Interviews with Overseas Indonesians: Hartoni Ubes

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Nunuk Sri Rahayu
Nunuk Sri Rahayu
Nunuk hails from Solo, the historic royal capital and cultural centre of Java, Indonesia. She has been cooking since the age of 12, and also performs and teaches traditional Javanese dance. Her dream is to eventually write her own Indonesian cookbook.

Photo by Berry Swandi.

Hartoni Ubes, whom I usually call Oom Ubes (Uncle Ubes), was one of the students who received Indonesia’s Mahasiswa Ikatan Dinas (MAHID) scholarship for overseas college education. This programme was established during Indonesia’s Old Order in the 1960s, under President Soekarno, and aimed to increase Indonesia’s human capital through the acquisition of knowledge that could later be applied to a holistic development of the country.

Ubes, who was born in Garut, West Java, left his homeland for Prague, Czechoslovakia (which became Czech Republic on 1 January 1993). He was to study economics, with the hope of returning to Indonesia with the knowledge he had acquired. However, due to the political situation in Indonesia in 1965, when Soeharto’s New Order regime took power, Ubes and his fellow overseas scholars under the MAHID programme were unable to return home and, moreover, lost their citizenship. Because of that, they lived for many decades without any citizenship status. 

Since then, Uncle Ubes has stayed on in Czech Republic — first in Prague, and then in Hrobce: a small, peaceful village in the district of Usti nad Labem by the Elbe River. It is here that he now spends his days. Every morning, accompanied by his beloved dog Damik, Uncle Ubes strolls by the Elbe River. Along the way he makes it a point to dip his hands into the water and sweep it in the direction of his longed-for hometown Tjimanuk, dreaming that the river flows all the way home. 

Could you relate the story of your first journey from Indonesia to Czechoslovakia. How did you get there, and what was the most significant part of your journey?

We embarked from Kemayoran (the Jakarta airport) on 8 October 1962 and landed in Ružyňě (the airport in Prague) on the evening of 9 October. We were then brought to Komenského College in Prague 6 (District 6 in Prague), accompanied by several seniors from the Czechoslovakia branch of the PPI (Perhimpunan Pelajar Indonesia, or Indonesian Students Association). 

Upon arrival, we went straight to the canteen for dinner. We were served chleba, a type of Czech bread — which I thought was yucky at the time, and so hard it was no different from the sole of my shoe. I was used to white bread (and even that, only on occasion) but the chleba was brown and rather sour-tasting. I observed our seniors joking around while seeming to relish this strange bread and I thought, “How is this possible! And 6 years of dining like this!” 

The next day I encountered a hospoda (restaurant in Czech) across the hostel, and I found something like semur — but it was nothing like our delicious semur. Long after, I discovered this Czech “semur” is known as guláš (goulash).

Nowadays, flying from Europe to Indonesia requires only one stopover. At the time, the Czech Airlines flight TU 119 had to stop and rest every 2-3 hours. From Jakarta, we flew to Phnom Penh, Bombay, Dahrain (not Bahrain) and Cairo before finally reaching Prague. The journey was interesting, especially for me, a village person flying for the first time. As the plane flew across the equator, the captain of the crew emerged dressed as Neptune, the Roman God of the Sea, complete with a trident. He then “baptised” us by sprinkling water over us, and gave each passenger a “diploma” stating the date, time and year we’d succeeded in crossing the equator. 

Another unforgettable experience was flying by the side of Chomolungma (Mount Everest). When my children travelled to Indonesia in 1997, in order to visit their grandmother, I told them not to forget to soak in the view of the highest mountain in the world. But they were disappointed, because they travelled non-stop from London to Kuala Lumpur, over the Indian Ocean.

When you first set foot in Czechoslovakia, what was on your mind?

I was intimidated, especially when hearing the Czech language for the first time at the airport. To my Indonesian ears, it sounded like the chirping of sparrows. I thought, even till the Monkey’s Eid (an Indonesian idiom, sampe lebaran monyet, which roughly means the same as “till the cows come home”), I still wouldn’t be able to master Czech. ☹ Furthermore, our journey to Prague had been delayed by five weeks, because the academic year had already begun, on the 1st of September.

How did you survive, food-wise?

A few days before the day (of departure), I overheard my father telling my mother, “How will he survive there? If he tried cooking, everything would be burnt!” That was the level of my cooking skills – and it turned out this was universal, among all the students studying the Czech language in Dobruška. Dobruška is a small town in the Czech Republic, to the east of Prague.

Among us 13 “hopes of the nation”, only one (Max Luhukay) could cook. Meaning, he could cook rice [with dishes]. Max was something of a wanderer, so sometimes we had to cook our own rice to stave off our hunger. The result? Hard and half-cooked, because we didn’t add enough water! Upon adding water, it turned into porridge. Only after extensive trial-and-error did we produce rice that was passable. At that time we didn’t know that we only had to put enough water to cover one segment of the finger above the surface of the rice — according to Uncle Roger — to get the perfect result.

