In the 40 years since she left her native West Sumatra to live in London with her English husband, Sri Owen has established herself as one of the world’s leading food writers. When Asian food was still well outside the sphere of your average western consumer/cook, Owen began cooking, teaching and writing about the spicy, intricate, fascinating web that is Indonesian cuisine, publishing her first book on the subject in 1978.
The world’s largest archipelago, Indonesia is a complex nation of approximately 232 million people (over 80% Muslim). Its highly regionalized food culture is influenced by the Chinese, Indian, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and Arab, who have all passed through and colonized and the Islands. While each region has its own recipes and flavors, the common denominators across the archipelago are rice, chilies, coconut milk, kecap manis (an unctuous, sweet soy sauce), terasi (shrimp paste), and palm sugar.
At the last count, Owen had 13 books to her name. She is a regular fixture on UK food TV and her name is internationally synonymous with Indonesian cuisine. With Sri-Lankan born Charmaine Solomon, Egypt’s Claudia Roden and India’s Madhur Jaffrey, she forms part of that group of female chefs who, over the past thirty or forty years, have helped demystify their Asian food for the rest of the world.
Like many of these women, Owen fell into her role as food doyenne almost by accident. Arriving in London as a young bride in the 1950s, she was thrown into a new world, where the ingredients for her native recipes were impossible to find and the culture of food preparation and consumption was completely foreign to her own.
Indonesian food culture, Owen tells me, “binds together our social lives. It is all-important. But yes, inevitably I suppose ‘Coca-Cola’ culture has homogenized the food in the big cities. Every region has its dishes, and they’re all unique and quite different from one another”.
“Street food culture is the foundation of Indonesian food,” she explains. “This is largely driven by the fact that, traditionally, very few Indonesian homes have kitchens, so warung [street food stalls] act as surrogate kitchens for the many Indonesian families living without electricity or gas, providing breakfast, lunch and dinner”.
These warung are especially important for families with young children. As Owen explains, “You could call our street food a form of Indonesian nursery food. It’s the food that we grew up on, it’s bananas wrapped in sticky rice and satay fried noodles”. Her favorite? “My absolute preference as a young girl was rice flour pancakes with grated coconut and palm sugar syrup. I still make them today when I’m in need of comfort food”.
One of the most essential Indonesian foods is the banana. Owen is effusive and convincing on its importance to her country’s food culture. While most of the world is familiar with just one variety, the long, slim and bright yellow Cavendish, hundreds of varieties are found throughout the Indonesian archipelago. “They’re usually the first food we eat,” Owen says, explaining that babies are traditionally weaned from mother’s milk straight to bananas. In West Sumatra, where Owen grew up, the variety of bananas fed to babies is called pisang susu, or milk bananas. Sweet, soft and easy to digest, they’re perfect infant nourishment.
“Bananas grow everywhere in Indonesia,” Owen continues. “There are so many types, colors, shapes and sizes that kids pick their favorites and eat only that one. Like potatoes, some are better for cooking, some are fried, some are poached in coconut milk and others are eaten whole, fresh.”
Another Indonesian staple food is rice, and one of the classic street foods is rice porridge, a thick stew made with rice flour and coconut milk. Depending on the region, the porridge can be made with red, green and black rice steeped in coconut milk and sweetened with sugar syrup. The porridge is served usually in small earthenware pots.
Owen comes from something of an abnormal Indonesian family. Hers was a middle-class Sumatran household; her mother, a teacher, didn’t cook, so it was her father (also a teacher) who prepared the family meals. As the oldest of six girls, Owen became ‘my father’s sous- chef. “I would chop, slice and splice and then serve at the table”. Between watching and helping him and her grandmother, she picked up enough knowledge to spark a passion for cooking.
Sri and her sisters were Dutch-educated, and, like many middle class Indonesian families, their household customs were largely European. They used to eat sitting at the table using knives and forks rather than at a low table surrounded by benches and using their hands as is the typical Indonesian custom. As Owen says, “Ours is a very social way to eat. It’s how we ate at my grandmothers house and it’s how I like to eat even now”.
Her upbringing, bridging occidental and oriental customs, came in useful as Owen moved into adulthood. “When I moved to London as a young woman just married to an Englishman, I was shocked at the table customs, shocked to see the way food would stream from the kitchen divided into courses, and, most incredibly, to see my father-in-law serving first his wife, then me and then the men!” In Sumatra, the tradition is to present all the courses together; the women would serve the head of the family first, then the rest of the males and, finally, the women. “I was used to serving the food, and so I was terribly embarrassed to be served by my father-in-law!”
The driving idea behind Indonesian food culture, according to Owen, is the idea of a shared table. To illustrate her point, she tells the story of her favorite time of year—rice harvest.
Owen’s grandmother was the owner of a number of rice paddy fields in West Sumatra. “She was an amazing woman,” Owen says. “ She was always entertaining either friends or her workers. Every day she’d cook meals for around twenty people a sitting—food was ever present in her household”. The celebration of the rice harvest is one of Indonesia’s country’s most loved festivals, “a bit like America’s thanksgiving”, she says.
The rice harvest is traditionally a community affair. Neighborhoods form teams of workers who go from paddy to paddy, harvesting each other’s land by hand. At the end of each harvest, the owner’s home hosts a feast to celebrate the year’s yield. “It’s very physical work,” Owen says of the harvesting, so at the end of the day these feasts are important to nourish the workers. “The women would put on amazing feasts,” she recalls. “It was a sort of unwritten competition, each household would try to outdo the next, and everyone would know where the best food was, and who was the best cook. The food had to be really food – everyone was a critic!” One of Owen’s grandmother’s best-loved rice harvest dishes was rendang – a dry buffalo curry. The meat was slow cooked in coconut milk, left to simmer for hours and spiced with turmeric, cumin seeds, curry leaves, tamarind, ginger and lemongrass. The coconut milk, Owen explains, reduces itself into an oil and lightly fries the meat, mixing with the meat’s juices so it’s tender inside and lovely and browned on the outside. Rendang is usually eaten with glutinous rice steamed over hot water or coconut milk scented with tamarind.
From West Sumatra to London and international recognition as a best-selling food writer, Owen has traveled far. Thanks to her, thousands of people around the world are now able to make grandmother’s rendang curry, at any time of the year and at any kind of table they choose.
Sophie Herron, an Australian journalist, previously a features writer for Australian Table magazine, is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office editorial team