24 January 2019
Jakarta: Indonesian Heritage Series Lecture
“Eating and Difference: Little Slices of Indonesia”
The Residence of HE the Ambassador of Myanmar for the United Nations
Cooking, in some cultures, has become a metaphor for the transformations of life. But nothing is a stronger metaphor for culture than food itself. Food is the gateway to culture. It is often the main motive for us to explore a city or a country.
Food is also a regular feature in the works of the bilingual novelist, poet, journalist and essayist Laksmi Pamuntjak. Starting from The Jakarta Good Food Guide—the country’s first independent and comprehensive restaurant guide series—followed by the novel Aruna dan Lidahnya (published in the US as The Birdwoman’s Palate), she believes that food deserves words—and those suffused with care, skill and knowledge. “Writing about food,” she says, “is often one of the best ways of writing about things other than food. It conceals and codifies all manner of human needs - love, desire, disappointments, resentments - as well as of history, religion, politics, people and places.” With its privilege of texture and contingency, nostalgia and change, trial and error, food grows as it absorbs—and it grows ever outward. Food always tells a bigger story; food is never just about food.
Even though she has written vastly across forms, genres and topics, there is a common thread in Laksmi’s oeuvre: the idea of culture as hybrid, a self-perpetuating frontier—always embodying and resulting in difference. In the next presentation of Rumahku, Laksmi will share with us the experience of writing The Jakarta Good Food Guide and Aruna dan Lidahnya—whose movie adaptation hit cinemas nationwide in September—and show the ways in which the two works complement each other and affect her writing in general.
She will share with us her travel stories in the archipelago and how they reaffirm her understanding of culture as something porous, fluid yet resilient. She will further examine the idea of Indonesia as an artificial nation, a 20th history modern political invention nonetheless held together by a near-mythical ethos of harmony: the national motto “Unity in Diversity.” A country that comprises and cobbles together some 17,000 islands and some 700 living languages into a “oneness.” A country constantly in flux and never the one thing—where when other art forms or cultural expressions fail, food often succeeds in providing a framework, a vocabulary, with which to think of “unity in diversity.” And of food as the great unifier. One only needs to rethink the meaning of “soto”—generically known as “Indonesian chicken soup”—but whose sheer variety, across provinces, regencies and cities, shows it is anything but.