Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Food in Indo (Part 2)

In a three-day span, a couple of people have mentioned to me that they enjoyed reading about food--a veritable deluge of plaudits for Thought Porridge.  Ask and you shall receive, my darling readers!

Let's start this off with where and how you eat.  Picture your classic American kitchen/dining room.  Now, remove the appliances from the kitchen--dishwasher, microwave, toaster, blender, oven, George Foreman Grill.  Replace all that splendor with a gas stove powered by little propane (I think?) tanks about half the size of what you'd use for a grill in the States.  There might be a sink.  Refrigerator is fifty-fifty, but scrap any notion of that culinary/sci-fi fusion that makes ice and dispenses fresh water and freezes sides of beef and has space for all the food you want (and all the food you don't).  Replace it with a modest, older unit, possibly containing a small freezer box/tray thing toward the top.  And no ancient jars of pickles fermenting at the back.

So, imagine the dining room.  Now make it disappear.  There is none!  I mean, there's a room where you dine, but there's no dinner table, and it's a multifunctional space.  You eat in the living room, and you sit on the floor.  The food is set in the center of the eaters, and all take what they like.  Javanese often forego cutlery, opting rather for the squishy pleasure of eating with bare hands.  Afterwards, you usually wash your fingers in a little water bowl.  At restaurants this is provided along with your dish.  I've gone Javanese a few times--once out of curiosity and twice out of necessity--but I just find it...icky.  Hey, I compromise in plenty of other, far more onerous ways for the sake of cultural adaptation.  Allow me this small bit of obstinacy.

People also use cutlery, but, interestingly, not knives.  The main (and sometimes only) eating instrument is a spoon in the right hand, usually bolstered by a fork in the left.  When you consider that

(1) you're always eating rice, and

(2) there's rarely anything that needs cutting (usually there's not enough meat to require cutting and there's no bread or large/long vegetables), and

(3) ripping flesh with your hands is just as effective as cutting with a knife

--this does make sense.  Occasionally, however, you may go to a neighbor's house for an event where guests are given food and find yourself trying to cut through dry chicken with a plastic spoon.  You just stab-stab-stab at the birdmeat and hope that people aren't looking.  Note: they're always looking.



Now we're getting into the meat of things (forgive the pun).  I should probably preface by saying that my experience is limited, so drawing conclusions about the whole culture may be overhasty.  But here we go anyway.

Short List of Behaviors That Are Acceptable at The (Figurative) Table:

    •    Thunderous belch sequences that interrupt your own speech (and there's no need to say "excuse me")
    •    Making little slobbery smacking noises while you chew
    •    Picking up food from the floor (the rule here is ten minutes, not five seconds)
    •    Watching the television (dinner is TV time!)
    •    Lighting up a cigarette while others are still eating (I haven't seen anyone balk at this yet)

There's also no fuss about talking with your mouth full or getting up to leave before others finish.  One thing that is absolutely NOT okay is to start pawing the common plates with your left hand. 

(Side note: I used to think this was purely symbolic, until I realized that there is not a drop of handsoap in this house--where everyone wipes with their left hand--save for the bottle I keep next to the toilet.  Alas, this bottle is the only possession of mine stored in a common area that I'm sure nobody else uses, which fact is upsetting to contemplate for several reasons.)

More or less the only spices that are acceptable to add to food are sambel (a red spicy homemade chili paste), kecap (thickened sweet-ish soy sauce), and sambelkecap (combination of the two).  You will not find salt and pepper available to add, and this is the interesting/maddening part.  Javanese culture is places deep emphasis on respect and indirectness.  To add salt or pepper to a dish would be to assume that the cook did not know the perfect amount to put in.  Might be offensive, terribly sorry, old bean, no salt or pepper for you.  I have whined about the tea and coffee always being too sweet, and the principle behind it is the same. I mean, the conundrum of oversweetened beverages or undersalted food is, in theory, extremely easy to fix:  Just put a freakin' sugar bowl and salt shaker on the (figurative) table.  Regrettably, this is not the Javanese way.  The food must be eaten and the drinks drunk just as they were prepared by the mistress--and it is invariably a woman--of the kitchen.


Family Time

The concept of "family dinner" as such does not really apply here.  Though I often eat with all the members of my host family, it is just as common to eat alone, or with only one.  This, too, reflects a fascinating aspect of Javanese culture.  In America and Europe, dinner (ideally) is supposed to be the one time of day when every person's schedule harmonizes.  Parents aren't working, children aren't playing, and teenagers aren't hiding away.  All are together for "family time". 

Not so, the Javanese.  This is a culture with a, shall we say, relaxed work ethic and where family is rock solid at the top of the totem pole.  People spend so much time with their families anyway, what's the big deal about dinner?  It's actually not-quite-polite to engage someone in conversation while they eat, because (duh!) they're hungry.  Javanese don't reckon mealtime as the relaxation time sandwiched between assorted drudgeries, or as the way to unwind after a taxing day at the office. 


We're going to stop here, and I promise to put out the next installment of Food in Indo in short order!  Yes, there is still a lot to say.

1 comment:

  1. I love spoons. Everything I cook is usually cut small enough to fit into spoons, and i'm not too big on pasta. I find that with meat, especially chicken, it helps to wedge the spoon in parallel to the grain. Done effectively it results in a pulled looking strands of chicken...a little easier to consume.