An Indonesian homecoming
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.” ◊