Kantong Semar of Kerinci

I remember being in awe of the carnivorous venus fly trap as a child; so brutal was its annihilation of tiny insects. Next to the Kantong Semar,however the venus flytrap  somewhat pales in comparison. The Kantong Semar has been known to eat small animals and monkey’s drink nectar from them, thus the Sumatran version of its name, Kancung Beruk (monkey). David Attenborough is all over it, at least in Kalimantan.

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There are over 100 species of the Kantong Semar (Nepenthes), a tropical carnivorous pitcher plant, and Kerinci National Park of Sumatra has the largest number of Kantong Semar varieties. The Kantong Semar adds to Sumatra’s coolest plant title reign, along with both the largest flower in the world (and quite possibly the stinkiest) —Rafflesia arnoldii ( “stinking corpse lily”)—along with the tallest—amorphophallus sp.

This is Jon’s story of foraging for Kantong Semar in his home-town of Sumatra, as part of his research project this year focusing on culinary heritage of Kerinci.

We set off on foot, approximately 50km from Sungai Penuh (Full River), the entrance to the Kerinci National Park. My uncle led our foraging expedition to the foothills of Mount Raya, east Kerinci, where one of the varieties of Kantong Semar pitcher is still commonly found. In my village, my uncle has the responsibility of leading all expeditions to forage for the plant.

The pitchers’ uses in Sumatra are principally medicinal and ceremonial. The nectar in the plant is deemed effective to heal burns, eye problems, as well as a drink for the passer-by monkey in the forest.

The Kantong Semar is considered the most important element when traditional leaders meet in the decision-making forum of ‘Kenduri Sako’ to deliberate all sorts of village-matters,  particular on the use of land, due to its fertility symbolism. Local healers (dukun) believe that the plant can also cure infertility. The fact that it is carnivorous seems to be of little significance, in comparison to its fertility symbolism. The most fascinating thing about some of the varieties of this plant is its inter-sex nature. It is said to symbolise elements of both male and female genitalia. The Sumatran version of the name Kancong Buruk refers to Monkey’s genitalia.

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The parts of the plant used depends on the purpose. For ceremonial purposes, the pitcher is stuffed with rice and coconut milk, then steamed. It is most commonly served with a smoked beef speciality, Dendeng Batokok. Sometimes it is used to make a sweet dessert using sago or tapioca. To the west of Kerinci, it is more common to use bamboo to stuff rice and meat, but sometimes the Kantong Semar is also used. Local healers boil the pitchers’ leaves to make a drink, to be drank warm or cold.

We walked to a base camp of a family that live here temporarily as farmers. They are allowed to use some of the forest for their farming practices. The area is now used for mixed farming area with cinnamon, coffee and horticulture, chilli and potatoes.

We sat and rested with the farmers as they explained where they had last sighted the pitcher. They said they many people come through here to forage. Some species of Kantong Semar they can’t find anymore and they suggested we look for the smaller pitchers near swamplands as they are the most common, and are not in danger of disappearing.

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They accompanied us through a narrow path along the swamplands into thicker forest. We found our first harvest near the swamp, just like the villagers had said. There were a number of varieties. One type was growing on the ground, this was the root, it then stemmed up into a vine that can apparently grow more than 20m high. We gathered more than 50 pitchers.

 

We gathered them to take home where we experimented with a number of sweet and savoury flavours. It has a beautiful earthy sweet flavour. We are continuing to document its uses.

Sir David Attenborough, in case you want to go to Sumatra to document the amazing varieties of Kantong Semar, you are welcome to drop by to try some, perhaps served with a side of smoked beef and kenari puree!

For more stories, recipes and taste testing of the Sumatran Kantong Semar, come along to this year’s Ubud Food Festival!

 

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Indonesians relearning the art of healthy eating

This article was first published on the Asian Studies Association of Australia site, September 2015

Anthropological studies into food tend to focus on class, identity and wider socio-historical and political changes in society. So, what would a project look like that not only attempts to do anthropology about food, but also with food?

The Culture Kitchen FOODLAB is an interdisciplinary and experimental project that aims to understand the changing nature of Indonesian food in middle-class Indonesia and reinvigorate regional cuisines and ingredients using modern cooking methods. The collaboration involves Australian-trained Indonesian chef Jon Priadi and me—together with a number of Indonesian and Australian chefs and artists.

