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Let me tell you something about an olive tree

I saw olive trees again. I texted my sister and told her that I have been seeing olive trees in the neighbourhood. The text went like this–“Ini pohon zaitun yang kuceritakan tempo hari. Ia tumbuh di jalan defat rumah kami. Kau lihat, zaitun tak hanya tumbuh di Arab, atau representasi tanaman Arab. Ia ada di benua ini juga.” This is the olive tree that I told you about the other day. It grows on a street nearby our place. You see, olive does not only grow in Arab, or a representation of an Arabic plants or some sort. It exists in this continent too.

 

 

 

Lemon trees

Lemon is an unusual ingredient in Javanese culinary tradition. We use lime a lot instead. And the lime leaves. But lemon, no. We use lime in curry, rendang, stir fry dishes, savoury snacks, and fresh drinks. We used the juice and the leaves. It is not too difficult to find lime in Melbourne, or in Leiden where we used to live. It is usually sold at Asian groceries shops as dried leaves. I rarely bought the fresh ones–because they are not always available. I learnt that the Asian groceries in Victoria Street have the fresh lime leaves.

My sister showed a photo of lemon trees I uploaded on my Instagram account to mother. Mother was very impressed by the lemon trees apparently—not by my picture. Mother asked my sister to ask me to bring some lemons when I visited her in Indonesia. Why did not she just bought some from Superindo, I asked my sister. If I brought her the fruit myself, that would be special. To bring lemon might be perceived like bringing a jewel from nature.

The sight of lemon trees, with lemons dangling and so abundant, grow in someone’s garden, in faraway land, might be very appealing to mother. Lemon trees are not the usual trees to grow in the environment where mother lives. She is more used to see lime trees. Like her, the familiarity of the lemon trees in Richmond neighbourhood was an interesting sight for me too. I find that I am still struggling to better explain my own surprise in seeing the trees.

I started to learn that Michele, my mother in law, always put lemons, oranges, and sometimes tangerines, on a giant ceramic bowl on the living room table. Cahaya likes the table. She uses it to play everything–lego, drawing, play doh. Sometimes she put her feet up the table (to which we always say ‘no Cahaya’) while watching something on television. I have spent countless times doing various activities around the table too–having tea, coffee, pain au chocolate, with Trevor and Michele, or accompanying Cahaya drawing, constructing lego buildings, or making play doh. I would work on the table, with my eyes partially cast towards the lemon in the bowl. The bowl is full with precious colourful jewels–orange, bright yellow, greenish yellow.

The longer time I stay here, I began to appreciate the existence of lemon in various dishes–fish and chips with lemon wedges on the side, rye sourdough slices topped with dijon mustard, smoked trout, served with cucumber and lemon wedges. We started to cook Italian dishes from Rachel Roddy’s books–which involves a lot of lemons. Last week Cahaya and me baked lemon and ricotta cake. Today we had Pollo con arance e olive, or chicken with citrus and olives, which requires juice from one lemon.

Seeing vending machine as a friend

Vending machines can easily be found in public spaces: library, train station, office building. They are usually placed at the corner of the building, at the corner of the streets, on train platforms. They are machines on which people depend when the needs for snacks or foods arise. It seems that they are placed at places where the need for quick snack and refreshment happens unexpectedly. Instant and practical are two important characters of the machines. They are machines, which deal with a matter of speed.

Vending machine is always an interesting thing for me. This happens especially when I am abroad, or living abroad as I am now. Not only I started to think about it as a machine, which dispense regular food and drinks. But also I began to think about the machine as the representation of something else.

I do not use the machine that much when I am in Indonesia. Why would I buy something from a machine if shops, street side food vendors, and individual sellers abundant? I used to have a habit of buying a bottle of The Botol Sosro (black tea in a bottle) every time I went to the photocopy shop. But that was not really a vending machine. It did not work through a coin inserter mechanism. You open the machine door, take something from inside it, then walk to the cashier desk to pay.

When I saw a vending machine at the Leiden University library, and observed what things contained in it, I was amazed. I studied in the university from 2011 to 2016. The machine offer a rich variety of things: hot drinks—tea, coffee, hot water, snacks, candies, sandwiches, fruits. These are not the things I used to buy from a machine.

Once, I did a little experiment with a vending machine in a building that I worked in the university. The building is called Pieter de la Court. It is an eight-story building, which belongs to Faculty of Social Science, Leiden University. There is a vending machine in each floor in the building. But the machine placed in there is the one, which only dispenses hot drinks. If one wants to buy snacks and cold drinks, he or she has to go to one of vending machines lined up on the ground floor. The distance between the room where one sits and the vending machines may influence snacking appetite negatively. I have never used a bankcard to buy anything from a vending machine. So I decided to use a bankcard to buy cracker. The brand of the vending machine in the university is ‘Mass International’. I bought crackers with basil, tomatoes, and cheese cream. It has become my favorite snack. I inserted the bankcard, then the machine asked me the number code of the cracker. It was 47. It is a one Euro snack. The machine did not ask me to type the pin code of the bankcard. After typing the number code of the cracker, a notification that the snack was ready to be picked.

vending machine-richmond station2

I got off the train from the city in Richmond Station one afternoon. It is the closest station to our place. It was a bright summer day. But it seemed very quiet in the station. As I walked down the platform, I saw a vending machine stood in the middle. I began to see it not as a machine, but a friend. It is always there, waiting patiently in case we need something from it.

