From the ‘ Sekaten’ to din­ing out

Whether as an of­fer­ing or as a rea­son to party to­day, food and its con­nec­tion to cul­ture have been con­stantly evolv­ing.

The Jakarta Post - JPlus - - Contents - by Kevin­dra Prianto Soe­mantri

We live in an era where a new restau­rant open­ing across the street is more im­por­tant than the de­but of Os­car de la Renta’s Spring col­lec­tion. Peo­ple are more ex­cited to talk about food than pol­i­tics. Re­spect for all things culi­nary has never been higher.

Al­though the way ur­ban­ites eat and so­cial­ize seems con­tem­po­rary, the idea of cel­e­brat­ing through food has a long her­itage in In­done­sia. Euro­pean colo­nial­iza­tion also trans­formed tra­di­tional In­done­sian no­tions of food, al­ter­ing its so­cial func­tion, as in­tro­duc­ing new dishes that sup­planted old ones for rea­sons linked to class as much as taste.

Divine of­fer­ings

When we talk about In­done­sia’s food cul­ture, how­ever, we are talk­ing about in­gre­di­ents, which means the na­tion’s boun­ti­ful abun­dance of food­stuffs, from the land and the sea.

From Sriv­i­jaya to the Ba­li­nese king­doms, food was used for divine of­fer­ings, typ­i­cally tak­ing the form of sajen or

sesajen, which were made from rice, fruit, flow­ers, fish and chicken among other things. The of­fer­ings re­flected a Hindu be­lief in nat­u­ral guardian spir­its, such as Dewi Sri, who watches over rice. Of­fer­ings waned start­ing in the 13th cen­tury after the ar­rival of Is­lam, which for­bids the prac­tice. Food, at least tra­di­tion­ally, then be­came a way to cel­e­brate life, the great­ness of God and the great­ness of na­ture.

Ar­guably, the most prom­i­nent tra­di­tional food cel­e­bra­tions cur­rently prac­ticed are the sekaten in Yo­gyakarta and Su­rakarta (Solo), Cen­tral Java. The idea now cel­e­brates the birth­day of Prophet Mo­ham­mad. Its main at­trac­tion is a

gre­beg mu­lu­dan, a fes­tive moun­tain of de­li­cious food that is pa­raded from the main hall of the sul­tan’s palace to a nearby mosque with thou­sands of peo­ple snaking be­hind.

After the food moun­tain is blessed, peo­ple will grab many sa­cred delecta­bles that they can to be taken home and eaten. Un­til to­day, the sekaten is cel­e­brated in Java as a cul­tural event, while mini-ver­sions can found prac­ticed in houses across Java on spe­cial days and note­wor­thy oc­ca­sions.

Th­ese mini-events, called tumpen­gan, or rice moun­tains, are a must for spe­cial oc­ca­sions, whether birth­days, the be­gin­ning of project, house­warm­ings or wed­ding an­niver­saries. Peo­ple in the ca­ter­ing busi­ness say that craft­ing tumpen­gan is a ma­jor source of in­come.

The phi­los­o­phy be­hind a tumpen­gan is about cel­e­brat­ing the good­ness of God. The rice moun­tain, or cone, sym­bol­izes the high place where God lives, and its tra­di­tional seven ac­com­pa­ny­ing dishes orig­i­nate from the Ja­vanese word pitu (seven), which leads to pit­u­lun­gan or asking for pros­per­ity from God.

Food and colo­nial­ism

Those who col­o­nized In­done­sia brought with them their own food cus­toms, from which we can tell much about colo­nial Euro­pean so­ci­ety. Only the rich, for ex­am­ple, were able to en­joy dishes made from meat. The rich were also re­spon­si­ble for in­tro­duc­ing down-to- earth mem­bers of lo­cal so­ci­ety into colo­nial leisure, such as by found­ing club­houses in Jakarta, then Batavia, such as the grand Har­monie Club in 1810.

Eat­ing, drink­ing, danc­ing and all kinds of ex­otic leisure ac­tiv­i­ties done by the col­o­niz­ers. Food played a big role, such as through wines and ban­quets. Even the

ri­jstaffel, the re­gal way of serv­ing food to guests, com­prised a smor­gas­bord of lo­cal dishes first in­tended only for the rich Dutch and Ja­vanese.

The birth of the iconic the Betawi (na­tive Jakar­tan) drink bir ple­tok is more ev­i­dence that Euro­pean habit of drink­ing beer in the

af­ter­noon – usu­ally done at the Eer­ste

Batavia Beer­hall ( First Batavia Beer­hall) – was adapted by lo­cals in a form of a ha­lal bev­er­age.

