• Many do not realise that these popular Indonesian dishes are Chinese-Indonesian. (Closari/Flickr Creative Commons)Source: Closari/Flickr Creative Commons
Opening my eyes to the richness of my heritage.
Seraphina Seow

28 Jan 2020 - 10:55 AM  UPDATED 28 Jan 2020 - 4:42 PM

'Why can't she just be Indonesian?', I would catch myself thinking. Indonesians have a rich culture while Chinese-Indonesians are assimilators who don't have anything distinct about them.

I grew up thinking that Chinese-Indonesian cuisine was an unoriginal version of traditional Chinese food with a splash of kecap manis [sweet dark sauce] or palm sugar.  

Bakso is one of Indonesia's heartiest foods.

Chinese New Year was confusing because my grandmother did not prepare typical Chinese dishes. She made a noodle dish to symbolise longevity, but that's where the Chinese part ends.

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I never bothered learning about the Chinese part of my heritage. It wasn't until I read an article on Indonesian-Dutch food that my curiosity piqued. For the first time, I sat at the feet of my mother and aunties, then reached out to culinary expert William Wongso and food writer Lily Wibisono.

I was stunned to learn that many popular Indonesian dishes are influenced by Chinese cuisine.

I never realised that pempek – a dish I grew up watching my mother eat (a lot) – was, according to one of several versions, created by Chinese immigrants in the 16th century.

I was stunned to learn that many popular Indonesian dishes are influenced by Chinese cuisine.

Pempek are fish cakes served with a sauce made of palm sugar, garlic, chilli and palm vinegar. It was first made by mixing fish paste with starch that may have been brought from China to prevent fish from going to waste.

The name pempek came from apek-apek, which referred to the older Chinese-Indonesian uncles who used to push carts to sell their fish cakes.

Creamy and crunchy, all in one bite.

I didn't realise that the bakmi [noodles] I had slurped in Jakarta's street-side stalls, often consecutively for breakfast and lunch, was credited to the Chinese who introduced noodles to Indonesia.

I didn't realise that Chinese-Indonesians pioneered pangsit [deep-fried wontons] and bakso [meatballs].

I learned that they invented pangsit to satisfy Indonesians' preference for crunch – they deep fried them and made the skin-to-filling ratio 10:1. When I finally asked my mother about her culture's cuisine, she enthusiastically told me that the word bakso is Hokkien for 'minced meat' (its literal translation is 'rounded meat').

About Indonesian food
Indonesian food is one of the most vibrant and colourful cuisines in the world, full of intense flavour. Over the centuries many different cultures have visited and left their stamp on the cuisine – Indian, Chinese, Arab, Portuguese, Spanish, English and Dutch.

These dishes, among many others, continue to be well-loved in Indonesia.

Writer Lily Wibisono explains, "I don't think most Indonesian people are even aware that these dishes came into the present existence after years of Chinese-Indonesian cross-cultural evolution."

"Indonesians have long embraced them as their own. Then and now. I think Indonesian politics and Indonesians' taste for food always take different paths."

Thanks to the Chinese, noodles have become a fixture of Indonesian cuisine.

Many Indonesians have embraced these dishes without knowing their origin, while I have come to embrace my origin through learning about them. 

It may sound ridiculous that having a distinct cultural cuisine means so much to me. But food is one of the key things about my heritage that I am proud to share with others.

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