Food Nationalism

Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, South, Southeast, Sri Lanka, Thailand

Penang-Style Otak-Otak (Steamed Fish Cake)

Chapter 5, Part 6

Several years ago, the headlines of Indonesian media suddenly flared up with nationalistic fervor against Malaysia following their claims (both official and not) over some cultural items that Indonesians are so dearly and emotionally attached to. Like sibling rivalry, netizens in both countries often fight over many things, from a traditional weapon to folk songs, fabrics and food. Rendang, a dish originating from the lands of the Minangkabau people – where many dishes were influenced by the Indians – was among those regularly contested between the two countries. So was lumpia (lunpia), Indonesian spring rolls associated with Semarang, a city in Central Java with a sizable Chinese community.

However, such trivial dispute is not exclusive to the two neighboring countries in Southeast Asia. In 2008, Lebanon and Israel both claimed hummus as their national dish, ignoring the fact that it has been around in the Levant since the 12th century, long before both countries were established in the 20th century. Down under, Australia and New Zealand have been debating for decades over who actually invented pavlova, a meringue-based dessert topped with fruits. Named after Anna Pavlova, a Russian ballerina who toured both countries in the 1920s, it is now more often associated with New Zealand, although it’s also widely consumed across the Tasman Sea.

Associating a dish with national identity often overlooks its history which usually involves countless cultural exchanges in the past when foreign merchants, traders, pilgrims and explorers traveled the world, brought along ingredients from home, and introduced their cooking technique to foreign peoples. Thanks to the Chinese, we now have a wide variety of noodle-based dishes to choose from. And because of the Indians who introduced rich, aromatic curries, our taste buds have forever been changed.

Without tomato – a crop brought from the Americas to Europe as part of the Columbian exchange following the rediscovery of the New World in the 15th century – what would spaghetti bolognese be? Had potato not been introduced to Europe, the English wouldn’t have invented the much-loved fish and chips. In southern India, idli would have looked and tasted quite differently today if fermentation and steaming hadn’t been applied in the process.

An example of how food evolved as it traveled far distances across different cultures is faluda. When James and I were in Yangon, Myanmar, we had the dessert for the first time. Imagine a big glass filled with rose syrup, milk, agar-agar jelly in different colors and sizes, tapioca pearls, sweet custard and ice cream, consumed on a very hot and humid day. Several weeks later when we were in Kochi, India we had our second faluda (also spelled falooda). But this time it was much sweeter than what we had in Myanmar, and the filling was different with some ingredients missing and jelly noodles added instead. Later on as we traveled across southern India, we learned from TV that the dessert in fact originated in Persia where it is called faloodeh. The original Persian version has even less ingredients than the one in India, with corn starch vermicelli, semi-frozen syrup and rose water as the main components of the dessert.

Toasting Belacan (Shrimp Paste)

Mie Ongklok, A Traditional Dish from Wonosobo, Central Java, Indonesia

A Bowl of Bakso (Indonesian Meatball), A Chinese-Influenced Dish

Breads and Fried Snacks from Sri Lanka

Mango Sticky Rice from Bangkok, Thailand

Left: Burmese Version of Faluda; Right: Ube (Purple Yam) Ice Cream with Jellies

When it comes to spices, it is worth noting the difference between cuisines in the Spice Islands – where nutmeg and clove originate – and in Aceh on the northernmost tip of the island of Sumatra. To my surprise, the people of the Banda Islands and Ternate don’t use too many spices in their cooking and prefer simple seasoning. In Ternate, for example, the locals love raw tuna served with bird’s eye chilies, shallots, and lemon basil, onto which hot oil is then poured to briefly cook the dish. Traditionally clove trees are planted in people’s backyards, and when the buds are ripe they are then sold to other islands and abroad, instead of being used in the local dishes. Aceh, on the other hand, was among the most important trading ports along the Strait of Malacca. As an entrepôt of all sorts of goods, commodities and spices, the locals made use of the abundance of exotic ingredients at their doorstep in their dishes.