The FOODLAB grew out of a long history of collaborating with artists on cross-cultural art projects. From 2006 to 2010, the Culture Kitchen worked with Indonesian and East Timorese artists on a series of print-based projects that resulted in two exhibitions—‘Recovering lives’ and ‘Thresholds of tolerance’—at the Australian National University Art School. The exhibitions were later shown in Melbourne and Brisbane, and London, New York and Florence.

The project’s departure point was that, while all the participants are connected geographically and politically, they had little opportunity to engage with social realities in neighbouring countries. The project resulted in long-term partnerships that continue to forge social connections through art.

Our current project, based for the past year in Yogyakarta, Java’s cultural capital, draws on this long-term artistic and collaborative basis, but has turned its attention to food.

Yogyakarta has undergone many changes since Jon Priadi and I lived there 15 years ago—in the way people eat, new food trends, the move towards healthy and sustainable eating, and the difficulties people face because of persistent unhealthy eating cultures. We wanted to shine a spotlight on some of these changes, and also engage with Indonesian food.

Although Indonesia’s rising middle class continues its love affair with eating out, a visible change has been the movement from eating on the street to eating inside. While street stalls and the lesehan (low table with a mat) style continue to represent the ‘authentic Yogya’ experience, the supply of cafe spaces with funky interiors and free wi-fi is spurred on by rising demand.

New food trends

One of these cafe spaces, for example, has given rise to a new food trend—in the form of milk bars. The trend began with the evacuation of farmers during the Merapi volcano in 2010. An entrepreneurial university lecturer bought some cattle from farmers and started supplying milk to a few vendors around town. The demand soon grew, and Yogyakarta is now home to many of these fresh-milk cafes (café susu segar) that serve up milk with a variety of colourful toppings such as seaweed, green jelly, and peanuts.

Some middle-class Indonesian friends describe drinking milk as unremarkable—they’ve done so since they were young. Others recount that drinking milk when they were young was a special treat, and that drinking it now brings back childhood memories.

The interrelation of environment, food and sustainability is becoming more popular and represents a creative way of bringing healthy-eating Indonesian food cultures to the fore. The move to indoor eating marks a change in Indonesian food culture, as does the rise of organic farmers’ markets, which are found throughout the city most days. The markets are bustling locales of activity and connection—and a means of raising awareness about healthy eating.

Integrated into this organic food scene are a number of artists interested in exploring environmental and sustainability issues in relation to food and art. Arya Pandjalu is a long-term Culture Kitchen collaborator and was part of a festival this year that put contemporary artists on the stage for a ‘cook-off’, where many cooked their regional specialities. Earlier this year, Jon Priadi held cooking classes at Arya’s Sayap Studio. The idea was that having cooking classes in an art studio would open up a conversation about the relationships between art, the environment and Indonesian food.

Move to healthy eating

Participants were interested in simple watercress salads with raw vegetables served with a dressing of soy, lime and freshly ground peanuts. This met their desires to make food that was healthy and looked beautiful. A topic that often came up in these classes was how to get more vitamins out of food—a concern reflected in Indonesian lifestyle and health magazines that emphasise obtaining a balance of vitamins and minerals, though not necessarily through food.

The desire for and trend to healthy eating arises from constant food scares, such as formaldehyde-laced noodles and plastic found in fried gorengan snacks, and unhealthy eating habits — in particular, Indonesians’ love of fried food. Indonesian friends recounted how they watched a street-food seller melt plastic in a wok and pour it over the tempeh and banana. They still bought the tempeh and banana. When I asked why, they replied: ‘Because we just really wanted gorengan.’

Indonesian food cultures are transforming. The Ubud Food Festival—sister festival of the Ubud Writer’s Festival—was held for the first time this year and was well attended by Indonesians and foreigners interested in food, history, spices and plating—arranging food artfully on a plate.

Indonesians have taken to Instagram with a passion, and rarely is a bowl of spaghetti served without it being posted on Instagram first. The plating session, for example, was one of the best attended sessions by Indonesians at the festival.

The festival provided a platform for foreign and home-grown chefs to highlight Indonesia’s rich culinary heritage. Indonesian hospitality schools tend to focus on producing chefs to work in large hotels and have outdated views on the sort of food that should be served (mostly western) and how to serve it. The festival opened a space to start thinking beyond this.