In­done­sians were in­ter­ested in the life­style of the West, es­pe­cially when it came to gas­tron­omy. Ev­ery grand event in the colony in­cluded food, such as the soirees con­vened be­tween 1906 and 1942 to cel­e­brate Queen Wil­helmina’s birth­day in Pasar Gam­bir–and which were the ori­gins of the cur­rent- day Jakarta Fair.

The orig­i­nal cel­e­bra­tions fea­tured movies, magic shows, art and cul­tural goods on sale and danc­ing halls. Ju­lia Wi­ra­jani, in her book Se­jarah Singkat Pasar Gam­bir (1991), said that the heart of the com­plex used to fea­ture a large restau­rant ex­clu­sively ded­i­cated to Dutch pa­trons where al­co­hol and Euro­pean foods were sold. Lo­cal res­i­dents ate from kiosks scat­tered through­out the square, which sold snacks from dif­fer­ent parts of the Dutch East Indies.

The Lav­ish Gen­er­a­tion

The Dutch weren’t the only ones com­bin­ing luxury, leisure and cui­sine. After In­de­pen­dence, lo­cal cit­i­zens no longer lived in the shad­ows of the Euro­peans. Free­dom was theirs, as well as new forms of leisure. If you think that go­ing to ho­tel for a fine meal or for an el­e­gant af­ter­noon tea is some­thing new, you’d be wrong. The habit of leisurely eat­ing at ho­tels can be traced to Ho­tel des In­dus in Har­moni, the first ho­tel to serve a proper gelato in Asia. It also of­fered Euro­pean food din­ing and a prix-fixe menu. Such habits were so­lid­i­fied when Ho­tel In­done­sia, the na­tion’s first in­ter­na­tional five-star ho­tel, was built in 1962.

Pre­vi­ously en­joyed only by Dutch plan­ta­tion own­ers, the good life could now be had by In­done­sian min­is­ters, busi­ness peo­ple, celebri­ties and gen­er­als. The Nir­wana Sup­per Club, lo­cated in the East Wing of Ho­tel In­done­sia, bore wit­ness of this lav­ish­ness. Ac­cord­ing to Bon­dan Wi­narno, the food critic and jour­nal­ist, peo­ple

had to wear for­mal at­tire to en­ter. There were also a few dishes spe­cially–or even spon­ta­neously–made for guests. One was the ho­tel’s iconic bubur ayam chicken rice por­ridge. The poet and artist Toety Her­aty Rooseno, 84, said she and her fam­ily would go to the ho­tel on Sun­days to visit its Java Room Cof­fee Shop to in­dulge in a club sand­wich or ice cream sun­dae.

In the early 1970s, the Oa­sis Restau­rant in Cikini was opened and the grand ser­vice of ri­jstaffel was re-in­tro­duced. The 1970s and early 1980s was a time when mem­bers of the baby boom gen­er­a­tion en­joyed a life of ex­cite­ment and hip­ness.

In par­al­lel with In­done­sia’s oil boom and eco­nomic growth, luxury ho­tels blos­somed through­out the cap­i­tal, with the open­ings of the Kar­tika Plaza, the Ho­tel Borobudur, the Sari Pan Pa­cific, the Grand Sahid Jaya and the iconic Jakarta Hil­ton In­ter­na­tional. En­ter­tain­ment and life­style ar­eas also emerged in the en­ter­tain­ment desert of Jakarta in places such as Blok M,

Se­nayan and An­col. The un­der-25s had an op­por­tu­nity to en­joy new face of Jakarta.

Luxury shop­ping malls as we know them were still years away, so a luxury ho­tel with a good restau­rant was al­ways the main go-to for proper din­ing. Places such as the Pea­cock Cafe and Ta­man Sari fine din­ing at the Jakarta Hil­ton In­ter­na­tional, Shima Tep­pa­nyaki at the Aryaduta, Fu­rusato at the Sari Pan Pa­cific and the Jayakarta Grill at the Grand Sahid Jaya were just few among many fa­vorites.

From a hum­ble of­fer­ing to the cre­ator to to­day’s he­do­nis­tic cul­ture, food re­mains an es­sen­tial part of so­ci­ety. Peo­ple to­day might feel left out if they haven’t vis­ited the lat­est restau­rant trend­ing on In­sta­gram or tagged them­selves on Path. Yet food has al­ways been at the cen­ter of our cul­ture. The his­tory of food, as one writer puts it, is the his­tory of hu­man­ity.

Peo­ple grab for sa­cred treats from a gi­ant tumpeng rice cone at a cer­e­mony.

Tast­ing a bit of java at a booth run by the In­done­sia Cof­fee Work­shop for the World, as part of the Habi­bie Fes­ti­val, in 2016.

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