Our six-month travels across Southeast and South Asia back in 2015 began with a simple curiosity: how do places along the old spice route look now? But as the months progressed, it became a journey of learning. On this trip, I delved into both regions’ past cultural exchanges – comprising religion, architecture and food, among other things – which are sadly less known today. Who would have thought the fried fish I had in a small town in Kerala tasted almost identical to the one my mother makes at home in Java?

Colonialism is partly to blame as it created borders, dividing communities and gradually severing ties among peoples who had otherwise been culturally related for centuries. As modern nations emerged in the mid-20th century, each of them has been trying to carve out a national identity as unique and distinct from others’ as possible, or in some cases superior than the rest of the world. But ignorance probably plays a bigger part in allowing divisive rhetoric to take center stage these days. When people educate themselves with history and the complexities within it – as opposed to subscribing to outlets promoting alternative facts – they will be harder to divide and rule, bad news for those with a wicked agenda.

On my first night in Toraja, I had baro’bo dalle for dinner which reminded me much of North Sulawesi’s congee. But as far as I know, no one minds that it is now also widely consumed by an entirely different ethnic group in the southern highlands of the island. Is it because both regions are part of the same country? I have yet to find the answer. But one thing for sure, traveling to new places, meeting people who practice religions and customs different from ours, sampling dishes with ingredients we have never heard before, and learning the history of the world are collectively a very powerful weapon to fight chauvinism, that ugly byproduct of nationalism. Wouldn’t it be nice if more people have this “weapon” in hand?

Ikan Masak Kering Kayu (Skipjack Tuna Curry) from Ternate, North Maluku, Indonesia

Nutmeg Juices from Ternate (Left) and Ambon (Right)

Sate Padang, West Sumatran Version of Satay with Curry-Like Sauce

A Wide Array of Dishes Typically Served at Padang (Minang) Restaurants

More Dishes to Choose from

Baro’bo Dalle (Rice Congee with Corn and Vegetables) from Toraja, South Sulawesi, Indonesia

Kopi Kawa, A Drink Made from Brewed Coffee Leaves

Kopi Kawa from West Sumatra, Indonesia

Spice-Flavored Chocolates from Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India

The Indonesian Flag in Juices (Left: Watermelon; Right: Soursoup)

~ End of the Spice Odyssey Series ~

Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

63 thoughts on “Food Nationalism”

  1. Hendi Setiyanto says:

    biarpun makanan2 ini punya identitas sebagai makanan khas suatu negara, sejatinya mereka ini saling mempengaruhi atau dipengaruhi, kayak makanan Indonesia, setahu saya banyak yang terpengaruh dari negeri seberang, contoh bakwan, bakpia, nasi goreng, mie ayam dll hehehe


    • Betul sekali mas. Namanya cita rasa, kalau di lidah cocok, ya pasti akan coba diterapkan untuk mengolah bahan-bahan yang sebelumnya sudah biasa dikonsumsi. Jadi inget dulu serial Si Doel, pas dia mau ke luar negeri, ibunya menawarkan untuk membawakan semur jengkol. Nah, bisa dibayangkan selama ribuan tahun makanan ikut berkelana bersama manusia, kemudian menemukan rumah baru, dipadukan dengan bumbu-bumbu baru, terciptalah makanan baru.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hendi Setiyanto says:

        Makanya klo ditelusur…ada benang merahnya dan kta tdk bisa mengklaim sepihak klo itu punya kita 😊


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  3. Wow your pictures are amazing! It is amazing how different food are different in Indonesia, I always tell people that Indonesia has so many different special dishes in each region, there are still many that I don’t know! It is of course also interesting to see the similarities with other countries and that we are somehow connected, and I love this!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Aggy! Indeed, there are just too many dishes to try in Indonesia. 🙂 Even today, when I was looking up places to have lunch, I learned about some Indonesian cuisines I had never heard before. This makes exploring the country even more fun, don’t you think? Understanding how the dishes we eat everyday were influenced by foreign cultures can probably help us fight narrow-mindedness.

