For me, sustainable food is local, seasonal and organic from origin. If you decide to eat in this way, you support your local community and its environment, since the production and transportation of this food has a low carbon footprint. Deciding what to eat, can be summarized as a negotiation between identity, convenience and responsibility. It is not always easy to eat healthy, sustainable food and, at same time, to not deny your parentage. Coming from a Dutch-Indonesian family, I discovered different food traditions at an early age. Only later, when I studied food and traveled through Indonesia, I really started to understand the global food system and local food habits, traditions and practises.
As long as I can remember, we have eaten Indonesian food. I was born and raised in the Netherlands, but my granddad comes from Indonesia. At every family event and holiday, we gather together and we enjoy my granddad’s rice table.
There are many dishes, such as nasi putih (white rice), nasi kuning (yellow rice), nasi goreng (fried rice) and bami goreng (fried egg noodles). There are different meat dishes, such as rendang (spicy beef stew with coconut milk and lemongrass), ajam pedis (spicy chicken), sate babi (pork satay) and there is tahu (tofu).
My favourite dish is gadogado (blanched vegetables with peanut sauce), just because I love peanut sauce. Another sauce is sambal (chili paste), which comes in many different varieties. The snacks, which come with the dishes, are also great. Examples are krupuk udang (shrimp cracker), emping (melinjo cracker) and rempeyek kacang (peanut cracker).
As a kid, I didn’t think much about it. I knew my granddad would cook for about two full days, putting a lot of love into his cooking. I loved the different flavours, but it was later in life that I started to understand the importance of this food.
My granddad was born and raised in a different country, with a different culture, a different climate and also different food habits. Tastes and flavour are part of local cultures and traditions, and therefore are connected to geographical areas.
Furthermore, they create powerful memories and can bring you back to a different time and place. Just recently, I discovered that the different dishes represent the multi-ethnic nature of Indonesia and that its origin is colonial. The Dutch introduced rice tables to enjoy a wide range of dishes and to impress visitors with the exotic abundance of the country they colonised. I found this interesting, because this type of commensality - eating and drinking at the same table - was created to exclude people and to show off, while a rice table for me represents the total opposite.
Some years ago, my siblings and I asked my granddad to teach us his recipes. We cooked together and I wrote down all of them. I started to experiment with my granddad’s recipes and, unconsciously, they started to evolve and they became my own. At some point I found myself cooking for friends and telling them all the stories I knew behind the food I cooked for them. Years later, when I travelled through Indonesia, I learned so much more. I met the people who did the hard work in the rice fields. I learned about the agrochemicals that they were forced to use to guarantee the yield and low prices that large industries in developed countries asked for, I learned about the colonial past and the impact of tourists on the country. On the other hand, I saw small scale, organic producers which competed on quality instead of quantity, family businesses which took care of surrounding communities and indigenous people who live in harmony with nature. The traditional food practices of these people are sustainable food practices. Paradoxically, the traditional farmers I met, looked up the Western world, while it should be the other way around. I was intrigued and I decided that I wanted to study Sustainable Food Systems.
I started the master in Gastronomy and I focused on World Food Cultures, Mobility and Sustainable Food Systems. One year later, I found myself back in Indonesia. This time on a coffee plantation where I learned about sustainable food practises, sustainable tourism, and organic coffee. I worked in a remote area, far away from tourists. I became friends with some locals and they took me to their houses. They showed me their culture; not only food, but also clothing and religious traditions. One day, some girls took me around town and showed me the “real Indonesian food”. We went to multiple small food stalls, which were mostly run by elderly. I noticed that they were serving sustainable food, since it was produced local, it was seasonal and organic. But for them, it was just local, traditional food. Something that they did for many years.
Though, things are changing in these rural places as well. One of the girls expressed her concerns about the disappearance of traditional organic foods. Nowadays, most teenagers and young adults look up to the Western World and “our” Fast Food chains. In Asia, fast food is a luxury product. If you can afford it, it will give you status. And with fast food come the problems of obesity and plastic pollution. Most beaches are full of plastic. Plastic is a relatively new product. Back in the days, sustainable food was wrapped and served in banana or palm leaves. Now styrofoam is used and disposed in the same way as the leaves were. But not all this plastic comes from the inhabitants. A large amount is also shipped from the Western world and dumped in landfills in developing countries. Unfortunately, their traditional sustainable food system is slowly changing into an industrialised system, with lots of agrochemicals and single-use packing, based on the Western food system.
Back to the sustainable food tour. Finally, we found it, the local food stall we were looking for. A man and a woman were making putuh. It’s a rice flour cake, in a cylindrical shape, with on the inside gula jawa (red palm sugar) and some grated coconut on top. It’s absolutely delicious. The putuh is steamed in short pieces of bamboo over a lid with holes which is on top of a pan with boiling water. Before the rice flour is put in there, it is steamed with pandan leaves, which gives it a green colour. The people who made the putuh were highly skilled. They probably developed the art of putuh making over the years. Putuh is a traditional sweet and unfortunately the new generations are not interested in learning how to make it.
I struggled with the dilemma between eating traditional family food and eating sustainable food to not harm the environment. Many of the needed ingredients for Indonesian food need to come from far away and many dishes are meat based. For me, Indonesian food has a large symbolic weight and it represents joy and social interaction. I tried to replace the meat in some dishes, but a couple of times per year I choose to eat meat. Sometimes identity outweighs responsibility and I think that’s okay
This is my food story. Would you like to learn more about the environmental, social and economic impact of food? Download our sustainable food guide!