Food: An illustration of culture

Mostly ignored and overlooked as an element of culture, food is often seen merely as something to fill the belly with. But by dipping into the histories and presence of food, we can pretty much see the mixture of culture and how globalization is proceeding.

In a classic Betawi song by Benyamin Sueb, titled "Ape Kabar?" (How are you?) Benyamin asks a friend living abroad how it feels to live far from home.

"You must've eaten cheese every day, and forgotten the taste of terasi *shrimp paste*," he sings with Ida Royani. From this song, we can guess that the perceptions Benyamin and Ida shared about living in Western countries were deeply related to a totally different pattern of food consumption.

Cheese, hamburger, steak, pizza and pasta to name a few, are one of the "Western" types of food, whereas, Indonesians "should be" more accustomed to rice, noodles, cassava and of course, sambal (spicy sauce).

Having learned about the "West versus Indonesia" opposition since I was young, it came as a surprise to me to notice that Belgians use bawang goreng (fried onions) in their burgers. Going under the brand "Bicky Burger", these are sold by small vendors on the streets. After putting the slice of meat and cheese in between the bread, they pour the already-prepared fried onions. It gives a crispy sensation against the soft warm bread and meat. Served with French fries or snacks such as sate and lumpia, this kind of burger accompanies most frietjes or chip vendors in Belgium.

Lumpia (eggroll), the snack most Indonesians believe originated in Semarang, Central Java, is sometimes also served as a side dish to accompany the fries, salad and mayonnaise, while we can always find nasi goreng (fried rice) in Chinese restaurants in Belgium.

Even though lumpia and nasi goreng have a strong Chinese Hokkien influence, those are now claimed to be "real" Indonesian food. Nasi goreng, for instance, definitely has Indonesian etymology.

So whose taste is whose? And what is authentic? Is bawang goreng an Asian taste ripped from its root and invaded by the mighty burgers? We have heard what burgers can do to a nation.

The endless invasion of fast-food restaurants and franchised caf*'s in Indonesia is just one of them. George Ritzer (1999) calls it "McDonaldization", a homogenization of taste according to the Western tongue and standards, where every service is valued and uniformed based by the Americans.

But then again, aren't we able to find rice and sambal in those fast-food restaurants? Aren't we able to choose to eat burgers from the burger man honking his horn down the street? According to an anthropologist on globalization and consumption, Richard Wilk (1999), this is what globalization is all about. It is about the encounters of culture and the mix of taste. The idea that lumpia was brought from China to Semarang centuries ago, for instance, before it continued its journey even further to the West to small cities in Belgium, is an illustration of how globalization is an inevitable continuous process that has happened ever since.

These encounters create hybrid food, a mix of cultures embedded in a portion of dish. It is not only to be found in places miles from Indonesia, but is written all over the country's cuisine. Taking the vivid example of cassava and cheese, this snack is thought not to have existed before the 1980s. As proved by the song, "Singkong dan Keju" (Cassava and Cheese) by Bill and Brod, it tells the story of a man who likes cassava and a girl who likes cheese.

"We wouldn't be able to be together, our tastes are poles apart," the song claimed twenty years ago. Cheese back then was the ultimate symbol of the West, whereas cassava was the symbol of traditionalism, poverty and modesty.

It probably didn't occur to Bill and Brod that only a few years since that song, people were actually able to unite the two symbols of modernity and traditionalism. Nowadays, not only is cassava a food to be eaten by almost all classes in big cities - deconstructing the idea of poverty and deprivation - but cheese is a food widely consumed not only by the West.

This brings us back to the first question of whose culture is whose? Using Wilk's assumption that globalization is an act marked by the encounters of culture and has existed for centuries - an act that is intensified nowadays due to the improvement of technology - it would be difficult to determine that this taste and culture is entirely mine and that is entirely yours. Like the bawang goreng inside the burger or the cheese on top of the cassava, it began once upon a time, when cultures met along the way and influenced one another.

A total occupation of culture by another is thus impossible, as - let's face it -the Dutch who colonized Indonesia also took home some culture from Indonesia back to their country: sate, nasi goreng, pisang ambon or bawang goreng, to name a few tastes.

Taking this into account, it would be absurd to view the newest debate over the stealing of culture between Malaysia and Indonesia. It would be difficult to claim that a culture or a taste is entirely mine and definitely not yours, or vice versa. Authenticity of a culture is thus never at stake, but on the other hand, culture - like taste - is a result of a never-ending continuous conversation.

1 Comment:


12:45 PM

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