      Liked by 2 people

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  5. Suwandi says:

    Great post! I was humming John Lennon’s Imagine after reading the last paragraph: )
    All the best to you Bama!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Much appreciated, Suwandi. That song becomes even more relevant these days, don’t you think? All the best to you too!


  6. Liked your faluda post because I make it too but my style is different from all of those as it’s Gujarati style. I’ve even done a post on it with a photo under India.
    I once at a party talking to the Indonesian ambassador and he told me Indonesia exported all its cloves and imported all of Zanzibar’s cloves because they were the best in the world. Don’t know if this still happens today though.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I just took a look at your post on faluda, and found the one you had in Tanzania. It sounds so different from the ones I had, and the addition of cardamon and pistachio nuts make me think of kulfi. Do they taste similar?

      I did a little research on the clove import, and that ambassador was right. In the 1970s and 80s Indonesia imported cloves from Zanzibar and Madagascar because clove plantations in the country were not well-managed. I find this really ironic since the spice was introduced from the Spice Islands in Indonesia to both African islands by the British and the French. It didn’t help that there were some well-connected businessmen during Suharto era who imposed a monopoly on clove trade in the country. In recent years, however, local production has grown steadily.

      Thanks for this invaluable information, Mallee!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Don’t know if the faluda tasted similar as in Indonesia. Only ever eaten my style! Strange what you remember from so long ago — I still have a picture of the man’s face even.


  7. Your photos are a first-class culinary delight. I like your emphasis in all your posts on how much we share in culture, food, history and social customs with each corner of the world. Thank you!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Peter, that is such a kind and encouraging comment. Thank you! I feel like I need to point out the history we share, which is often reflected on the food we eat. Understanding this hopefully will bring people closer.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Bama you really have me thinking regarding foods coming from other countries and then becoming key components of a ‘traditional dish’. Amazing photos and well researched as always. A mouth watering read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Learning about this can lead to deeper conversations with others, which hopefully bring better understanding of the world and ourselves. Glad this post intrigued you, Sue. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Your photographs and descriptions of different regional foods are just wonderful!! Some are all time favorites, such as sticky rice with mangoes whereas others are new to me. I do like trying different foods throughout our travels although this is hindered some by the fact that I do not eat much meat. I will try it though and do appreciate cultural ethnic differences!!

    Nutmeg juice has to taste interesting!


    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Peta. I really appreciate your words and thoughts. A few years ago I wasn’t convinced when I heard about sticky rice and mango because in Indonesia sticky rice is often associated with savory dishes. But when I was in Bangkok I knew I had to try it to fairly judge the dessert… and I loved it! The combination of textures and flavors was sublime. It is very rare for me to end up not liking a new dish, so much so some friends and coworkers even said that to me there are only two kinds of taste: delicious and very delicious. 🙂

      Thanks for reading and I hope you’ll get the chance to try some of the dishes mentioned in this post!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. How beautiful! I am getting hungry just looking at these beautiful photos. I have always heard that the food in that part of the world is amazing. Excellent series!

    Liked by 1 person

    • In general food in Southeast Asia is cheap, tasty and very hearty — definitely something you shouldn’t miss when you travel to this part of the world one day. Thanks Nicole!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. The real history behind recipes is so much more nuanced and complex, making it much more interesting than the appropriation of those recipes by various governments for tourism purposes. Wishing you continued tasty travels in the future!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s another example of the wrong kind of populism — one that instills an inaccurate belief in people’s minds about certain aspects of their culture. Food will always be an important part of my travels, because it really is one of the best means to connect with others from different backgrounds. Thanks for reading and for your kind wishes!

