A taste of place, time and people
Flicking your eyes off Malang’s chaotic Jalan Laksamana Martadinata to try and spot the hidden one is not recommended; you’d hit a pothole or a pedicab. Yet the Go mansion was once a landmark.
The coffee baron’s neo-classical Indisch Empire residence in Klenteng Straat was built 115 years ago. At the time it shouted: ‘Look, we’ve prospered.’ Now the message is whispered: ‘We’re just part of a business streetscape.’
Commodity prices crashed in the 1930s depression; after the Japanese invaded the house became a refugee center. During the Revolution nearby buildings were torched, but the grand one was untouched.
The Go family survived, including one member who was interred during the occupation. Before the Japanese arrived Koo Siu Ling was born here to her schoolteacher mother Go Pheek Thoo, known as Ietje. Good times returned until President Soekarno mismanaged the economy and courted communism.
Some in the family moved to Jakarta, and then the Netherlands where Koo entered university aged 16 to study engineering. Later she married, spent four years in Australia and another four in the US; now she lives in Holland but regularly visits her birthland.
Over the decades five meters has been cut off the front garden. In the erasure of all things colonial the widened road, formerly named after the 1825 Chinese temple opposite, was relabelled to recognize an admiral with no connections to the city.
The 1965 coup d’état and purge of real and imagined Reds hit the Chinese community badly.
But the people of Klenteng Straat had long severed their connections with China. They were East Java Peranakan, mixed blood descendants of immigrants from Fujian Province who had married Javanese women.
Though this family’s ancestors were relatively late arrivals some had been in Indonesia for centuries; the port of Gresik on the north coast of East Java was established by Chinese traders in the 14th century. That made little difference. The narrative that accompanies their success story is sinophobia.
“Since the Independence of Indonesia the Peranakan have periodically been subjected to discrimination and persecution,” writes medieval historian Paul Freedman in this unusual book. “This has produced a number of paradoxes.”
These included the repression of Chinese identity and culture, the closure of schools and the banning of Chinese language and writing. Despite this around 30 entrepreneurs got cosy with President Soeharto to build his and their business empires.
The tough Peranakan have learned resilience. Freedman reports that despite two ministers in the 1947 revolutionary government having Peranakan origins, those labelled non-indigenous remained a convenient scapegoat for their perceived “clannishness and disengagement” and the nation’s economic ills.
Forced to Indonesianise, Koo’s father Koo Liong Bing changed his name to Kolama – meaning ‘formerly Koo’. To keep their dignity the ever adaptable Peranakan scattered and like their ancestors, some sought opportunities in lands elsewhere.
The other survivor was the cuisine and in the Go family it all resided in the cookbook of Koo’s mother which had travelled to Holland.
The sun-parched pad was opened by Koo after the old lady’s death in 2000 aged 89. It has become the primary source for Culture Cuisine Cooking published in Indonesian, Dutch and English under one cover. Most of the 82 recipes were written in Dutch, though others used Hokkienese and Indonesian. Contributions from Ietje’s sisters and friends also found a place.
The title gives the impression that it’s ABC - Another Bloody Cookbook - on an already sagging shelf. Wrong: This is also a lucid account of the Peranakan, adding to our understanding of the complexities of this nation’s past.
It isn’t just a stew of Dutch, Javanese and Chinese tastes; it’s also a cultural history deftly recounted by Freedman, professor of history at Yale University and author of other books on food.
What’s cooking go to do with it? Koo answers well in her preface: ‘… a world of complex social interactions lies behind [cooking at home]. Before you cook you have to plant, or harvest, or shop, mostly together with other members of the family or village. Cooking means interaction.’
Which leads to understanding and appreciation. Diplomats should negotiate treaties and settle conflicts in kitchens, not board rooms, preferably while removing seeds from chilli peppers. [Instructions are on page 536 along with other handy tips.]
For cuisine, like language, is at the heart of cultures everywhere. We learn our first words from our parents – our first tastes are the meals they’ve chosen. Before microwaves and fast food the process of preparation wasn’t just a chore – it was a binding household event.
Skilled cooks seldom bother with scales – they know how much is needed. But a pinch of pepper or a handful of chives is no help to a modern cook demanding precision. On a brief visit to Malang last month (March) Koo explained how she spent four years working on the recipes, decoding and translating the instructions, calculating the measurements, then testing to get them right.
At the rear of the family’s mansion is a kitchen that seems little changed from the time when Koo’s grandmother was matriarch. At a timber table three elderly women washed and chopped vegetables. Another was at the sink. On one side a hefty hand pump atop a well.
The dining table sitting on a floor of exquisitely patterned tiles with the sun filtered through stained glass windows, can comfortably seat 14. It probably looked like this in the golden times, before World War II and the collapse of a colonial empire.
Where does this two kilo book belong – the library or the kitchen? With its moody, timeless photos it’s too beautiful to be steamed and soaked in spilt palm oil. But the recipes make it too practical to be left on a shelf as an occasional reference.
The solution is to photocopy the recipes, make a book, add notes and keep in the kitchen. Just as Ietje Go Pheek Thoo did before it all turned rotten. As Soeharto discovered, governments can attempt to crush a culture but its seeds are in the cuisine – and they germinate.
Culture Cuisine Cooking
by Paul Freedman and Koo Siu Ling
Lecturis, Amsterdam, 2015
(First published in The Jakarta Post 6 April 2015)