Journeys versus Destinations: The Familiar in the Foreign

Porridge means many things to many people. In parts of Indonesia, it is a breakfast dish brimming with history.

Bubur Manado 2 rs CE

Tintuan/Bubur Manado (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

The ingredients tell the story of this concoction, basically a congee and fiery with the bite of fresh ginger, eaten for breakfast on an island over 11,000 miles from my kitchen:

Cassava (singkung)
Chile peppers (cabai)
Corn (jagung)
Pumpkin (labu kuning)
Rice (nasi)
Sweet potato (ubi jalar)

Except for the rice, all of these ingredients originated in the New World.

Bubur Manado with corn cob rs CE

Corn the cob with nike fritter on the side (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Dried anchovy fritters share the table with slabs of smoked fish and fried tofu, anointed with dribbles of a sambal so hot I sweat as I bite into the corn on the cob and discover to my wonder that it is sweet corn, just like the corn my in-laws grew on their Wisconsin farm.

Sambals 1 Dego Dego rs CE

Dabu-Dabu sambal (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

And in the markets I see corn (jagung) sold in multiple ways, dried, cracked, whole grain, and fresh.

Corn Manado bags rs CE

Rice, peanuts, cracked corn, milled corn, and whole grain corn (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

History appears not just in the judgmental prose of early chroniclers nor in the dry ramblings of historians or even in the words of cookbook authors sensitive to cultural mores and practices. In this breakfast porridge, I read tales of the past, of the great Dutch ships that sailed throughout the thousands of islands [17,508] of the Indonesian archipelago, and settled there, for over 350 years. I see in my mind’s eye the food stored in the holds of those ships, and not just Dutch ships like that of Cornelius de Houtman arrived in Indonesia in the 1596s, returning home with a hold bulging with spices. The Portuguese, the English, and the Spanish left impressions of their cooking fires as well. As for corn, the Portuguese probably could take credit for sowing it in Asia, likely beginning with the arrival of Vasco da Gama in 1498. That said, the Spanish certainly brought corn to the islands. By 1511, the Portuguese entrenched themselves in the Malacca Strait and proceeded to dominate the spice trade from there, but lost their foothold in Indonesia to the Dutch around 1580.

Corn Manado 1 rs CE

Vendor cutting kernels of fresh corn (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

And today these traces of the past appear also in the cans of corn for sale in the modern Hypermarket overlooking Manado Bay.

Corn in cans rs CE

Canned corn, ready to use (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

In spite of the long Dutch tenure, very few colonial buildings or ruins still stand, so remnants of the long colonial past tend to reside in the 20% of Dutch loan words found in modern Indonesian, primarily sweets and baked goods. So too the use of spices in European cuisine.

Tintuan, it seemed to me, tied me to that island, in ways I hadn’t considered. The dish proved to me just what a small world we inhabit, how the web of life connects us in so many ways, overt and covert. And somehow that’s rather comforting, you know.

For more about this topic:

Try this recipe for Tintuan/Bubur Mandado, which does not include the overwhelming but typical flavor of ginger found in the version of Tintuan that I ate at Dego-Dego. See also Sri Owen’s recipe in  her book, Indonesian Regional Food & Cookery (New York: Doubleday, 1994), p. 93-94 – she doesn’t include any spicing in the porridge other than the last-minute addition of lemongrass, Thai basil, and turmeric leaf, nor does she suggest topping the porridge with flaked dried fish.

Clancy-Smith, Julia and Gouda, Frances. Domesticating the Empire: Race, Gender, and Family Life and French and Dutch Colonialism. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998.

Hanna, Willard A. Indonesian Banda: Colonialism and its Aftermath in the Nutmeg Islands. Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1978.

Leong-Salobir, Cecilia. Food Culture in Colonial Asia: A Taste of Empire.  New York: Routledge, 2011.

Locher-Scholten, Elsbeth. Women and the Colonial State: Essays and Gender and Modernity in the Netherlands Indies 1900-1942. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004.

Matsuyama, Akira. The Traditional Dietary Culture of Southeast Asia: Its Formation and Pedigree. New York: Kegan Paul, 2003.

Oseland, James. Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking of the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006.

Taylor, J. G. The Social World of Batavia: European and Eurasian in Dutch Asia. Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.

© 2013 C. Bertelsen

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