Granny & I
Grandma was the first feminist figure in my life. My early lessons about bad a**, strong women, I learned from cooking with her and her community. I knew she was exceptional even as a young child living in a traditionally conservative and misogynistic country. She was the matriarch of our big family. When she held court, everyone sat and listened. A reserved and dignified woman, she was powerful in her silences. She listened way more than she talked. Perhaps it was the old school Javanese temperament of someone from a noble standing (she came from the Mangkunegaran family line of Javanese royalty), or perhaps it was the silence of a woman who had endured a lot during her lifetime. She came of age in the colonial era, had run away from her first arranged marriage as a pre-teen and survived the Indonesian War of Independence. She was the keeper of ancient rites and rituals of the traditional Central Javanese region and was revered by her community. She practiced midwifery according to the Javanese tradition and she helped feed her family by cooking. She was a woman of many talents but, because of the circumstances of her time, she was not ever labeled or recognized as a professional chef. She was able to organize, manage, and have an army of helpers to help her set up meals for 5 to 500 people all throughout the course of her life. I recalled the 500 people she fed was when she was in her 70’s to celebrate 1000 days after Grandpa’s passing as part of a traditional memorial ceremony.
It’s considered a point of pride in my family to be blessed enough to inherit Grandma’s cooking genes. Out of the 5 children she bore and the 21 grandchildren she had, there is always one of us from each family who represents her through our cooking skills. It’s solid proof that we are clearly her progeny. I am no longer afraid to do cooking competitions, but I must say I still can’t guarantee I can beat some of my cousins. That would be a serious undertaking. For them, cooking is second nature. Maybe the next time I travel back to Indonesia, I can challenge them, record our epic throwdown and report back.
Before I emigrated to the US and ended up settling in Brooklyn for good, I took a memorable road trip with my father (her beloved son) who happens to be another one of my early feminist influences. My father is also an excellent cook. This talent is clearly inherited from my grandmother. On this trip, we spent quality time with my grandma recording all our heirloom recipes. We sat down and I asked her everything about her specialties, which are traditional central javanese cuisines and colonial style baking. She told me the ingredients without measurements and preparation methods all by oral tradition. I scrambled to write them down. When it came to technique, she demonstrated the fundamentals of traditional Central Javanese cooking. My sessions with my grandmother really honed my skills as an instinctive cook and helped me rely on my sense of taste and smell.
As we talk about food and cooking, I’m going to mention her a lot. She had a wealth of knowledge and what better way to share what she shared with me than to introduce you to one of the best things she is known for; her Sambal Badjak. This one is for all the hot sauce lovers.
There is a saying in traditional Indonesian culture, that a young lady who makes good sambal makes good wife material. This idea had always struck me as antiquated and sexist as if a woman’s only value is to be a man’s wife. I, however, think having the talent of making delicious sambal is akin to having super powers. I think anyone who can make great sambal has the ability to conquer the world. My granny was living proof of this. She was renowned for her sambal and it broke boundaries between cultures. It built a bridge between the colonialists and the people they colonized. Ironically, the word badjak in Indonesian means to pirate or to take over, another word for colonial action, perhaps? While I don't know the origin as to why this particular sambal was named this way, I appreciate how my grandmother managed to flip the script while serving this to the Dutch plantation owners. Sambal was a tool for her claiming her space. They fell head over heels for it and exchanged canned salmon from the Netherlands (regarded as a luxury item back then because it came from the west) for her fresh sambal and branded her a culinary genius. Ironically, Granny never got to taste fresh salmon. She only experienced it canned. She died never knowing how good fresh salmon could be. Some would say she got the short end of the stick. I hope I can continue her legacy and I can only hope that I can come out with a better deal than her in the end.