The few memories I hold of my hometown of Bandung are about food. My brothers and I didn’t spend that much time with our parents, but they would regularly take us to a bakmi place where we would wait for our eldest brother to finish school. It was run by a man with a beard like Confucius, and who wore a white singlet every day. He only went by Om, or ‘uncle’, which my parents urged me to address him by as a sign of respect. When my eldest brother arrived, we’d all eat a bowl of rubbery wheat noodles, cooked a couple of minutes more than what an Australian would call ‘al dente’, topped with meat.
Bakmi is a quintessential Chinese-Indonesian dish. It finds its origins in the migration of peoples from Southern Chinese provinces like Fujian, its name being the coming together of two Hokkien words: ‘bah’ and ‘mi’, translating to ‘meat noodle’. Like any food that involves the movement of people and diaspora, every city has its own interpretation of bakmi. In Bandung, bakmi noodles were thin and typically topped with minced chicken, mushroom and sayur hijo (‘miscellaneous green veg’) and served with a hot broth loaded with MSG, spring onions and a couple of bakso (‘meatballs’).
But there isn’t just one Bandung style of bakmi. The variations of the dish, even just in Bandung, were in the hundreds or thousands: different noodle thicknesses; different meat toppings cooked in different ways; different sambals. Yet, despite there being so many styles, every week, at least once a week, we’d visit Om. He was rude, and strictly no alterations were allowed to his bowl of noodles. It was a one-man operation where he made everything from scratch at the back of his warung. Day in, day out, he’d slave away, slinging bowls of noodles over hot flame burners in thirty-degree heat. For over twenty-five years, Om had been serving the same bowl of noodles.
Living in Melbourne, I came to understand Indonesian food entirely differently. It was a selection of twenty dishes kept lukewarm over bain-maries. It was one $36 rendang on a fifty-item menu cooked by a white chef at an Asian-fusion restaurant. Or, perhaps most commonly, it was some unrecognisable iteration of sate – synonymous with peanut sauce as opposed to the meat on sticks cooked over fire that I had grown up with.
Outside of home, I had been served more Indonesian food by white people than I had by Indonesians. And after twenty years in Australia, I was convinced I didn’t like Indonesian food.
In hindsight, being raised in 2000s white Australia predestined me to disdain Indonesian food: scrunched noses at school when I told my friends that my mum was making sop buntut (‘oxtail soup’) for dinner; feeling anxious about microwaving mum’s stinky leftovers at lunchtime that had been sat sweating in my locker; discomfort about correcting anyone on the pronunciation of Indonesian dishes, even though everyone and anyone would feel comfortable correcting my English.
In childhood, my family and I would return to Indonesia most school holidays. In my teen years, summer camps and social obligations began to matter more, and trips to Indonesia slimmed down to once a year. When my Oma passed, we stopped going back altogether. After over two decades, it was safe to say I had assimilated. However, Indonesia doesn’t allow for dual citizenships meaning I operated in the liminal space of identifying as culturally Australian while being unable to vote. So, I decided I would renounce my Indonesian citizenship and once and for all become Australian.
I filled out the online application one morning when an opportunity to move home fell into my lap. That same evening I met a couple, who had been living in Indonesia and were set to travel to Europe. They were looking for someone to look after their home for some months and, knowing that my citizenship application would take at least 18 months, I impulsively said yes, put my notice in at work the next day, and was gone six weeks later. I figured it would be the last time I could live and work in Indonesia without the hassle of visas.
When I arrived in Bandung, it had been five years since I had last stepped foot in my home country. I realised that I didn’t actually remember much of the city. I couldn’t find my way around, and none of the streets or suburbs felt familiar. I regretted spending my childhood fixated on screens, playing the newest Pokémon game, rather than my surroundings. The only thing that felt familiar was food.
For lunch one afternoon, I visited a mall across the road from my parents’ office to eat lumpiah basah, a classic dish my nanny would take me to eat while my parents worked. My body, acting on muscle memory, took me up to the top floor where the food court was, up three flights of escalators, weaving through the supermarket on the first floor, turning left at the women’s hosieries on the second, and taking a hard right at the men’s shoes isle on the third. All around me, there were smells that were familiar but unidentifiable. Images flashed in my mind but disappeared before they could become clear. When I found myself at the lumpia stall, my mouth blurted out my usual order. Eating the piping hot, salty snack felt like biting into a feeling. A memory.
As news made it around our family circles that I had returned home, interactions with old family and friends would always involve food. I received a Whatsapp call from tante Kim Nio with nothing more than a simple greeting and a question: ‘Do you still like bak pao (‘pork buns’)?’ The next day, she arrived at the house with a box of 20 buns from the spot she thought made the best bak pao, travelling no less than 40 minutes to secure the goods. This happened on several occasions with different family members driving me to various spots for specific dishes. Even though these people didn’t have a clue what I studied, or what job I worked, they still remembered my favourite foods (and the fact that I was still unmarried).
