Origin Stories | Verve Magazine

Wine & Dine

Text and photographs by Shikha Bafna.

1. A corner of a restaurant in Manado, the capital city of the Indonesian province of North Sulawesi.
2. Street vendors are an integral part of the food scene in Indonesia.

For me, growing up between Indonesia and India meant not only a lot of trips to the immigration office but also trying to figure out where home truly was. Familiarity, in any capacity, became a tool for me. This familiarity extended to seeing patterns in the way we spoke, wore, prayed and ate.

Though I was born in India, Indonesia felt like home from the beginning. The concrete streets, the temperature respite, modern cityscapes in conjunction with dilapidated buildings, bright signages and street vendors, tuberose bushes at sporadic corners. Indonesia’s association with India can be traced back to the Ramayana, which mentions Java, Indonesia’s biggest island, as Yavadvipa. Even the name “Indonesia”, I discovered, is derived from the Greek words Indos, translating to India, and nesos meaning island. Today, this shared history can be seen in food, religion and language. Like India, Indonesia’s cuisine is heavily diverse and it has been shaped by a mix of geography, trade, colonisation and religion.

1. Roti canai — inspired by the paratha — can be eaten on its own or with curry.
2. Kari kambing (goat curry), roti canai and es teh manis (sweet iced tea).

My family’s search for familiarity did not stop at the grocery stores. Thirty years ago, when my parents first moved to Indonesia, there were limited grocery stores and Indian restaurants. They missed Indian food and yearned to go out for lunch on weekends. Eventually, Udupi restaurants came along but for quite some time, we would frequent Malaysian and Indonesian restaurants where menu items seemed more recognisable.

Inspired by the paratha, roti canai is eaten on its own or with curry. There are both sweet and savoury variations of the dish. Roti canai would then inspire roti tisu, a thinner flat version resembling a dosa. Both dishes are commonly found in South-East Asia, and were brought here by South Indian traders. “Roti”, meaning bread in Bahasa Indonesia, was originally adopted from the Sanskrit word “rotika”. Kari kambing, a goat meat curry, was brought to Indonesia by Muslim traders from the Indian Subcontinent. Kari in Bahasa Indonesia translates to curry.

1. Martabak kubang (a savoury pancake that is normally served with a light curry).
2. Martabak manis kubang (a type of thick sweet pancake).

Indonesia has a big culture of street stalls and vendors. While I cannot eat a lot of it because I am a vegetarian, something I have always looked forward to is the martabak kentang (potato). Also called murtabak in Malaysia and Singapore, it is presumed to originate from Yemen as mutabbaq. It was brought to India by Indian traders based in Yemen, who eventually brought it to South-East Asia. It is almost like a layered and folded pancake, and comes in both sweet and savoury iterations. Often it is stuffed, but sometimes you might come across martabak kosong (kosong implying empty) which can be eaten with a curry or another dish on the side, like the Indian paratha. Martabak is not to be confused with martabak manis which originated from Bangka Belitung islands.

1. Kue putu mayang (rice flour noodles) served with kinca (liquid palm sugar).
2. A food cart on a street in Cikini, in the Menteng district.

I grew up in the quiet neighbourhood of Cikini. A few years ago, we moved to the neighbourhood of Senen, which can by no means be called quiet. It makes up for all its drawbacks by being located across from one of the biggest dessert markets in Jakarta. Cakes with Disney characters, sponge cakes, trays filled with Indonesian snacks, slices of banana cake, vendors scurrying with carts. In those trays also lies the humble kue putu mayang, said to have been inspired by idiyappam, its South Indian and Sri Lankan counterpart. These are rice flour noodles. In Indonesia, it is sold as a sweet dish rather than a savoury one. It can also be found in other South-East Asian countries such as Singapore and Malaysia.

1. A local favourite — soto (a soup comprising meat, broth and vegetables).
2. Dadar gulung (a rolled pancake made out of rice flour, grated coconut and palm sugar).

When it comes to influences on dishes, ingredients can provide an insight into history. The perfect example for this is soto — a soup comprising meat, broth and vegetables. Although it originated in Java, it has taken many forms influenced by each region where it is eaten. One of these variations, soto Betawi Jakarta, is presumed to have been influenced by the Indian Subcontinent, due to the usage of ghee or minyak samin. Some versions also use turmeric, which is commonly used in Indian cuisine.

I like to think that we carry our histories and preserve them via food recipes. Food has the ability to transcend geographical upheaval. I grew up in a family where changing locations was a given. My mother’s way of carrying her roots was through surul appam. Dadar gulung, a dessert from Indonesia is similar to the South Indian and Sri Lankan dish surul appam. The rolled pancake is made out of rice flour, grated coconut and palm sugar. The Indonesian version also uses pandan leaf, giving it a green colour.

Each dish to me is a reminder of how far we have come, and how we carry places within ourselves. It’s also a reminder of how we take what is out there, and try to make it our own which may make tracking down the history of dishes rather tricky.

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