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An Indonesian homecoming

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Travelling into town from the airport in Semarang, Indonesia, I was struck by the familiarity of all that I saw. Bama and I peered out the window from the back seat, as the car sped past a slightly decrepit museum we’d entered a year before, then a magnificent Chinese temple painted in vibrant shades of gold and vermilion. Soon we arrived at the family home, fronted by the same green gate that played a musical scale when rolled back, and a slender custard apple tree with unripe fruit hanging from its branches.

Even before I’d settled into my new life in Jakarta, Bama’s mother had already asked him if I would pay her a visit to celebrate the end of Ramadan. We both had a week off, and for a while I thought of going back to Hong Kong until I realised that issues with my working visa meant I could not leave the country. You might remember how my experience of last year’s Idul Fitri (Eid al-Fitr) was peppered with embarrassing faux pas, most memorably an incident involving my feet and slices of watermelon at an important family gathering. This year I turned out a little wiser; someone inadvertently scattered deep-fried tofu stuffed with meatballs across the carpet, but it wasn’t me.

If I can pinpoint one constant in all my travels across the country, it is the broad truth that Indonesian hospitality transcends language barriers, notions of race, and creed. Bama’s doting mother, who I affectionately call “Auntie Dhani”, welcomed me back as though I were her own son. “You are Bama’s little brother,” she proclaimed. Tacked to the side of the fridge, we found a menu of daily specials she had drawn up. For months she’d been compiling a list of mostly Javanese dishes for me to try – all of them made lovingly in her kitchen. The first night we were treated to an exquisite dinner of semur santan, cuts of tender beef shank slow-cooked in a fragrant blend of spices, soy sauce infused with palm sugar, and coconut milk. The second night was an introduction to bobor, stewed cassava leaves yielding the warm, earthy notes of sand ginger; and botok, steamed parcels of banana leaf filled with shredded coconut, chopped chillies, petai cina seeds, dried anchovies, and shrimp.

Auntie Dhani’s signature opor ayam, the curry-like staple of Idul Fitri celebrations all across Java, was as delicious as ever. Her sambal goreng kentang – a spicy mélange of diced potatoes, chicken liver, dried cow skin and shrimp, served over slow-boiled duck eggs – was even more enticing than I’d remembered, despite the fact that my palate and olfactory capabilities were somewhat diminished by the onset of a cold. To help me get better, Auntie Dhani prepared a steady supply of raw sand ginger to chew on and tablets to swallow, along with the gentle encouragement to “bobok” (a sweet way of saying “sleep”, addressed to a younger relative).

Bama’s father, Uncle Basuki, has been no less accommodating. When Bama announced that I would be fasting the final three days of Ramadan out of respect, he replied that there was really no need. But I was stubborn and did so anyway. When members of his extended family showed up over an hour late at a reunion in the countryside, he took the microphone and sternly told them that we’d left Semarang two hours early in anticipation of the traffic, pointing out that he’d brought a guest from afar who was interested in the event.

I find Uncle Basuki immediately familiar because several traits remind me of my own father; both men are serious-faced but ready to break into a wide grin at any moment. And both have a tendency to err on the side of the formal. The last time I was in Semarang, Uncle Basuki shook my hand before we left for the airport. “Please come again,” he told me. “The door to our house will always be open.” 

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Ingredients needed for “botok”, a Javanese dish

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A mixture of sweet, savoury and spicy flavours

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Wrapping the botok filling in banana leaf

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Steamed and ready to eat

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My favourite Indonesian dish, “opor ayam” (Javanese chicken curry)

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Auntie Dhani’s “sambal kentang goreng” (foreground) and opor ayam

32 Comments Post a comment
  1. What a lovely time you had. Thanks for the visual recipe for botok. My grandmother’s remedy for cold was pieces of fresh turmeric and ginger dipped in honey. I don’t remember that it ever cured anyone, but all the kids used to love it.

    July 9, 2016
    • You’re more than welcome. Trying botok for the first time and seeing it being made was a real highlight; good thing I had my camera with me! Fresh turmeric and ginger dipped in honey sounds delicious – I would eat that even if I didn’t have a cold.

      July 10, 2016
  2. How wonderful that you’ve found a home away from home; that must make you feel so much more connected with your new country. I’m not very familiar with Indonesian cuisine, but that all looks delicious! And Bama’s parents sound like gems.

    July 9, 2016
    • Absolutely. And because Bama’s parents don’t speak English, it’s another incentive to properly learn Indonesian so I can communicate more closely with them next time. I imagine his mother will soon be asking when I’ll be back. Not long after I published this post, she told me she would cook whatever food I wanted, saying, “In Indonesia, I am your mom.”

