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.
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.
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.