The Clan­des­tine Critic takes a cou­ple of weeks off from din­ing to con­tem­plate the mean­ing of South­east Asian cui­sine and the chefs who pro­vide a new hope for this re­gion’s amaz­ing culi­nary history and bounty.

Indonesia Expat - - Meet The Expat - BY THE CLAN­DES­TINE CRITIC

The Van­guard of the New South­east Asian Cui­sine

Tech­nique” was a word that was of­ten thrown at the me­dia as well as “best in­gre­di­ents” or “con­cepts.” How­ever, it seemed to sound more like an echo cham­ber for the sex­i­est or brash­est chefs.”

Dur­ing the Jakarta Culi­nary Feas­t­i­val event in Novem­ber, chefs from around the re­gion were flown in to pro­vide a glimpse into each style of cui­sine they rep­re­sented and to show­case the vary­ing flavours from the coun­tries from which they hailed.

The event was de­scribed as a, “four- day long culi­nary fes­ti­val that will cater to all of food­ies’s [sic] dream. Whether it’s par­tic­i­pat­ing in live cook­ing show [sic] fea­tur­ing in­ter­na­tional celebrity chefs or sign­ing up to var­i­ous work­shops and cook­ing classes to sharpen your skill, we have ev­ery­thing you need and so much more. Here, your ap­petite will be spoiled [ sic – I truly hope not].

Your prowess at cre­at­ing dishes will be chal­lenged. Not to men­tion you will have a ful­fill­ing feast to­gether with your loved ones, all pos­si­bly, eas­ily done in one place.”

It was meant to be a food lover’s dream- come-true based on the host­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion’s web­site, and for many, it was an in­cred­i­ble op­por­tu­nity to fawn over their favourite celebrity chef or dine at the many stalls dis­play­ing bites of pret­tily con­cocted desserts or hors d'oeu­vres; a one-stop shop to meet with their food hero or restau­rant dar­ling and sam­ple de­lights from across South­east Asia.

Over the course of the week, these chefs also had the op­por­tu­nity to speak with me­dia and many of them shared some con­cerns over the path of where the re­gion’s cuisines are headed. Much of the in­for­ma­tion these chefs pro­vided to young lo­cal jour­nal­ists at press jun­kets flew over heads per­haps due to lan­guage bar­ri­ers (and heavy ac­cents) or in­ex­pe­ri­ence with the sub­ject, but there seemed to be a grow­ing dis­con­tent with some about how cui­sine is per­ceived in this re­gion, and the flavours and dishes that de­fine each coun­try.

There were com­ments about re­stric­tive gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions, poor dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tems and the lack of best prac­tices. There were issues with im­ported goods over lo­cally sourced ones. There was the is­sue of proper train­ing and re­tain­ing tal­ent amongst lo­cal staff. Most of the top chefs who par­tic­i­pated in the fes­ti­val were from dif­fer­ent eth­nic back­grounds and ran restau­rants that could be cat­e­go­rized from fine Euro­pean gas­tron­omy to Bali café cul­ture. “Tech­nique” was a word that was of­ten thrown at the me­dia as well as “best in­gre­di­ents” or “con­cepts.” How­ever, at one point, it seemed to sound more like an echo cham­ber for the sex­i­est or brash­est chefs.

Yet, away from all the bright lights and raz­zle- daz­zle of the event, a few im­por­tant peo­ple in the in­dus­try got to­gether and started talk­ing. What de­fines South­east Asian cui­sine? Who are we, what are our in­gre­di­ents, how do we uti­lize what is best here on the ground? How do we mo­bi­lize? What is the history be­hind the cuisines, and how do we an­a­lyze and dis­sect all of the in­flu­ences from the past, which are now a part of the cur­rent food cul­ture in many of the coun­tries we op­er­ate?

Here in In­done­sia, delv­ing into the history of the cui­sine is some­thing to be reck­oned with. Much of the knowl­edge has been im­parted via oral tra­di­tions and hearsay, some­thing that is very much a part of lo­cal tra­di­tions. As an ex­am­ple, although one ex­pert be­lieves nasi goreng was in­flu­enced by Arab traders with their fond­ness for pi­laf an­other would say that this “national dish” was in­spired by

Chi­nese traders who brought their culi­nary in­flu­ences from the con­ti­nent at a much ear­lier stage to keep left­over rice from spoil­ing. Con­stant bick­er­ing over the best satés, the best so­tos, etc. and etc., only dis­tracts from the real question over In­done­sian cui­sine. Can it be de­fined from other ar­eas such as Malaysia, Sin­ga­pore or the Philip­pines with which there is some shared cul­tural history? The over­lap of many dishes and flavours in this re­gion would clearly sug­gest not. How­ever, the in­tense national pride over some­thing like nasi goreng sug­gests that there needs to be some­one or some­thing to bring all these na­tions to­gether to cre­ate a newer and bet­ter iden­tity, one that is not based on na­tion­al­ism, but on some­thing much more im­por­tant to the mul­ti­tudes of food cul­tures which in­habit the space of South­east Asia.

In our cur­rent need to eat the best food and dine at the best restau­rants, we some­times for­get that we live in a coun­try where there are in­cred­i­ble nat­u­ral re­sources and food tra­di­tions. Who among us can doc­u­ment the use of spe­cial, na­tive in­gre­di­ents and how they are used? How can we source these items re­spect­fully and pro­vide lo­cal pop­u­la­tions self-suf­fi­cient meth­ods of farm­ing or har­vest­ing? Can we de­ci­pher the past for the present and fu­ture by us­ing de­riv­a­tive flavours?

Most im­por­tantly, how does this man­i­fest in the per­cep­tion of the re­gion’s cuisines? Can it be taken to the next level, and who amongst the new van­guard of South­east Asian chefs will likely be able to do so? For what it’s worth, the re­cent culi­nary fes­ti­val may have been the cat­a­lyst for a few key play­ers to cre­ate a new move­ment for South­east Asian cui­sine. It could be the start of a truly beautiful thing for any­one who cares an iota for the re­gion’s cuisines.

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