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Jon Priadi (right) and Rahung Nasution present at a cooking competition at the Ubud Food Festival 2015.

Jon Priadi  and celebrity ‘walkabout chef’ Rahung Nasution are part of a new school that believes it’s time for creative Indonesian food to take centre stage—food that is made from the freshest and sustainable of ingredients, looks beautiful, and fulfils an educational function to encourage awareness about Indonesia’s rich culinary heritage and the possibilities of its transformation.

Priadi’s ‘Malacca Strait duck’, which featured in his cooking demonstration at the festival, is an example of this mission. The slow-braised duck, inspired by the idea of Indonesia’s travelling cuisine, honoured the spice route through the Malacca Strait. The dish represents our wider project—to celebrate the inventiveness of Indonesian culinary culture and histories, and adapt them to constantly changing local tastes, ingredients and interpretations.

The Culture Kitchen FOODLAB is in the process of relocating to Jakarta, where we will undertake a comparative study of middle-class culinary consumption. This will involve broadening our network of artists and chefs who are interested in issues related to sustainability and the environment. Chief among these activities will be cooking with and for other people.

Working with food is important in this project. We believe that this can uncover a host of issues that are unlikely to be revealed simply by analysing food and cultures of eating—a point emphasised by anthropologist Tim Ingold, who asked: ‘Could not such an engagement—working practically with materials—offer anthropology, too, a more powerful procedure of discovery than an approach bent on the abstract analysis of things already made?’

Dr Angie Bexley is an anthropologist and research associate at the School of Culture, History & Language, Australian National University, and a co-founder of Culture Kitchen FOODLAB.

– See more at: http://asaa.asn.au/indonesians-relearning-the-art-of-healthy-eating/

The first Annual Ubud Food Festival!

What better way to make a blog come back than to report on our participation in the First Ubud Food Festival! Three days of cooking demo’s, food forums, markets, music and of course, eating!

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Jon’s cooking demo. @UbudFoodFestival Photo Credit @MattOldField

My love of food comes from my love of eating

Author of 15 Indonesian cookbooks and educator,  Sri Owen

Ibu Sri’s words in the first food forum of the festival certainly resonate with me! However, in today’s hyper social mediated world (yes, I’m talking to you Instagrammers!), the essence and passion for food has been swollowed up by an unsatiable hunger for food to be seen. Thanks Sri Owen for keepin’ it real and encouraging us to get back to what matters, the simple pleasure of eating!

Festival Director Janet DeNeefe fittingly paid respects to Ibu Sri by presenting her with a life-time of achievement award for her service to Indonesia and it’s food.

Indonesian food has wholesomeness at its heart. Sometimes it just isn’t pretty (Instagrammers, just deal!) but it is soulful and has the power to heal. The spices, the plants, the ginger, the turmeric, the nutmeg will keep you healthy and the hit of chilli will keep you awake at just the right time of day when the tropical heat wants to envelope you. It really is medicine, as the food forum on the subject attested.

Jon's Malacca Strait Duck
Jon’s Malacca Strait Duck

Jon’s Malacca Strait Duck demonstration had everybody seriously licking their lips. I actually thought a brawl might break out to taste it/Instagram it!

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The Malacca Strait Duck was inspired by the convergence of Arab, Indian, Portuguese, Peranakan, Dutch trade in the Malacca Strait. It was a delicious culinary accompaniment to Ian Burnett’s story of the tumultuous, often violent yet somehow romantic Spice Islands.

@SpiceIslandBlog
@SpiceIslandBlog

It was a pleasure to moderate Ian’s session. He took us on a tour of the Maluccas with beautifully illustrated maps. It is rarely acknowledged that the trade route was already established well before the Dutch VOC mission. The first people to trade in the area were of course the Maluccans themselves, also known as the ‘trepangers’ and who traded the sea cucumber with Northern Australians (say tuned for our upcoming project on this very issue). The Portuguese later came for two varieties of cinnamon, cloves found on five islands and nutmeg, which originated from a tiny little island called Banda. The Dutch came even later and shipped the spices out through the Malacca Strait, which had been a melting pot of cultures over the centuries. It was the intersection of Indonesian, India, Peranakan, Portuguese, Dutch cultures and histories met and found themselves in the foods of the region. Much of Sumatra’s cuisine can be traced also to this ‘cultural mash-up’ of spice trade histories.

