• Indonesia's high tea works differently to those in the western world. (Elli Jacobs)Source: Elli Jacobs
High tea is all about family tradition and connection.
Dr Asti Mardiasmo, Presented by
Elli Iacovou

25 Mar 2021 - 11:07 AM  UPDATED 25 Mar 2021 - 10:55 PM

High tea in Indonesia is a different experience to that in Australia and the western world.

In my hometown of Yogyakarta, a city on the Indonesian island of Java, our teatime tradition, known as "wedangan", is a chance for the immediate family to come together for jajanan pasar, which are traditional street-food snacks.

My family is Muslim, so we would mainly gather for wedangan after Jum'ah — the prayer that occurs usually between the third and fourth daily prayer on a Friday, which is any time between 3.30pm and 6pm.

If our family was not able to come together on a Friday, we would enjoy wedangan instead on a Sunday afternoon, our day of rest.

I loved my wedangan teas with family because I got a chance to be with my family.

On those Fridays, everyone would return home early from school or work, eat a variety of savoury and sweet snacks and talk about anything that might need to be discussed, to foster openness between family members. Indonesians are very much family oriented, and family ties are established or strengthened over food. 

I loved wedangan teas with my family because I got a chance to sit with my dad, Mardiasmo, who was away often. I also admired the culinary skills of my grandmother Maria or oma. She used to prepare jajanan pasar from scratch in the kitchen, including the bread.

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After she cut and weighed the dough, it was my job to fill the milk bread rolls either with chocolate or pink sprinkles, sultanas or bananas. She had so many different fillings for me to choose from and that made helping a lot of fun.

In addition to her milk buns, my oma would serve a few other simple dishes such as lemper, a sticky rice filled with fish or chicken, chicken or prawn spring rolls accompanied with sweet chilli known as lumpia, tahu isi and deep fried chicken wing niblets called ayam goreng. For dessert we relished klepon, green glutinous rice balls rolled in shredded coconut with palm sugar filling.

Once the dishes were arranged in a circle on the table, oma would call out "avo wes siap panganane" which means "come on the food is ready", and we would all gather in the living room. Sometimes mum or oma would serve my dad or opa first and then us kids could help ourselves.  

Accompanying the food was usually black jasmine tea with crystallised cane sugar, which was served in a clay pot.

During high school, I remember the food we had for wedangan began to change. In the mid-90s we lived in the UK for a few years due to my dad's academic work. In England, I have memories of mum hosting tea with other Indonesian mothers, usually on a Sunday afternoon, but it was more of a social gathering which served a combo almost between wedangan and dinner. During those years the availability of Asian groceries in the UK was limited compared to what it is today.

Back in Indonesia, mum was never much of a cook compared to my oma, and the snacks served were mostly the responsibility of our domestic helpers, which is why I think there was a bigger spread than my oma's who prepared everything on her own. During our feasts, my aunties and my oma would also bring a dish to share and that also contributed to the vast options we had.

My family has a long history of preparing high tea in Java, Indonesia.

Battered slices of tempeh served with peanut sauce is my favourite and I would eat lots of it. Other new dishes included a mixed vegetable fritter called bakwan, and tempura style breadfruit slices known as sukun goreng. As new sweets I remember pisang goreng, which are banana fritters served with cinnamon dusting, and wajik or steamed glutinous rice further cooked in palm sugar, coconut milk and pandan leaves.

Despite the different selection of food, my high tea experience in Australia has been equally satisfying.

Following high school, my parents encouraged me to pursue further education opportunities, so I came to Australia in 2002. After completing undergraduate studies in economics and international business, I decided to stay on, eventually settling in Brisbane, getting married and having my daughter Ariella.

When I was invited by other girlfriends for a chocolate high tea, I decided to try it. It was quite an experience to go to a hotel and have quiche, scones with jam or cream, macaroons, chocolate treats and other tarts including tiny shaped triangular sandwiches in a three-tier stand. It was something different and the food tasted good. However, I could never finish all of the sweets in the top tier, their sweetness was too much for me to handle.  

Enjoying high tea in Australia.

Indonesia doesn't have much of a dairy industry, so we didn't have fresh milk let alone cream during our time there. Given this, scones with jam and cream stand out for me.

A high tea in Australia is typically sweeter than wedangan, which is largely savoury. Wedangan sweet treats are also less sweet, such as tapioca balls or glutinous rice.

You're also served all sorts of different teas here, like black, green and lemon. I normally go for an Earl Grey and if I'm feeling brave, I'll try a floral tea. Additionally, champagne can be on the menu. However, as I am Muslim, I don't drink alcohol.

Luckily, my godmother Genik, or lovingly bubu as I call her, lives on the Gold Coast and once a month we catch up and enjoy Australian high teas together. They have such a celebratory meaning, so it feels nice and special to be able to share these tea moments with her. 

On her visits to Brisbane, we have enjoyed wedangan together in the comfort of my home where I've served traditional Indonesian snacks with jasmine tea for us to enjoy without the constraints of having to make a booking, dress up and go out for tea and nibbles.

"The foods might be different, but they share the same purpose of bringing people together."

But I must admit, when it comes to wedangan, I'm more like my mother and have others who are more skilled to prepare the foods. I'm only able to make spring rolls because I watched my aunties make them, so when I need traditional snacks, I reach out to my Indonesian girlfriends and they make them for me. There are so many talented Indonesian Australians who can make jajanan pasar.

On my most recent visit to my godmother, my daughter Ariella accompanied us and experienced her first Australian-style high tea.

She also experienced wedangan at my parent's home the last time we went back to Indonesia in December 2019. There were some traditional foods, but she was very taken with kue serabi, the station dedicated to making pancakes with coconut and palm sugar syrup, because cooks hired by my father were making little pancakes right in front of her.  

This last wedangan was held for my aunt's birthday, and it was somewhat like what I remember from my childhood, although the volume of food has changed slightly.

Beforehand there was more variety and less quantity, now it's the other way around. 

It has also morphed into something that is done at special occasions rather than on the regular. On my last visit I was only there for a two-and-a-half week visit and wedangan only happened once.

I have also celebrated birthdays with an Australian high tea, but in the last couple of years I've noticed some of my friends hosting wedangan in their homes with traditional Indonesian savoury and sweet treats, as a way to strengthen and maintain cultural food traditions.

I love both Australian and Indonesian high teas, because at the end of the day the foods might be different, but they share the same purpose of bringing people together. I do hope to pass both versions of this tradition on to my daughter Ariella so that she can experience the full extent of her cultural heritage.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @ellijac.

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