An Unfinished Story of the Source of Good Food

The fridge in my house in Surabaya is always chaotic. It resembles a repository where a jumble of different kinds of food wrapped in plastic and paper are placed without any clear system of categorisation. Vegetables, butter cans, colourful candies usually used to decorate birthday cake, biscuits, sugar, dried fish, peeled onion, powdered spices… All are stacked up just like that, and are definitely not neatly arranged. Unless we open up the food wrappings, it is impossible to know what is inside it. I have the feeling that my mother is the only one knows exactly what are the items that have been loaded into the fridge.

But the whole house itself is always in a mess. For example, there are always things on our couch, so much so that it is difficult to sit down without crushing anything. Various kinds of toys belonged to my nephew and niece are scattered throughout the floors. My oldest sister, together with her husband and their two children, are still staying with my mother. Some parts of the house are covered with dust. One of the reasons it is untidy is that it used to serve as a workspace.

the fridge

In the early 1990s, Mother started a furniture business. She had previously worked as the principal of a primary school in Gresik, a small town not so far from Surabaya, and had just recently retired as a civil servant in 2009. But she was, and still is, not the kind of person who is ever likely to rest her hands; she has been in search of ways of increasing the family income. The nicely polished furniture were sometimes put inside the house alongside our own belongings.

The workers of the furniture business were our relatives from Jombang, East Java – my mother’s hometown. It seemed to me that both Mother and Grandmother had the habit of transforming our house into a shelter for our extended family members. Mother and Grandmother would welcome them to our house, provide them with food, try to find them jobs, or if they were interested, enroll them in a school.

There was also the time when Mother ran a bridal make-up service business. The cupboard that used to contain Javanese bridal dresses is all that remains of it. Now she fills her post-retirement years by focusing on her catering business—something that grew out of her cooking hobby. On the days when she has to finish orders, the kitchen is extended out to other parts of the house and everyone in the house is required to assist her.

One day, I approached her and complained about the disorderliness of the house, the fridge, and the kitchen; about however hard our attempts at re-arranging the furniture, they would soon return to their disorderly state. Each member of the family was absorbed into his or her own life trajectories and had little time to spend keeping the house neat and tidy. She responded, “It is not just our house, but a space to work. So it is alright if our fridge and kitchen are a bit dirty. For me, what is important is the appearance of the food when presented to those who order them”.

Occasions such as these fueled my desire to leave the house and to go to a good university in another city in Java. Somewhere else, I would have my own room as well as the freedom of arranging my things in the way I want. Confronted with an undesirable matter, most people would seek ways of distancing themselves from it, and projecting the hopes onto coveting things possessed by the others. In my case, there is always the fridge I have dreamt about, the kind of room I have always wanted and a house designed in a specific style I have longed for. When I was a kid, I used to bike around a luxurious housing estate named Sinar Galaxy near my house. I would then roam through its streets, pointing my finger at several houses, which matched my dreams. The house with gigantic pillars or the house with a big pool over there.

Reflecting on it now, it was a desire, which was driven by the need to escape from the disorderliness of my house and it served as a base of my personal obsession with orderliness. Furthermore, it provides me with the impetus to develop my own life system.


There was always plenty of food at my childhood home. This is one important thing which makes me feel happy to be home. Indeed, my mother is a great cook, and food made by her hands is always delicious. Once, after being away for several months, I went home and she welcomed me with heaps of smiles and a plate of scrambled eggs and tofu, served with peanut sauce. She proceeded to tell me that she had cooked special fried noodles for me. A big bowl of fried noodles was placed inside a cupboard where she usually used to store her cooking ingredients. Again, the storage was also an untidy one. The plate looked unstable because it sat on a pile of food boxes, or what I thought were food boxes, although I could not really tell what was inside them.

scrambled egg and tofu2

fried noodle

The next morning, Mother took me to Pabean market in the northern part of Surabaya. She always goes to this market if she needs to buy large quantities of ingredients. The market is divided into several lots in which each one is dedicated to sell a specific ingredient. We stepped our feet to a lot selling garlic, onion, and chili. The pungent smell of onions was in the air. Just like any other traditional market, cleanliness was also a matter in question here. Garbage was everywhere. I felt as if my feet were not stepping on a floor but on a thick layer of onion peels instead. While waiting for the customers, the sellers spent their time peeling onions and transformed the entire floor into the giant garbage bin. Casting our eyes on a display table, we found big round baskets containing high piles of peeled onions. They all looked neat. Then we went to the lot that sold dried fish. In each kiosk, I saw plastic bags and rubber bands stuck into small holes in between the pillars of the kiosk. The colourful plastic bags and rubber bands emerged from the holes. Laid on the floor were big round bamboo baskets with piles of various kinds of dried fish. It brought me a sense of pleasantness just by looking at them. They all looked neat.

salted fish in bamboo basket

dried chillies

If the floor of the market and the holes of the pillars were the backstages of the onion and dried fish kiosks, then the fridge and the kitchen were that of my mother’s. However disorderly the state that might occur in the backstage, all must arranged in an orderly way before appearing on stage.

On our way back, Mother was busy comparing the price of food ingredients in Pabean to other markets. She likes to shop at Pabean because she can save some amount of money.

Her thriftiness reflects on her constant refusal to eat outside. Surely she would reject the ‘anti-eating out’ label I have decided to give to her. In reality, however, there were moments where I clearly remember how she fiercely rejected the food cooked by the other food producers from outside. She always held the view that the food at restaurants or warung is overpriced, and the quality of the taste is often poor. I recalled taking my mother and a friend of mine to a restaurant in Jalan Kusumanegara, Yogyakarta, during my undergraduate years. My friend and I ordered two plates of fried rice, which cost us Rp.40,000. Upon knowing the amount of money I had spent on fried rice, my mother frowned. She finally did not want to order any kind of food at all, which in the end also made me depressed too. Until today I still fear for asking her to have a meal outside.

I thought I was embarrassed by her stinginess. In hindsight, it was probably not the embarrassment that I felt but a predicament that arose from a circumstance where Mother rejected the food consumption system I had developed.

Mother always feels that I lavish money too easily on food. “I really do not understand why you have to spend great amount of money on something that would literally turned into shit,” she said. But she does not develop her frugal behaviour further into recycling practices as practiced thoroughly by Grandmother. Grandmother had the ability to transform yesterday’s leftover rice into crackers, broken lamps into hanging plant pots, collecting used plastic bags or paper boxes.

Our family does not have the tradition of eating outside, but has a strong habit of traveling together on weekends. Going to the beach or the zoo used to be our weekly regular activity. We rarely ate in any stall at the beach or the zoo area however. Mother always brought some food for us from home.

As told by my mother, she and my father often had their meals in restaurants. Since giving birth to her children, she started to cook for the family. The habit of eating out then gradually declined. The awareness of strictly controlling the finances of the family has then been manifested in regular cooking activities.

Not only has the family established itself as an institution subsisting the sustenance for all the family members, it has also set the value system about what food to eat and avoid. Mother’s cooking is the benchmark of how the family set their expectations on food. By anchoring her taste buds to her long cooking experience, my mother has based her judgment about any kind of cooking produced by the other food providers. It is the connection to our mother’s cooking which has shaped the expectations and food preferences of this particular family. In my case, the experience of living and working outside the hometown not only paved a way of eating different kinds of food from what we usually have at home, but also to break the family taboo on eating out.

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