Journeys versus Destinations: Colonial Women, Colonial Lives, Colonial Food

Baking 5

Steamed cupcakes called Kue Mangkok (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

The topic of women, food, and colonialism is vast and cannot be summed up in a mere blog post.

Cupcakes cooked in banana leaves? What an amazing thing, I thought, as I made my way through the throngs of vendors and buyers in the Airmadidi market in North Minahasa, Indonesia.

Surely these odd-shaped cakes served as reminders of the Dutch colonial era? Light, fluffy, almost meltingly soft, the tops of the cakes resembled the small four-pointed “fortune teller” paper game we used to play when I was a child.

But there was a different story behind those cakes. Cooked in bamboo steamers, their pedigree is Chinese, not Dutch. The cakes burst open during cooking, looking like flowers when served. So, I wondered, what was Dutch about Indonesia these days? Where were the traces of 350 years of Dutch colonial rule? In particular, were there signs in the cuisine at all?

Yes. In the kukis (cookies) and the donuts and the array of sweets laid out like jewels in the Airmadidi market, not in ruins or vintage buildings or other such telltale signs. In stews called semur, after the Dutch “smoor.” The sea air and the jungle and the rot destroyed such structures as wooden houses or other buildings. Fire, too.

Like many colonizing nations, the Dutch first moved into Indonesia via a trading company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie), taking over in 1619. And as with many such endeavors, few if any white women accompanied the men. Not until around 1869 did Dutch women seriously settle in the archipelago. During all those centuries, Indonesian cuisine underlay the sustenance of the Dutch, culminating in the still-popular rijsttafel or “rice table” and other favorites. By the 1920s, the kokki (cook) served mostly European dishes and the rice table became a once-a-week-on-Sunday type of event.

Once the Dutch women arrived, life changed in the colonies. Many feminist scholars write about the effect white women exerted on colonial life and male visions of empire. As in British India, with the publication there of books like Flora Annie Steel’s The Complete Indian Housekeeper (1888), in Dutch Indonesia the work of Mevrouw J. M. C. Kloppenburg-Versteegh held sway. An herbalist of some renown (she also published – in Dutch – Hints and Tips Regarding The Use Of Indian Plants, Fruits Etc., 2 vols. (Semarang: GCT van Dorp, 1911), Mrs. Kloppenburg-Versteegh wrote a household manual, Het leven van de Europeesche vrouw in Indië [The Life of the European Woman in the Indies] (1913). So influential was this book that the Colonial School for Women and Girls in The Hague, founded in 1920, used Mrs. Kloppenburg-Versteegh’s 1913 book as a text. Over the years, around 1000 Dutch women took a 3-month preparation course in tropical hygiene and medicine, food preparation, ethnology, and Malay. Mrs. Kloppenburg-Versteegh arranged her book by the hours of a typical domestic day in Indonesia and included strict rules about the decorum and behavior of the housewife vis-a-vis her servants, with clear instructions on just how to maintain the deep social split between the Dutch elite and the native Indonesians.

Other than the work of Anna Forbes, wife of a British naturalist, women contributed very little in the way of writing about the colonial period in Indonesia, as George Miller states in his introduction in To the Spice Islands and Beyond: Travels in Eastern Indonesia (Oxford University Press, 1996, Oxford in Asia Paperbacks series). Mrs. Forbes’s work, Insulinde: Experience of a Naturalist’s Wife in the Eastern Archipelago (1887), details her sometimes hair-raising experiences in East Timor. (This lack of women’s writing reflects what happened in the French colonies as well.)

Here is what Mrs. Forbes said when she discovered trassi (shrimp paste):

“What is trassi?” Hear how H. details his first acquaintance with it, while in Java, shortly after his arrival in the East. “A vile odour which permeates the air within a wide area of the market-place proceeds from a compound sold in round black balls, called trassi. My acquaintance with it was among my earliest experiences of housekeeping at Genteng. Having got up rather late one Sunday morning – an opportunity taken by one of my boys to go unknown to me to the market, which I had not then visited – I was discomfited by the terrific and unwonted odour of decomposition ‘My birds have begun to stink!’ I exclaimed to myself. Hastily fetching down the box in which they were stored, I minutely examined and sniffed over every skin, giving myself in the process inflammation of the nostrils and eyes for a week after, from the amount of arsenical soap I inhaled; but all of them seemed in perfect condition. In the neighbouring jungle, though I diligently searched half the morning, I could find no dead carcase, and nothing in the ‘kitchen-midden,’ where somehow I seemed nearer the source; but at last in the kitchen itself I ran it to ground in a compact parcel done up in a banana leaf.

“‘What on the face of creation is this?’ I said to the cook, touching it gingerly.

“‘Oh! master, that is trassi.’

“‘Trassi? Whatever is trassi?’

“‘Good for eating, master – in stew.’

“‘Have I been eating it?’

“‘Certainly, master; it is most excellent (enak sekali).’

“‘You fool! Do you wish to poison me and to die yourself?’

With expressions of disgust like this, it’s not difficult to understand why certain foods and dishes never pass the lips of people in culinary environments other than their own.

Getting back to those cupcakes, I must confess that they symbolized my fascination with the influence of different culinary cultures on one another, perhaps because of my own long experiences cooking in different developing countries, as well as in France.

Traditionally these include rice and fermented cassava, but the effect is the same. Use cupcake papers to make things easier. Try making your own with this recipe.

Baking 2 rs

A mix, for making your own Kue Mangkok (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

© 2013 C. Bertelsen

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  1. Tony Flanagan

    I am reading two colonial food books, one is
    The other is: “Diary of a Cape Housekeeper” by Hildagonda Duckitt
    Coe is interesting. The same pejorative myths about Chinese immigrants in California, are being touted today in the South African Press (especially the freesheets) As he says ” Old stereotypes never die.” Or perhaps the Press finds them convenient? I feel Wolf is wrong, but include the link for an American viewpoint.

    Ms Duckitt on the other hand, she writes so beautifully that you just want to weep. South Africa is a wondeful country if you are rich. I imagine.

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