• Leaves can be more than just disposable wrappers for food. (Ria Andriani)Source: Ria Andriani
From lontong to sate skewers, serving food on foliage can have a meaningful and sustainable effect.
Ria Andriani

23 Nov 2020 - 3:45 PM  UPDATED 7 Dec 2020 - 3:52 PM

One night, not long after I arrived in Sydney in 2007, my mum told me her friend had given us some lontong for dinner. I jumped at the chance of eating something familiar from home: a compressed roll of rice wrapped in banana leaves, boiled, and cut up into small compact cakes. The dish is a staple food from Java, the Indonesian island where I grew up.

It felt too good to be true. Hardly anyone spoke my native language, and as far as I knew, there was no banana tree involved. The food tasted strange, but I didn’t know why.

A few years later, I was co-opted to punch holes in rice-filled plastic bags to make lontong for a church fete in Sydney. By then, I declined any lontong on offer. The idea of eating plastic-boiled rice was repugnant.

Lontong isn’t the only banana leaf-wrapped dish. In Java, you can find dozens. In the West Java tribe of Sunda, a similar roll called nasi timbel has the distinction of being baked over a fire and served with side dishes of your choice.

In Central Java, lemper can be compared to giant dolmades made with sticky rice and minced meat. Arem-arem is the vegetarian cousin, produced with sticky rice and diced vegetables. For dessert, there is nagasari: a glutinous cake made of rice flour stuffed with a chunk of actual banana. There are less common leaves elsewhere.

Blora is a town nestled in the teak forest at the border between Central and East Java. It is a patchwork of colonial history, traditional Javanese culture and appears on the culinary map as the "sate capital".

In the '90s, my family would make an annual road trip to this town to visit my grandma during the Lebaran (Eid al-Fitr) celebration. Back then, the holiday fell much closer to Christmas. We don’t put presents under the Christmas tree. But we always take part in the gift-giving of ketupat on Lebaran day.

I jumped at the chance of eating something familiar from home: a compressed roll of rice wrapped in banana leaves, boiled, and cut up into small compact cakes.

Ketupat is another type of compressed boiled rice, cooked in distinctive-shaped coconut leaves. It’s made by weaving the two halves of coconut palm frond after removing its spine. The result is somewhat box-shaped, with a long tail of excess leaves. Tie a bunch together and take them to your neighbours.

Blora isn’t short of leafy subjects. In the sate kiosks, you can order your food on pinned teak leaves instead of a plate. Sate in Blora is served with rice and soup. The meat on the leaf-spine skewers is meagre. To make up for this, you order more skewers and dip them in the peanut and chilli sauce.

This region also plays host to rarer leaf-wrapped sweetmeats. A distinct memory from my childhood trips features women calling out “Kue-kue!”, which signalled afternoon cake time. These itinerant women know when there are visitors.

Among the sweetmeats: a corn and coconut cake called lepet jagung, steamed in its striped, corn-leaf sheath. It is liberally sweetened with palm flower sugar, harvested from nectar off budding coconuts.

Vendors worth their cakes have dumbek: a small trumpet-shaped glutinous cake wrapped in the spiralling fronds of daun lontar – another kind of palm leaf from siwalan trees.

I had a sense that the days of leaves were numbered during that last visit. Plastic has been embraced in Java. It’s far easier to pour soup into a plastic bag, tie a knot and bring it home in another plastic carrier. It’s cheap and virtually hassle-free.

In Blora, many villages push further into the forest, making other homes farther from the trees. The teak, palm, corn and banana leaves have been part of Javanese lives since time immemorial. Those leaves have always been free and always available.

In cities where more houses mean fewer trees, it’s too far to walk and pick leaves to bring to market. Only banana leaves remain common.

This is the case for a place thousands of kilometres away called Sydney. The distance to that sun-drenched and rain-soaked island is greater than an ocean. In this regard, I have something in common with First Fleeters who craved something familiar between gums and bristling grass trees – tucker to the First Peoples of this land. Yet I don’t think it’s right to stage a leafy takeover.

Leaves may offer an obvious solution as a plastic substitute. But transporting them from far-flung places has certain risks. If the cost of authentic lontong in Sydney's streets is an irreversible environmental change, it might not be worth it. But I hope to find this leaf-wrapped food in regional towns where bananas and coconuts grow.


This piece was originally submitted for New Voices On Food, a project dedicated to promoting diverse voices on food.

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