      July 10, 2016
  3. Oh all those amazing food! My mouth is watering just imagining botok and opor ayam. When I am better, I’d love to see you and Bama in Yogyakarta (I know you’ve both been but I’d like to take you both around from a local’s point of view). Anyway, enjoy Indonesia and hope that cold goes away soon 🙂

    July 9, 2016
    • That’s so kind of you, Aggy – we’ll be sure to take you up on that offer! 🙂 My cold is more or less gone (I’d say 95%) which is good timing since work starts again tomorrow! Wishing you a smooth and full recovery.

      July 10, 2016
  4. Perut kenyang, hati senang. You’re always welcome in Semarang, James, and my mother always finds it amusing to see you try her dishes. 😀

    July 9, 2016
    • Yes indeed, Bama! I am sure I gained a significant amount of weight the past week alone. Thanks as always for being willing to take me back to Semarang. 😀

      July 10, 2016
  5. How wonderful being welcomed ‘home’!

    July 9, 2016
    • It almost felt as if I’d never left since my last visit! Everything was just as I remembered.

      July 10, 2016
      • How fabulous! 🙂 Quite the homecoming indeed then…

        July 10, 2016
  6. I’m getting hungry looking at that delicious food

    July 10, 2016
    • It was all fabulous. Someday I’ll have to convince Bama’s mother to write her own cookbook!

      July 10, 2016
  7. James, you’re blessed got a family like Bama’s. I feel the love between you and them just from reading your post.
    And sure… watering my mouth 🙂

    July 11, 2016
    • You are right, Riyanti – I definitely consider myself blessed to know Bama and his parents! 🙂

      July 11, 2016
  8. James, I love your posts about Idul Fitri. I feel like I’m right there with you, experiencing a world unfamiliar to me. What a wonderful family Bama has! I can’t wait to read more (and see more of Auntie’s amazing food) as you get to know them.

    July 13, 2016
    • Sorry it took me so long to reply, Kelly. Fingers crossed I’ll get the chance to go back next year – it was so nice to be doted on and considered a part of the family!

      July 31, 2016
  9. OMG, my favourite! Sambal goreng kentang with the chicken liver!! :9

    July 15, 2016
    • It was delicious, Timothy!

      July 31, 2016
  10. I love the photograph of the ingredients in addition to the completed dishes. But that one really speaks to me – the raw form of the ingredients to a very specific taste profile. My son is a chef and food photographer ….so I enjoy and appreciate food photography and yours is exceptionally good! Mmm that steamed botok looks sooo good. Man you are very lucky to get all these goodies made especially for you!

    Terrific post!

    Peta

    July 22, 2016
    • You are too kind, Peta! I still have so much to learn when it comes to food photography. Bama was the one who plated up the raw ingredients so I have him to thank for the wonderful presentation. The botok his mother made was just sublime… I don’t think I could recreate it in my own kitchen!

      July 31, 2016
  11. I really enjoyed reading this post, especially about your hosts, and the photographs are wonderful.

    July 22, 2016
    • Thank you, Bella. It’s always great to see someone new in the comments section.

      July 31, 2016
  12. James…seems like you’re settling in to Indonesia, and have found another family, to boot. You are such a foodie, dude. I truly appreciate your passion for food…mostly because I think I have a total lack of passion for food. I still can’t photograph food! Good luck in your new home…fun post!

    July 24, 2016
    • Thanks so much Badfish! Just the other day Bama’s mother rang him and asked how “her other son” was doing… that was pretty funny. I can’t say I’m an expert when it comes to food, but it’s one of my favourite aspects of travel!

      July 31, 2016
  13. This is a delicious post on many levels ~ the photography and steps of creation always are an allure for me, and the crisp & clean ingredients needed for “botok” photo was beautifully composed and how I now how I wish to have this Javanese dish in front of me for dinner 🙂 Wonderful post James, and a perfect homecoming. Wish you a great week ahead.

    August 1, 2016
    • Thank you, Randall. 🙂 I have Bama to thank for that beautifully composed plate of raw ingredients… he made a real effort in making sure they were well-represented. Wishing you the best of luck in all your endeavours!

      August 2, 2016
  14. Wonderful post James. What a lovely immersion you are getting into Indonesian culture from Bama and his loving family. I am envious! 🙂 That Botok looks amazing and the ingredients so colourful. Bama has a career in food styling!

    September 17, 2016
    • Madhu, I have to say that Bama chuckled when he read your comment! 😀 So much love and care went into each of his mother’s dishes – I ended up scribbling several of her recipes into my notebook, though I have yet to replicate any of them here in Jakarta.

      September 19, 2016
  15. Its my country

    October 14, 2016

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