When you first arrived at Czech Republic, were there restaurants or grocery shops selling Indonesian food, seasonings and produce? If not, what did you do?

When we entered Jarov in Prague, we barely survived. After almost a year in Dobruška, Bli Ngurah Sutedja — a fellow student — became an established cook. And then there was Mas Djoko, another fellow student, whose cooking was seriously good. There was one problem — it was difficult to find Indonesian spices and seasonings. They could only be found in Germany. At the time, we weren’t able to go to the Netherlands because of the conflict between Indonesia and the Netherlands, over Irian Jaya. So, if anyone went to Germany (to Nürnberg) we collectively placed orders for spices and seasonings, especially chillies and soy sauce. And from Mas Djoko, we learnt how to make our own version of soy sauce. The recipe? Maggi + sugar + vinegar. 😊 Without the cane (fear of punishment), anything goes!

How long did it take you to adapt to Czech food?

[As the Javanese saying goes] Witing tresno jalaran soko kulino (love grows out of familiarity). 

Isn’t that true? Slowly, over time, I got used to chleba, which I thought was yucky at first. I also got used to řízek (schnitzel), svíčková (a Czech meat dish) and ovocné knedlíky, which is a Czech version of Indonesia’s bakpao. Ovocné knedlíky is a steamed bun filled with plum or apricot, on which is sprinkled tvaroh (a type of cheese), fine sugar, and melted butter. Yum! 

Or potato bubuy (a Sundanese word to refer to a method of cooking with wood or ash). The method? When we were bachelors, during our free time we often went ´čundrovat, that is, camping in the open, usually around the Sázava area — a riverside town in Bohemia, Czech Republic. We cooked on the campfire, and before sleeping we would wrap some potatoes in aluminium foil and place them in the ashes. In the morning, the potatoes would have a particular aroma, and after being seasoned only with salt, they were oh so delicious!

Do you miss Indonesian food? When did Indonesian food start to become more readily available in Czech Republic?

Do I miss Indonesian food? Of course! And we used to go to the only Chinese restaurant in Prague, in Vodičkova. We got to know the restaurant crew so well, that they knew without asking: Japanese soup, kung pao, and a double portion of rice! 😊 

It was only in the mid-80s that a Chinese restaurant opened in Mladá Boleslav. Eventually, Kang Maman’s (a Sundanese man in Prague) sate place opened in Prague, in Pohořelec, above Hradčany, a place that’s very exclusive. Only here did we truly get to enjoy authentic Indonesian food. Why not in the Indonesian embassy, or Wisma Duta (official government guest house)? At the time, these two places were forbidden to us unfortunately. ☹

Do your Czech friends enjoy Indonesian cuisine? What are some popular dishes among them?

When we were college students, Jarov and Strahov (two districts in Prague) were the two places where Indonesian students were concentrated. We could choose to live with Indonesians. But from the beginning I always chose to live with Czech people, in order to familiarize myself with their intonation, and to get rid of the impression that they chirp like sparrows. And they definitely wanted to taste our food, especially the culinary creations of Mas Djoko. Mas Djoko would collect the leaves of kedlubna (kohlrabi) which are usually thrown away, and stir-fry them. Once, his roommate Pavel came scrambling home with a bunch of these leaves for Mas Djoko to cook. 

Another time, after working for a few years, I was invited by my old Jarov roommate Honza to his house in České Budějovice. Upon arrival, I was immediately scolded by his wife; she complained that her husband could no longer eat anything except rice! Hehehe!

When the former Mahid scholars meet up, where do you gather?

Before Kang Maman’s Sate Grill opened, my house was, on a few occasions, the gathering place for us “kelabayans” (people with an itch to go out), to use Gus Dur’s term. For example, on Eid or Independence Day. After Kang Maman’s Sate Grill opened, we moved over gatherings there. 

As with our mother tongue, our (physical) tongues are also accustomed to our mothers’ cooking, and this becomes the basis for our taste in food for the rest of our lives. Also the link to lemah-tjai (our homeland). 

Now, I live 158m away from the Elbe River. Every morning, I make it a point to dip my fingers into the water, with the hope that it flows all the way to my birthplace Tjimanuk.

I always feel excited to follow ‘Cook Me Indonesian’ — what memories will it evoke each time there is a new recipe?

Have you heard this story? Once a sinyo (a term from the colonial period for a young European/Eurasian guy) had just arrived at a rubber plantation in Pangandaran. The Nyai (a term for an adult woman in West Java) gave him delicious biji salak, to which he became instantly addicted 😁. 

The next day, he brought a package of biji salak — literally the seeds of salak fruit (snake fruit in English or Salacca Zalacca) which he had collected from the streets — to the nyai’s kitchen. The sinyo thought that the biji salak dessert was made of salak fruit seeds — as Ubes himself had once thought! 

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