Grub Over Gadgets – Eating with Our Hands During Liwetan in Jakarta

Submitted by mumunmumun on 8 July 2017

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On one fine summer afternoon in Sydney, a bunch of Indonesian friends and I gathered on an apartment roof for a New Year’s Eve barbeque. It felt fabulous, as we could see the Harbour Bridge in the distance, which was going to be lit by tons of fireworks by that midnight. After grilling a few sausages, steaks, and seafood, we dug in. I chose to eat with my hands just because I love the notion of licking barbeque sauce off my fingers. A sibling couple refused to start before they had a pair of spoon and fork in their hands, to which naturally was responded with ‘why?’ by the rest of the group. “It’s not civilized,” the siblings from Kalimantan, said bluntly. To which I replied ‘Say what, now?’

The siblings didn’t giggle or blinked, signing they weren’t joking. Apparently, they were raised in a very western culture, despite growing up in Kalimantan. I kinda snapped a little at the time, expressing how offended I was having Indonesians calling their own culture ‘uncivilized.’ But, I realized these kids didn’t know any better. We continued the barbeque, me still in the galore of barbeque sauce all over my fingers, and enjoyed the fireworks that night. I never stayed in touch with them.

Eating with your hands

Indonesians still love to eat with their hands. It’s one of those habits from the old days that we maintain in our culture. Personally speaking, I love eating with my hands for a few reasons. Firstly, because you feel your food. You know the texture of the food that is going in your mouth, you can detect small bones and mix portions of side dishes more evenly. Second, it is said that natural skin bacteria on your hands are actually good for you. Indonesians usually joke, that it’s the bacteria and extra sweat and dirt on your hands that actually make the food taste better compared to using eating utensils. Third, the prophet Muhammad SAW advised us to eat with our hands. Out of the many rules he applied, one of them was eating with your hands. It must have some significance just to be mentioned.  Lastly, it’s an intimate relationship with your food.

In the event of ‘liwetan’, a term from Central Java defined as a gathering of family to celebrate a special occasion or ‘PARTAY!’, I gathered with people, mostly strangers, invited by Suwe Ora Jamu. It was fasting month and the occasion was to break our fast at this restaurant that serves authentic Indonesia food and ‘jamu’—traditional drink. I consider ‘liwetan’ like that long-table meal where people sit together at a long table, have a good conversation, while enjoying good food. Vira jokes by implying it like the kinfolk meals but without the monochrome dress code. It’s exactly that, but a whole lot messier. Even worse, the more traditional liwetan is eaten on the floor. Oh the joy! And considering it was fasting month, we brought an appetite of horses.

liwetan before

‘Liwetan’ is also known as Magibung in Bali, Bancakan in Banten, Bajamba in Padang, Bedulang in Belitung. There are many other different names in different parts of Indonesia, which pretty much says we like to ‘partay!’ and we’re very social people that like to eat with a lot of company. As a finger-licking personality, I’ve always been fond of ‘liwetan’ because it’s preferable to eat with your hands and it opens opportunity to interact with people, even strangers. There’s always a reason to talk starting with asking to pass a certain dish along the table. What’s more about ‘liwetan’ compared to long-table meals is that there are no plates. We basically eat on our table cloth, which was banana leaves that had been pre-washed. There are no boundaries between your dish and the person next to you. It’s both a messy ordeal, yet an intimate one. And any attempt, is usually the ice breaker for Indonesians.

Tofu, tempe, eggs, greens, and more

The compulsory menu of ‘liwetan’ is usually rice with proteins like chicken or meat, ‘lalapan’ which is raw greens, chilly paste, tofu, tempe, a soup, and crackers. Salty fish will be served somehow, whether incorporated within a dish or as a separate piece. The rest varies such as corn fritters and urap–salad with shredded coconut. It’s actually a very simple menu, one you can find in a lot of Indonesian households, especially west Indonesia. Hence, aside to having many options to choose from, ‘liwetan’ is something many Indonesians enjoy because people are familiar with the taste.

Nasi liwet or liwet rice

The gathering at Suwe Ora Jamu was particularly nice. It had been some time since I ate at a restaurant that actually urged me to use my hands. With the need to make content and hands constantly going back and forth to devices, meals were always consumed using the eating utensils for convenience. However, it didn’t feel right to eat at a ‘liwetan’ with eating utensils as its true nature was to eat with the hands. It’s not obligatory, it’s just a preferable option. And I wasn’t alone that night. Apparently, before suggesting anything, the people at the gathering were already getting rid of their plates and heading to the sink to wash their hands. With the clearance of devices, we were talking to each other in no time, God knows over what. It might have just been about how delicious the food was or how scrumptious the orange cinnamon drink was in the corner. People had refills. And with such a small gathering of about 15 people, it was easy to talk to each other. It was grub over gadgets.

It was a nice gathering, with a wide range of various people. We had Uncle Gerry, the story teller (even his swearing sounded like a part of a story), Anye the fishing-show presenter that had a jellyfish sting on her thigh that looked like a tribal tattoo, Prast, the guy that enjoys wearing an ‘udeng’ from Bali while himself is from West Sumatra, Mbak Terry, the literally bold cyclist,  Suci, my all time second favorite historian, and a few more that I can’t mention one by one.

A nice gathering in Jakarta

Liwetan in Jakarta be an interesting activity, especially for those that do live in the capital. When looking for a unique restaurant to have lunch in Jakarta, this might be a great option too, aside to something one can do with families, close friends, or strangers. It’s something convenient having Suwe Ora Jamu to prepare it. Trust me, banana leaves are not the easiest thing to find at the market.

Rosella drink so good

This has a sweet sour refreshing taste. Almost like Gatorade. 

The event itself was held in Suwe Ora Jamu. It’s an appropriate name considering their signature drinks are the ‘jamu’ made of herbs and natural ingredients. It’s the drink of past generation that is still trying to make its way in the modern life. Competition has been hard, especially since we have so many different kind of drinks that are a lot tastier than the bitter, sour, or sweet taste of ‘jamu’. But you gotta admit, Indonesians used to have a longer life expectancy compared to the current generation. Possibly, one of the reasons was the consumption of herbal drinks that are healthy, compared to coke or boba drinks that we enjoy today. So, in relation to the authentic Indonesian eating experience in Jakarta, why not try the ‘jamu’ while you’re at it, all under the same roof.

After about 12 years since the comment made by these Kalimantan siblings, I still eat with my hands and so many civilized people do too. I don’t see it as something barbaric, on the contrary, something intimate and warm.

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