Interviews with the Indonesian diaspora: Haider

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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.

Haider is one of the founders of Javanese Singaporeans, a group which brings together the Javanese diaspora community in Singapore. Recently, the group sought to highlight the Javanese heritage of the dish Nasi Ambeng in the media.

In this interview, we speak with Haider on Javanese culture in Singapore, as well as some of his personal culinary experiences as a Singaporean of Javanese descent.

Why do you think it’s important to raise public awareness that nasi ambeng is a Javanese dish?

Nasi ambeng is closely connected with our rituals, known as slametan or kenduren, and is a ritual dish of the Javanese/Malay community in Singapore. Therefore, we thought it was important to preserve its symbolism and, at the same time, educate the public on the function of nasi ambeng and its importance to the Javanese/Malay community.

When did your ancestors come to Singapore? 

I think it was around mid-19th century. Oral records are hazy but I heard that a great-great- grandmother came from Jepara (a town in Central Java).

What did you eat at home, growing up? 

I was raised by my Javanese paternal grandaunt. In my childhood, one of my favourite foods was sayur bening. Another favourite dish of mine, from my Malay maternal side, was asam pedas ikan parang (Malay sour and spicy fish curry).

What aspects of Javanese cuisine are you interested in finding out more about? 

I think it would be how the Javanese cuisine in Singapore has been adapted to suit Malay taste buds, and how the cooking styles and ingredients differ from the cuisine of Java today.

In your opinion, how is Javanese food different from other regional cuisines, such as Padang food, Malay food, etc?

I feel that compared to other regional cuisines, Javanese food culture has exerted a stronger influence on the Malay community in Singapore. 

Are there any common dishes in Singapore that are actually Javanese, but are mistaken for being something else?

Actually, a lot of the food eaten by the Javanese community in Singapore is mistaken as Malay food. For example, nasi rawon, nasi jenganan/janganan, nasi sambal goreng, nasi ambeng (also known as nasi berkat/banchaan), mee soto, soto ayam, etc, are thought to be Malay food. Even the quintessentially Javanese tempeh is considered Malay. 

In your opinion, how important is food in influencing a person’s sense of identity?

I believe that every culture or ethnicity has specific dishes that are thought to represent one’s identity. For example, rendang is synonymous with the culture and people of Minang/Padang, so on.

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You are one of the founders of the group, Javanese Singaporeans. What are the origins of this group, and what are some interesting activities you organize to keep it going?

In 2007 or thereabouts, there were two Facebook groups, Orang Jawa di Singapura (OJDS) and Javanese Singaporeans. I got to know the founder of OJDS, Mas Suryakenchana Omar, and in 2008, we decided to combine the two groups to form Javanese Singaporeans.

Some interesting activities include a BBQ for members to get to know each other, as well as an annual Javanese Fiesta that took place in the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC) in 2013, 2014, and 2015. In 2016, Restoran Mamanda, which is next to MHC, organized an event known as Pusoko, which showcased the Javanese community. We also participated in a Javanese diaspora event in Indonesia known as Ngumpulke Balung Pisah, in 2015 (Yogyakarta), 2017 (Yogyakarta) and 2019 (Solo). Hopefully, we will be able to participate in the fifth installment of this event, to be held in June 2021 in Yogyakarta and Surabaya.

Yogyakarta or Solo?

Yogyakarta. It’s one of my favourite cities because it’s known for being a college city. Also, there are various important cultural and historical sites like Borobudur, Prambanan and Sewu, and many activities like Goa Pindul (Pindul Cave) near Gunungkidul, and so on.

What’s your all-time favourite dish?

This is rather funny, because my favourite foods are not Javanese, but roti john and roti prata. But if I’m feeling homesick or nostalgic, I long for Javanese food such as nasi rawon and nasi sambal goreng.

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