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Being in a rush this week, I started reading your post quickly, thinking I would merely skim today. As always, though, I got sucked into the great content and ended up savoring your interesting points on food nationalism. I am very happy that I did not miss this last (but certainly not least) entry in the series. I have enjoyed each and every one of these posts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for following all the stories from this series, Lex. It’s been one and a half years! I learned a lot from that six-month journey, and I learned even more when I was writing the posts. Really appreciate the time you spent reading my blog.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I agree with your last paragraph, I hope that will be the case. I guess curiosity towards other cultures does influence the travelers’ mindset. It happens that I have met people who have traveled the world but they kept ending up with the food that they are familiar with – like the ones that they have already in their home country 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, in my opinion it’s okay to stick to the familiar at home. What’s more dangerous is what’s inside one’s head. If traveling doesn’t change the way he/she sees the world, I don’t know what will.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Couldn’t agree more with your idea of food tourism as a weapon against regional chauvinism. I am quite envious of all the food your have sampled along your journey Bama. Had no idea Indonesia had such a variety of cuisines until you began this series. Most intrigued by the beverages you feature here: the nutmeg juice, ambon, kopi kawa. I am yet to catch up with so many posts from your spice odyssey series, but this is a superb conclusion. Thank you for sharing your experiences in such detail.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When you do come to Indonesia, I hope you’ll have ample time to try some of the dishes James and I love the most. Speaking of kopi kawa, I just learned today that the word kawa might have been derived from kahwah, a traditional tea in Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, parts of Central Asia, and Kashmir. Did you recall trying or seeing it when you were in Srinagar? This is another example how food and beverage evolve as they travel to faraway places. Thanks Madhu! The Spice Odyssey series grew bigger than what I had anticipated. Along the way I had to keep the stories from some places of lesser importance for another time.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fascinating! We did indeed have kahwa in Kashmir. In fact we guzzled it all day and brought back a small container of kahwa mix, and are now regretting not having bought more 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  15. Bama, this is a wonderful way to close what has been a deeply fascinating series from our Spice Odyssey. Speaking of my own accounts of the trip, I really must make more of an effort to be organized and get them published. Food was really one of the highlights and I’d wished we collected even more recipes along the way (especially that ikan masak kering kayu we had in Ternate). Now that I think of it, if Malaysia and Indonesia had been ruled by the same colonial power, it is entirely possible that they would have stayed as one country. So much of the culture and history is shared.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My feet are aching for another months-long trip. But when we do hit the road again one day, I should think of a different way to write the stories from that journey. I noticed what you need to write a post is usually a stimulus, and it often involves food. 🙂 We really should have asked Pak Hasrun the recipe of ikan masak kering kayu since it is supposedly only served at special occasions. Maybe Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Timor-Leste should have been one country. The Federated States of Western Austronesia? 😀 Makasih for reading, James!

      Liked by 2 people

  16. It is so cool how food has become such a big part of our travel experiences nowadays. Your point about how the tomato is from the Americas and how we all think it is Italian is well-taken. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Scott! It’s been a long time. I think it was five or six years ago the last time I heard from you. I noticed you have a new blog now apart from the Shirt Off My Backpack.

      Food has indeed become part of the experience itself, not only because there are so many dishes out there so different from the ones we usually have back home, but also for food itself provides a better understanding of other cultures. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. First of all Bama, thank you for this brilliant in depth assessment of food nationalism. I really appreciate your backing up general observations with specifics of dishes and places and history.

    I must say that as a Frenchman, I do get the fact that people get emotionally passionate about the historical claims of where specific dishes originate. If Americans for example feel passionate about their social policies and religion, I would say that other than soccer, the French feel a surge of nationalism first and foremost around their food and their language. What is interesting to me about this food nationalism is that it is a visceral reaction. Not so much academic as one that individuals feel in their gut. Let me illustrate: For years, my wife Peta who was born and raised in South Africa, claimed that quote “shepherds pie” originated in her country! I begged to differ and learned early on in French schoolbooks that there was a Mr Parmentier who came up with what is called Hachis Parmentier, i.e. layers of mashed potatoes, ground beef and a crispy gruyere cheese on top. We resolved the food argument over this dish, when Peta’s mother told us that for years in South Africa her main resource was a classic French cook book! Et voila, the French flag flies proudly yet again over the Hachis Parmentier.