 

Looking at corn on Swanston Street

 

On one hot summer day I walked down Swanston Street and saw a group of corn plants on the other side of the road. Is that really corn? I wondered. I turned around to see it clearly. They were indeed corn.

Would the corn taste sweet? I don’t know. Next to the corn, there were zucchinis, chilies, strawberries, mint, dill, and peas. What does growing plants on the street mean? Is the pedestrian allowed to pick some of the plants, bring them home, and cook something with them? They are not fenced in, after all. And they are so flourishing, visible, and somehow offer a sense of hospitality.

 

 

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.

Raw long beans sambal

I crave for sambal kacang panjang (raw long beans sambal) sometimes. This often happens when I have a huge bowl of white rice on the table. Good quality rice smells fragrant. It makes me want to add a touch of strong salty taste to it. In this case, sambal kacang panjang with any type of fried fish on the side would work really well.

Sambal kacang panjang is not the typical Indonesian food to find in an Indonesian restaurant diaspora abroad. I do not think it’s because it is difficult to replicate. In fact I do not think that one should need a recipe to make it; the dish is so simple. Sambal kacang panjang is a very popular side dish on the dining table in East Java province. But it might not be the case somewhere else in the country. Perhaps this is the reason of why the sambal is not the representative of Indonesian cuisine in Indonesian restaurant abroad. Sambal kacang panjang is deemed too vernacular.

Besides, the taste combination perhaps considered too wild and peculiar to cater for the international taste buds—the salty taste of the shrimp-seasoning block (terasi), shocking-hot of chilly paddies, pungent-fresh of shallot, mixed with the rawness of finely chopped long beans.

However, it is not too difficult to find kacang panjang in Melbourne. It is available in Asian grocery stores on Victoria Street, or in a vegetable section in Victoria Market. I spotted kacang panjang sitting on a lettuce bed—among other greens in Saigon Village, Abbotsford (see the photo used as the featured image).

Sambal Kacang
Raw long beans sambal and fried fish

The above picture was taken when I visited mother in September last year–a perfect sambal kacang and fried salty fish on the side. When I took the picture, I was too focused on the sambal. Only now I realise other elements on the table–the rustic stone mortar and pestle, and the old radio (a must have thing to be available when mother cooked in the kitchen).

Mother wrote her sambal recipe for me five years a go. I still need guidance from her in cooking from time to time. She does not have an email account; I think she is still observing the communication nature in the internet environment in awe. The recipe was copied and sent via my brother in law’s email account. To be prepared, all the ingredients used here is measured by intuition. It means one needs to add a certain element, while eliminating another thing when shudder.

Half of tablespoon terasi (shrimp-seasoning block)

4 chilly paddies, 1 red chilli

5 Yardlong beans (Chinese long beans)

3 shallots

Half tablespoon of vegetable oil (or use the same oil from frying fish to make it better)

Salt

A dash of sugar

For the first method, put terasi, salt, sugar, and chilies, into the stone mortar and pestle them until smooth. Mix in the chopped beans into the mixture—but careful not to crush the beans. Add the shallots, nudged them gently, until flat, but not completely flattened. Lastly, poured in the warm oil to it.

 

Chillies wisdom

Grow chilies in the garden, my grandmother used to say. Green chilies are fine. Red ones are better. Chili eaten fresh, or combined with other elements, makes everything taste better. Chili is spicy, zingy, and fiery. It is hot and addictive; it makes you want for more food. Chili is the crucial ingredient for the best side dishes. If possible, grow tomatoes next to the chili plants. Grind chilies, tomatoes, garlic, and shallot. Add a pinch of salt and pepper to taste. I might add more tomatoes slices to make a nice sambal tomat—tomato relish.

The next step is to cook rice. Add a pinch of salt to a plate of white rice. Salted fish of course would make it perfect. Blanch a bunch of vegetables of any sort that have been lurking in the kitchen. Hot white rice, with salty things, boiled vegetables, and sambal on the side, is considered a full meal. I grew up with this kind of food wisdom. When things seem to get tough, chilies and tomatoes plants form simple self-sustainability system at home.

One day Cahaya, our daughter, tasted Andy’s sparkling mineral water. After a sip, she frowned and said, “It’s pedas!” Pedas is an Indonesian word for hot and spicy. In Cahaya’s case, pedas represents a specific situation that she chose to articulate in Indonesian, instead of English—her almost-mother tongue. Fizziness can feel surprising and unexpected. Likewise, one would never able to guess the hotness level that chili could bring; each chili is a surprise. It challenges the gut.

One silly thing, among other silly things that my oldest sister and I did when we were younger, was eating chili competition. We cut fresh fruits—unripe mangoes, pineapples, and papaya. I think we also added up cucumber to it. Fresh fruit put aside. We prepared a thick red sweet-sour-hot sauce made from ground palm sugar, fresh tamarind paste, chilies, and warm water. We made rujak manis. The challenge was how much chilies we could put into the sauce. My sister won the competition—15 chilies went into her rujak sauce. I only put 7 or 8 chilies into my sauce. We did not really set the prize for the winner as far as I can remember. Perhaps to take up the challenge is already a courageous thing.