahja's love for the Paralympics. (Courtesy of Asia Cooking Journey/-)

When medical workers are in overdrive to help contain the onslaught of COVID-19 worldwide, many from the public have shown their appreciation in various forms, from scheduled rounds of applause to attractive financing deals on a new car.

But rather than clapping or payments in a time of global uncertainty, sometimes a nice, hot meal is what’s perfect after a long day. That’s where Asia Cooking Journey comes in.

Initiated by Natalia Tjahja of the Maria Monique Last Wish Foundation in April this year, the program aims to provide delectable meals free of charge for healthcare workers as well as people with disabilities affected by the pandemic.

She said the idea came from her own home, when during the pandemic, her domestic workers returned to their hometowns.

“I had no choice but to go to the kitchen myself, as my domestic workers usually do the cooking. It was a first for myself, and I learned many recipes,” she said in an interview with The Jakarta Post.

Natalia explained that after tasting one of her meals and finding it delicious, she thought about donating some of the food she made to medical workers, as the Maria Monique Last Wish Foundation already had a program donating vitamins and supplements to doctors. 

On a break: Singaporean doctor Kenny Ee Teong Tai enjoys lunch prepared by Singaporean chef George Lee Kim Teck.On a break: Singaporean doctor Kenny Ee Teong Tai enjoys lunch prepared by Singaporean chef George Lee Kim Teck. (Courtesy of Asia Cooking Journey/-)

Natalia also cited a dear friend of hers who declined to be named as an inspiration, saying the friend did many things successfully by himself, including cooking.

“Because of the pandemic, we could only do it on the weekends. When we did a trial run, the doctor was very pleased with the food. Seeing the doctor’s happy reaction propelled this project forward,” she said.

The title of Asia Cooking Journey was also chosen because of Natalia’s love for the Asian Paralympics. Even though the program started in Indonesia and is now included in other countries continents like Australia and South Africa, she kept the name because of that love.

“When the program reached the United States, I considered changing it to World Cooking Journey, but my friend insisted I stick with the original name.”

There are some 100 supporters of the program in Indonesia, ranging from home cooks sharing their homemade dishes to restaurateurs offering their full menu sets.

One of them is Yenny Sutanto, owner of the Horapa and Shabu Zen restaurants in Semarang, East Java. Natalia specifically praise Yenny as someone with a “beautiful heart” because of her goodwill and kindness.

“We can’t buy food or pay chefs, so it’s not easy. What we look for are chefs and home cooks with beautiful hearts that can also create delicious food. Even just one portion is hard,” Natalia said.

After a meeting in Semarang, Yenny immediately agreed to support Asia Cooking Journey, all the while providing the healthcare workers the luxury of choosing whatever dish they want from her two restaurants, with the best quality possible.

Yenny said she became a supporter of Asia Cooking Journey because she can understand the plights of doctors and nurses during a major health crisis.

“With all of this going on, not many are thinking about [doctors and nurses] and whether they are hungry or what they wanted to eat. With the current condition, people only think about themselves because of fear, anxiety and confusion.”

Cooking with love: Thai celebrity Chayada Cooking with love: Thai celebrity Chayada "Bo" Liewchalermwong cooks for Thai para powerlifting athlete Arawan Bootpo. Support from Thai celebrities came with the help of Nandhamalee "Bing" Bhirombhakdi, general manager of Cavallino Motors, the official distributor of Ferrari in Thailand. (Courtesy of Asia Cooking Journey/-)

As soon as the program ran successfully in Indonesia, Natalia immediately thought about expanding to other countries.

She sees Asia Cooking Journey as a mission driven by faith, citing the efforts of a Filipino woman named Louise who became the sole representative of the program in the Philippines.

“She looked for others who might be interested, but none answered the call. In the end, Louise told me ‘I’m happy to represent you in the Philippines. I am willing to cook every week’. I was shocked, but she really persevered and even received recognition from the city hall,” Natalia said, adding that Louise’s efforts only stopped when the region was put into lockdown.

In Thailand, Natalia started with the help of Munish Mukki, an Indonesian chef who devoted his time to supporting Asia Cooking Journey full time. However, the Thai response to the pandemic was swift and effective, so there is no longer the need for the program to donate food en masse to hospitals as medical workers have gone back to their normal routines.

Instead, Natalia enlisted the help of Chutinant “Nick” Bhirombhakdi, president of the Paralympic Committee of Thailand, suggesting donating the food to his athletes alongside medical workers.

Support later came from Nandhamalee “Bing” Bhirombhakdi, general manager of Cavallino Motors, the official Ferrari distributor for the country. Through their network, the program managed to receive the support of celebrities like Chayada “Bo'' Liewchalermwong and Polpat “Moo” Asavaprapha.

Sharing is caring: Thai fashion designer and restaurateur Polpat Sharing is caring: Thai fashion designer and restaurateur Polpat "Moo" Asavaprapha cooks for Thai para archery athlete Boonyarit Chaipoon. Asavaprapha joined in the movement to share joy through his food. (Courtesy of Asia Cooking Journey/-)

Asavaprapha, a fashion designer and restaurateur, told the Post via email that he was moved to accept the offer to participate because he felt that eating was not just about sating one’s hunger but also feeling the joy of experiencing flavors.

“And for those who love to cook, to be able to spread the joy to others through your food is even more meaningful. When your cooking means something to others, even though it is just a little thing, that time and feeling are considered a wonderful experience for us,” he said.

Though Asavaprapha is aware that the pandemic will inevitably bring stress and anxiety, he is adamant that programs like Asia Cooking Journey can bring about a positive change.

“To have such a good activity where we can share and spread happiness to others is a way to provide emotional support and relieve depression during times of hardship.” (ste)

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