    Your descriptions and photographs of Indonesian foods make it imperative for us to spend more time in Indonesia and when we do, we will do in depth research through your earlier blogs to arm ourselves with a culinary check list of must try dishes.

    Thank you.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Much appreciated, Ben. I know this can be a really delicate issue as food is something so close to us all, and as you said, any reaction that arises from disputes around food tends to be visceral. I can’t blame them since love and passion are deeply involved in food creation all over the globe. My mother when asked by my best friend about the recipes for her cooking never fails to emphasize the importance of putting your heart into the process. However, through this post I’d like to shed some light on the fact that there’s so much more than meets the eye regarding to the food we eat.

      By the way, Hachis Parmentier sounds like real comfort food. Actually that makes me realize that I haven’t tried shepherd’s pie either. Definitely something to look forward to when I go back to Europe one day.

      When you do come again to Indonesia and want to try as many local dishes as you can, do drop me a message. I’ll recommend you some of my favorites.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. orangewayfarer says:

    your pictures make me feel to tempted to binge start gobbling up the fabulous dishes. Lovely written blog. Stumbled across as I am about to write my BKK food escapades soon. Do check out my blog one. Thanks and cheers!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Such a nice and funny comment, Madhu. I really appreciate the time you spent reading this post. All the best!


  19. Fantastic post Bama ! Your spice journey is fascinating and so beautifully documented (really made me want to try Kopi Kawa !).
    Much would have to be said about the history of cloves that you are mentioning in your article. I am currently working on a documentary on the slave trade of africans and I discovered that the slave trade was closely linked to cloves cultivation. In the late XVIII century when the french smuggled it out of the Dutch trade monopoly and introduced cloves into the Indian Ocean. In the XIX century Zanzibar became the center of the “clove fever” and one of the last places where hundred of thousands of African captives were deported to, to work on clove plantations, although the slave trade had been abolished in most of the rest of the colonial world… Bitter spice !

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you enjoyed this post, Juan! Kopi kawa was really interesting. It tasted somewhere between coffee and tea!

      The information about the connection between clove cultivation and slave trade in Africa is new to me, but it shouldn’t really come as a surprise as European colonialism created a ripple effect across the globe, affecting millions of lives. I would love to watch your documentary on this issue. Will it be available to Indonesian viewers? Anyway, good luck with the project!

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Thank you Bama. Our series of 4 films will be completed in May next year and hopefully will be available after to Indonesia ! I’ll keep you informed (as you know the colonial Dutch played an important role in the slave trade as well as in the history of your country…) Thinking about our conversation, I have just found this link to a BBC documentary on the history of Maluku, the spice trade and the role of the Dutch… Very thorough and revealing… Here it is if you are interested :
    hopethis link plays in Indonesia

    Liked by 1 person

    • Looking forward to it! Fortunately, unlike Vimeo, YouTube is not blocked in Indonesia, so I have that video to watch later tonight or tomorrow. Thanks again Juan!

      Liked by 1 person

      • thekitchenmakeupartist says:

        I started a food blog and I’d like to be mentored and adviced 😃


      • Well, to be honest I’m not sure if I have the capacity to give you any advice for your food blog. But what I’ve learned from my seven years of blogging is just keep writing what you love, be consistent, and don’t forget to enjoy it. Hope that helps!


  21. I found this a really fascinating and well researched piece of food history and you’ve got some amazing images there too. In my opinion food is at the very heart of a nations culture, especially when you consider the word culture comes from agriculture, and is a testament to how nations and people can come together with a shared food history. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I just looked up the origin of the word culture, and apparently it’s from the Latin word colere, which means to cultivate. This is interesting, yet it shows how food has always been an important part of people’s lives. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts!


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