Every Indonesian family has one spot that they go to for a particular dish. Often that place would be tied into other social events. In the same way that my family would visit Om’s place after school, my neighbour would get her bakmi in the mornings after church from the women across the road. My cousin would get hers from the running track where she would do tai chi. Whether it was a product of routine or some form of warung loyalty, each family will claim that their spot made the best bakmi.
Unlike the Indonesian food I’d grown accustomed to in Australia, food vendors in Indonesia typically specialise in one dish, mastered over several years with recipes passed down through generations. Indonesian restaurants in Australia often served a myriad of dishes, all of which were only ever average. They were also simplified to the same small handful of dishes that had become familiar to Australian vernacular: nasi goreng, sate (satay), rendang, ayam goreng, gado-gado. I’d forgotten that my favourite Indonesian dishes even existed and there was rarely any nuance. People who cooked Indonesian food made their food for Western palates, dialling down the chilli, using fewer innards and substituting ingredients for what was available. The places that cooked authentic Indonesian food were shared between those in the know (I was not one of those people), and they rarely felt like the kind of place that I, as a deeply insecure, wannabe cool young person, would want to eat at.
After all that time in Australia, my palate and guts had changed. My stomach would twist when fried livers were put on my plate, too much chilli made meals inedible, and, on one particular afternoon, overconfidence in the strength of my tummy bacteria lead me to eat unrefrigerated nasi campur that gave me my first proper encounter with food poisoning. I stuck my nose up at the commodified versions of Indonesian food that were served to me in Australia, yet my body was rejecting the ‘real deal’. Sick, sweaty, and delirious, I questioned whether my body was even Indonesian at all.
I stayed at my late Oma’s house and had dinner with her carer, mbak Wati. She prepared a spread of Oma’s old recipes that she’d said I would always ask for when we visited as children. She made sop kertas or ‘paper soup’, swike goreng tepung, or ‘battered frogs’, and bought fu yung hai, or ‘egg omelette’, a classic Chinese-Indonesian dish from the one place that my Oma would always get takeaway from. I was one of three kids where my father was one of seven. I’ve lost count of the number of cousins, nieces, and nephews I have. Despite this, mbak Wati remembered all my favourites and likely, everyone else’s too.
The two of us sat together at Oma’s table. We had broken conversations filled with awkward silences which involved me mostly repeating the same answer of ‘iyah, enak banget’ to questions about whether I was enjoying the food. I didn’t have enough Bahasa to tell her about the life I was living. I felt embarrassed that I didn’t try harder to keep up my Indonesian, guilty that I didn’t keep in touch and uneasy that someone had held all this love for me after all this time. After dinner, I sat outside alone, weeping.
Some friends from Australia came to visit me in Bandung a few months into my stay. We sat around a circular table at Dunia Baru, an old-school Chinese-Indonesian restaurant where my family would go to celebrate special occasions. Spinning the Lazy Susan, I introduced them to the Indonesian dishes that only existed in my memories. It was here that I understood what my mother was doing when she fed me soto ayam when I was sick, or gave me my third helping of babi kecap, or went to the outer suburbs to get the right ingredients for rawon: she was feeding me memories of our lives before.
In the same way mum, mbak Wati and tante Kim Nio did, at Dunia Baru, I shared memories of the history and love I’d felt in Bandung through flavours and textures, feeling understood and accepted in ways I never had before. We ordered a second serve of ayam jahe, loaded each other’s plates and playfully considered ordering a third. ‘I’ve never had anything like this before’, they’d say. I felt the knots in my chest untangle as big smiles appeared on their faces as we ate and ate and ate. Being the only table occupied by non-Indonesians, we were thrown looks of surprised curiosity from the other patrons as we laughed loudly and gorged ourselves. They must’ve thought it was strange that we were all there together, and I suppose it was.
I tried to find Om to eat his bakmi before I returned to Australia. But he’d packed up shop years ago. I can only assume that he didn’t have any children that wanted to take the reins – although I doubt he would have ever truly approved of anyone recreating his bakmi. I wondered what he spent his days doing now, whether he felt liberated from a lifetime of monotony, or if he missed spending his days standing over burners. I grieved briefly, thanked Om in my thoughts for keeping my family together all those years ago, and remembered to accept that Bandung would move through time and change without me.
This piece belongs to THE KITCHEN. A series of works inspired by Liza’s Kitchen: Eastern European Recipes by a Melbourne Artist. If this piece sates you, devour Liza’s Kitchen here.