@SpiceIslandBlog
@SpiceIslandsBlog

Jon’s cooking demonstration asked ‘What is authentic Indonesian cuisine?’ Authentic or original Indonesian cuisine has adaption at its core. The Spice trade modified cuisines along the way, and this process of adaption continues today, and was reflected in Jon’s Malacca Strait Duck.

The Talking Street Food Forum touched on an issue close to my heart, and that is one of belonging, which I have written about here. The negotiation about which street food is the best street food is ongoing is all about culture. To know where to find the best nasi bugkus/lotek/ soto is all about belonging to a place, a people, a moment in time.

Conversations continued with Jon’s oldest cooking partner in crime, Rahung Nasution on the power of food, inequalities, and the difficulties with defining the asli continued as energetically and colourful as ever. These two former partners in crime loved cooking up a storm.

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@MattOldfield @UbudFoodFestival We came away satiated, energised and with new ideas and new friends. Stay tuned for our upcoming projects!

Thank you once more to Janet DeNeefe and your energetic team for inviting us.

Looking forward to Ubud Food Festival 2016 already!

ART KITCHEN!

Alhamdullilah!

After a few months of preparations Culture Kitchen FoodLab’s new collaboration with GreenHost Hotel is finally off the hotplate!

CK FoodLAB is now presenting the best of culinary delights at GreenHost Hotel in its ART KITCHEN.

GreenHOST Hotel is founded on eco-aware principles, using upcycled and energy efficient materials. The newest cutting edge contemporary art done its walls. It even has a ‘city farm’ on its roof which will supply ART KITCHEN’s needs. It aims to be a meeting place of progressive and artistic minds.

Among Malacca Strait Duck and Dragon Fruit sorbet, ART KITCHEN is taking Yogya-cuisine to a whole other level. Get on down!

How happy is this chef to be back in his natural habitat?

chef in natural habitat

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Arya Jalu in the foyer of ART KITCHEN at GreenHost Hotel
ART KITCHEN. Where trees grow out of tables
ART KITCHEN. Where trees grow out of tables
Dragon Fruit Sorbet on Mixed Berry Compote and Roasted Crushed Nuts
Dragon Fruit Sorbet on Mixed Berry Compote and Roasted Crushed Nuts
Uki Handoko
Uki Handoko
Roasted Baby Vegetables with Pickled Raddish, Homemade Hummus and Dukkah by CKFoodLab
Roasted Baby Vegetables with Pickled Raddish, Homemade Hummus and Dukkah by CKFoodLab
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The pool
Soto Iga
Soto Iga

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Malacca Strait Duck
Malacca Strait Duck

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AmnesTEH. An art-food collaboration for Amnesty International

Upon the invitation of Studio Auntara, we collaborated to host an afternoon tea to fundraise for Amnesty International. The event, ‘AmnesTEH Yogya Style’ was held at Kedai Kebun forum. With a little bit of CWA-esque hall thrown in for good measure (Elly baked scones with jam and cream!), Culture Kitchen FoodLab cooked up corn fritters and steamed cassava treats served with a killer sambal.

The Pièce de résistance was the “AmnesTEH Prisoner of Conscience cup-cakes” by artist Robert Ern-yuan Guth. The chocolate cake sat upon a barbed wire ‘crown’ on top of the the tea cup. I think most people would associate chocolate cake with nice warm-fuzzy type feelings. In this instance however, eating chocolate cup cake as a Prisoner of Conscience stared out at you was both deeply provocative and unsettling. Robert asked people to take the teacup home after they finished eating the cake.

The face taped on the teacup belonged to Pramoedya Anata Toer, a writer of stories, essays and polemics; a true postcolonial historian, who was imprisoned with many other left-wing intellectuals on the island of Buru from 1965-1979 by the Suharto regime. He was adopted by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience because even after his release, his basic and civil rights were curtailed under the New Order regime. He died on 30 April 2006. 

Thank you to Elly for the invitation and to Robert for the thought provoking twist to this afternoon’s amnesTEH. Thanks also to Arya Jalu who donated some of profits from the sale of his amazing teapots to AmnesTEH. We received more than double the target of donations!

