Stumble Into Indonesia's Unseen Places
Submitted by viravira on 3 October 2014 • Opinion
Padang food is so ‘sinful’ with all its calories, it’s supposed to be listed as the 8th Sin. But just like a lot of sinful things, it is also so good. Gulai ayam, dendeng balado, pangek and the now world-famous rendang* are some of the many Padang food served in my childhood home for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Not to be chauvinistic since my family is originated from West Sumatera (with Padang as the capital city), I can confidently and objectively say that Padang food is the most favored regional food in Indonesia.
Just like its people, Padang food travels and stays put in a lot of other places. It is ubiquitous in Indonesia, hence it became one of the reasons why Lala Timothy, an Indonesian film producer, chose it to be the food in her recent feature film, Tabula Rasa.
Tabula Rasa falls into the category of food film, and I think it’s the first of its kind in Indonesia. That’s quite surprising, since we are a nation of food, so to speak. In every gathering, there’s gotta be food. In preparing a gathering, more often than not relatives or neighbors cook together in one little steamy kitchen while catching up on gossip.
“The westerners might ask about the weather, but the West Sumaterans ask ‘Have you eaten?’ to others that pass by their houses,” said Timothy about the importance of food in Padang and West Sumatera in general.
“Food is not just food. It’s also about unity and togetherness. In Tabula Rasa, food is also about the feeling of longing, being homesick,” she added. It is also one out of five main characters in the film.
Takano Juo, a Padang food diner run by Padangnese Mak, Uda Parmanto and Natsir, was not doing so well in business. Conflict occurred when Mak had an unplanned encounter with the Papuan guy, Hans, who was suicidal out of frustration. Kind-hearted Mak pulled him out of the gutter. But someone wasn’t happy with him joining the already struggling crowd. The situation got worse when a fancy Padang food restaurant opened just across the street.
In resolving the conflicts, a special menu is brought to surface: gulai kepala ikan or fish head gulai (gulai is often translated as curry, but it’s actually lighter and made of slightly different spices). This menu holds a special meaning to Mak concerning her sorrowful past. It does so to Hans as well, who came all the way from Serui, his village in Papua, only to find failure in his soccer career.
Much to my surprise, there is more similarity between Padang and Serui culture. Not just the fish head menu, but also that the people have merantau (a journey to shape oneself in success) tradition for the maturing boys. This is why Lala Timothy and her team (Tumpal Tampubolon the scriptwriter and Adriyanto Dewo the director) chose Serui, an unheard-of village even to most Indonesians, as the counterpart of Padang in the movie.
This goes to show that there aren’t that much that I know about my own country and its people. Spread through out almost 2 million km2 on arguably 13,000 islands with poor land and sea transportations, it’s easy to make it an excuse to this.
Although Padang food is only an element binding the conflicts that happen in the movie and the movie is more focused on issues of heart and home, it serves something far greater than I consider it to be. Behind the food lies culture and philosophy that not a lot of people understand, let alone document. Lala Timothy made that clear as she tells us some of her escapades for research, and yet subtle within the movie. Small details are embedded implicitly, such the selection of local and best ingredients in the traditional market, the specific way of blending spices on the rock mortar, and the need to stir slowly for 8 hours done intergenerational in the process of making rendang, I am in awe and green listening to the extensive research behind the screen.
As a budget traveler and owning a copy of the Lonely Planet book, the most handheld guidebook I’ve seen in Indonesia, I can add that Tabula Rasa has a tad more significance to the budget traveler. Throughout the book, Padang food has been the most recommended food. Initially, I despised it for the lack of creativity of the Lonely Planet writers in finding local food, but after understanding more, I now see how it is the safest and tastiest choice for a malleable traveler. And as the movie implies, it’s also the food of the merantau Minang. So consider your self in one’s home when dining at a Padang restaurant.
As a child of West Sumatra (or people like to say it Padang when it’s actually Minang) descendants, I’m embarrassed to admit that I did learn some new things about the Minang culture especially the food from this movie. I didn’t know that we have a specific way of grinding the chili (while it’s the most important spice in Padang food!), wringing out the coconut to produce coconut milk, and I needed to read some of the subtitles because I could only understand half of the Minang language they were using in some of the dialogues.
However, I’m happy that there’s now a movie, a good one, that talks about an important part of Minang culture, made mostly by non-Minang Indonesians. If that’s not respect and a sign of national unity, I don’t know what is. I find this movie to be important to watch by everyone especially Indonesians to lift up that unity spirit in such hard times of political conundrum such as now. It’s also a great reference on a little part of Indonesian culture for you non-Indonesians.
So, go watch Tabula Rasa, guys!
* Rendang was picked as one of 50 most delicious foods by CNN Travel’s readers.
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