“Semua orang makan nasi. Kadang-kadang, kita pilih makanan kecil yang beda.”
“We all eat rice. Sometimes we just choose different side dishes.”
Those words were perhaps the most insightful and important spoken to me in all my seven months living in Indonesia, trying (with difficulty) to master the language, understand the people, help the environment, and comprehend how eating rice for three meals a day was not only necessary but delicious.
It took me a long time to fully understand the meaning of those words in the context of Indonesia, a country so breathtakingly diverse it is almost impossible to comprehend. As the staple food for more than 3 billion people around the world, rice of course also comes with several servings of history, culture, and conflict. Yet it was a constant and comforting presence during my time in Indonesia, and understanding its importance gave me critical insight into the lives of people that became some of my dearest friends.
Over seven spectacular, challenging, and captivating months, I traveled to more areas of Indonesia than I even knew existed. As an archipelago of over 17,000 islands, traveling from one to the next is not just island-hopping—it’s civilization hopping, country hopping, world hopping. Each of these islands, and the people inhabiting them, is so distinctly different you would not otherwise know it was still Indonesia except for two things: the language and the food.
With over 300 ethnic languages scattered across the island state, one of the most remarkable things about Indonesia is that everyone (and I mean everyone) can speak the national language—Bahasa Indonesian. I traveled from the west after staying at an Islamic boarding school in Java, visited the Buddhist temples in Yogyakarta, took language classes in Hindu Bali, researched and scuba dived in Western Papua and, later, so far east in Flores that I was the only foreigner for hundreds of miles. Yet over 1,600 miles from the first point to the last, people always approached me with a smile and said, “Apa kabar?” What’s up?
Like the language, wherever I ate I always knew exactly what to order. To my great surprise, the food almost never varied despite the incredibly varied places I visited. Makakan Padang, or the food of the Padang region, was accepted as so deliciously superior that no one bothered selling anything different. In every corner of Indonesia you can find these warungs, or food stalls, with food stacked in fat overflowing bowls in windows from dawn till dusk, the curtains drawn to keep flies away. “Makan di sini?” the food vendor will say, his accent rich with the long vowels from the Padang region. “Eat here?”
After loading a plate with a small mountain of white rice, you can choose anything, from the delicious to the frightening—creamy jackfruit curry, chicken feet stew, deep fried tempeh or tofu, sautéed water spinach with peanut sauce, crispy fish heads, pickled eggs, sweet green chili, or the (not so sweet) spicy red sambal. Load your plate as high and wide as possible, yet a meal will never cost more than $4. Needless to say, I gained a few pounds traversing these islands, yet as the Indonesian saying goes, “Kalau kamu gamuk, kamu senang.” If you’re fat, you’re happy.
In Indonesia you would be hard pressed to find a local without a love for all things spicy, in particular sambal, a chili sauce that, depending on the cook or the chili, can add some pleasant heat to the meal or have tears streaming down your face by the end of it. You would also be hard pressed to find an Indonesian that won’t laugh their head off at any bule (foreigner) dripping in sweat or gulping down water after trying a particularly potent batch of sambal. Personally I love the stuff and scoop it onto my rice like it’s…well, more rice. And all my local friends still think that is hilarious. “Bule gila,” they say. Crazy foreigner.
It almost goes without saying that after seven months of eating rice for three meals a day, I pretty much lost it when I had my first bite of pizza, and literally teared up when I ate my first uncooked vegetable (in Indonesia, if you don’t cook everything completely, you are sangat malas—very lazy). But I am beginning to understand the Indonesian saying, “Sampai kamu makan nasi, kamu belum makan.” Literally meaning, “Until you have eaten rice, you have not yet eaten.” The act of eating rice is so deeply traditional, so absolutely essential to Indonesian identity, that the act of not eating it is a distinctly strange act that defies norms and tradition.
Yet at the end of my travels, the words I loved so much ring truer than ever. We all eat rice. Every single day, over 250 million people across 17,000 islands speaking over 300 different languages eat three plates of rice, surrounded by side dishes that reflect the flavor of culture, climate, friends, and family. I feel so lucky to have been a part of this national ritual that goes beyond the simple act of eating, and thoroughly enjoying, another plate of rice.