Golden sugar cubes served with traditional Javanese tea
Golden sugar cubes served with traditional Javanese tea
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Arya Jalu ceramic tea cups
Steamed varieties of cassava and corn fritters with a killer sambal
Steamed varieties of cassava and corn fritters with a killer sambal
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Robert Ern-yuan Guth lights candles on his Prisoner of Conscience cup-cakes”

 

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Exploring Indonesian Spices Cooking Class

We teamed up with Yogya artist Arya Jalu, famed for his ecologically-inspired art, to host an ‘Exploring Indonesian Spices’ Cooking Class at his SAYAP studio. We had a massive turn out who all got down and dirty with cardamom and cumin, loose with their wrists on the mortar and pestles, squelchy with the coconut milk, and hopefully made some new friends. *Some wine may have been consumed.

On the menu was Sumatran Chicken Curry and Sate with Peanut Sauce. Thanks to all of you guinea pigs who came and made it so rad. We learnt a lot from you. Stay tuned for the recipes.

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Lotek Salad and the economic principles of specialisation

This is part of my new series, ‘Mapping Warungs’ which sets out to document the food stalls and the economics of kampung life on my little street, Jl. Minggiran in the south of Yogyakarta.

I start with my neighbour who lives directly opposite my house, Bu Kris and her Lotek and Kupat Tahu stall.

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Lotek is a fresh salad of blanched bayam (a type of sweet spinach), mung beans, green beans, cucumber, tomato, cabbage which is served with ketupat rice cut into quarters, and if you’re lucky, some corn fritters and krupuk (crackers). The Pièce de résistance is the peanut sauce made from fried peanuts, chilli and garlic. Ibu Kris grinds the peanut sauce for each order individually, rather than making up a whole batch and spooning it on. This is what sets Ibu Kris apart from her competitors. Kupat Tahu consists of a similar salad but with a soy and vinegar sauce.

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All of the action happens on a little 1m sq table that sits to the right of Ibu Kris. It is not a big deal. Food is just made there. The warung has been in the family for two generations. Her mother started selling cooked food outside of their house when Ibu Kris was still a child. Bu Kris turned to the business of Lotek only upon moving to Minggiran in 1989 with her mother as assistant.

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Talking with Bu Kris as she prepares fresh vegetables for her Lotek stall

‘Why Lotek?’ I ask, there are at least 10 other stalls in a 1km radius. A crowded market means that the product is popular among consumers, she tells me. ALWAYS listen to your customers. Good point. ‘But how do you define yourself in a crowded market?’ ‘Quality’ Bu Kris replied. Make sure it is fresh and the people will come. She sells over 30 plates of lotek/tahu guling a day for Rp6,000 (60c) a plate and is ALWAYS sold out. If I don’t place my order by 10am, I’m stuffed. Yesterday, a couple had come from all the way over from the west of the city with their baby to order some of Ibu Kris’ Lotek. I think it is safe to say Bu Kris has cracked the market.

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Chopping the ketupat (packed rice) in to the peanut sauce for the Lotek salad
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The Lotek Takeaway is folded in brown paper and newspaper

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The economic logic of the crowded market perplexes international development agencies and their market intervention attempts. I recently saw a job advertisement for a ‘market expert’ in Timor-Leste specialising in market DIVERSIFICATION. Development hacks, take note: throughout the Indonesian archipelago (and I dare say throughout Asia), specialisation, rather than diversification is the operating economic logic.  Areas of the city become known for the particular product they sell. For example, you have the broom street, where you can buy all manner of brooms; the plastic bucket street; the pillow cover street. Scaling up, in the south of Yogyakarta, for example you will find the area where ceramics are made. The concentration of one product in a small area would seem to defy neo-liberal notions of ‘exploiting windows of opportunity’. So do they?

You’d have to ask Ibu Kris. For her, being in close range to your competitors is all about getting to know thy competitor. But something other than competition is key to her specialisation approach that does not frequently wash-up in stark economic analyses. Bu Kris talks a lot of sharing knowledge and including as many people in your social circle as possible. Ibu Kris’ rates her best experiences in the past 25 odd years as the opportunity to build her community.Her business model has expanded and she now acts as a ‘jasa’ or type of ‘public agent’ for the area. She is a reservoir of information, from about anything from where to find a house, who the best bamboo fence maker is, to where to enrol in soccer classes. For Bu Kris, the economics of community have paid off.

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The curiously named ‘Es Doger’ drink is made from a sweet syrup, rice and floating bread.
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Fried Peanuts make the base of the sauce