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The Craving for Local Foods

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Scanning shelves of imported fruit and vegetables in the supermarket, who says that you can't find fresh rock melon, Cape gooseberries, artichokes, or even my favorite freshly picked field mushrooms in Jakarta? Might have to reach deep down into your pocket and spend money equal to the weekly salary of a local government official, but hey, who cares, just so long as you can taste the autumn breeze and smell the wet soil mixed with melted thin snow in every bite. Just for a short moment, you can forget that you're living in a poor country.

A lingering bittersweet yet familiar aroma froze my steps. I saw a wooden box piled high with football size yellowish green spiky fruit in front of me. The sign underneath read 'Durian from Bangkok'. The sight reminded me of my conversation last night with Tina, an Indonesian lady married to an Australian friend of mine.

"I bought one tray of durian yesterday. I couldn't bring it home without having it triple wrapped by the supermarket attendant. And I had to eat it standing in the backyard in the sun, about 100 meters away from the house. You can imagine, I probably invited over the whole blow fly population in the neighborhood by doing that."

"It's my husband, he can't stand the smell of durian,' she said after I looked confused.

Yea, yea, that's a classic. It's not only durian, I've heard that foreigners also can't stand the smell, let alone the taste, of shrimp paste, jackfruit, salted duck eggs along with other local foods. Ever heard the saying 'When in Rome, eat and smell like the Romans do'? Maybe not, I made it up.

But, if I think about it, I can't really blame their attitude. I couldn't imagine eating some Caucasian specialties like haggis, black pudding or herring if I was living abroad either.

A lot of Indonesian people who are married to expatriates tend to adjust their food preferences. Serving a dinner consisting of cassava crackers, chili sauce and dried shredded meat might be strictly forbidden. Or else, a stack of receipts from Uncle Sam's Burger Paradise is the next thing they might find on their spouses' bedside tables.

My poor friend Tina has to wait until her husband leaves for work to sneak out and buy local chicken noodle soup from the street-side food stall behind her skyscraper apartment. She likes to eat it with tons of green chilies. Her husband saw her eating chilies once and he ended up with a stomach problem.

What's wrong with local food anyway? Nothing really, except in Tina's situation it's probably the obvious hygiene and health issues. I said obvious because at a street-side food stall you can actually see the kitchen preparations. You can enjoy watching the seller wash his bowls in a bucket filled with yellowish water where 20 other bowls were previously cleaned. But trust me, if you just turn a blind eye and cross your fingers these street foods are quite edible.

I heard somebody say that Indonesians can eat less hygienic food because their stomachs have developed some sort of bacteria-proof agent. I have to check with my doctor to see whether it's true or not. But hey, living without such horrible bacteria wouldn't hurt either, would it?

Is it really necessary to stay away from the less healthful, traditionally prepared local food? Or is it really an improvement to adjust your diet to the western style?

The answer, like other basic solutions to the problems of this country, is probably education. Maybe some Indonesians need to be taught about food hygiene. Clean food, without excess fat, germs, carbon monoxide or dust mites from nearby traffic is a lot healthier and tastes better.

One more reason for not having a 100% western diet, aside from sustaining Indonesia's valuable food heritage, is that imported foods are overpriced here. I think if you happen to share the same roof with a westerner, the best way out, like other modern couples, is to compromise. Try to prepare a combination of western and eastern menus like: rice porridge with French toast on the side for breakfast, Chicken pie with fresh gado-gado salad for lunch, and beef steak with rendang sauce for dinner. If you have the urge to eat something that revolts your partner, try to have your meal in front of television. Turn on Oprah to distract your female partner, or turn on the World Golf Championship to distract your male partner. I guarantee that your partner won't even twitch even if you have sizzling chicken intestine on your plate.

A few years ago, I lived in Amsterdam for a couple of months. After weeks of consuming pea-sausage soup, cream cauliflower, Edam cheese sandwich and of course the obligatory mayonnaise covered petat, I was craving my favorite childhood dishes. I went to a Chinese-Indonesian mini supermarket around the corner of my apartment block to find them. After a long search and a lot of Tarzan signals, I finally found what I wanted in between the dusty shelves. It was canned gudeg (a sweet and spicy young jackfruit dish). I paid almost four dollars for something I would pay for no more than 50 cents for in Indonesia. It was okay; I needed a can of tropical boost in my system at the time.

That cold windy night, after enjoying my tropical dinner in my overheated room, I had the worst stomach cramps of my life.

I guess that after consuming Europe's precious water and food everyday for so long my stomach was no longer bacterium proof. I thought: "Oh no, I'm becoming a stranger to my own food!"

First published in The Jakarta Post on Sunday, July 23, 2000.

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