Family, friends and food diplomacy: Sophie Hewitt's trip to a Javanese village

20 June 2018

Sophie Hewitt is a fifth year Bachelor of Asia-Pacific Studies (Year in Asia) / Bachelor of Laws (Honours) student. She is currently undertaking a Year in Asia program in Indonesia with the support of a New Colombo Plan Scholarship.

On a weekend in the middle of April, my friend, Adit, took me on a 6-hour bus trip to her hometown of Kudus, 180km north of Yogyakarta. It’s definitely not on the regular tourist itinerary for Australians, but the opportunity to meet Adit’s friends and family from her village was one I didn’t want to pass up.

Food diplomacy

As always, food diplomacy, or the act of bridging cultural divides through the exchange and discussion of food, was an important component of the weekend. I had to try the famous dishes of Kudus. For example Lentok, consisting of rice steamed in a banana leaf, served with fermented jack fruit, spicy chilli sauce (sambal) and tofu, is traditionally eaten at breakfast. And soto kerbau, or buffalo stew, uses buffalo rather than cow, as a remnant of the area’s Hindu history.

Lentok – a sweet and fatty Kudus breakfast.

Soto kerbau is simply known as ‘soto Kudus’ outside of Kudus.

Food diplomacy was also practiced when visiting the houses of Adit’s family members. One of the most important things about Indonesian hospitality is the host offering and guest receiving mounds of traditional drinks and sweets. As I hadn’t tried many of these unusual sweets before, I was interested to see what they tasted like. But unfortunately with vast amounts of Central Javanese food comes vast amounts of sugar.

Central Java is well-known for its love of sweet food. In fact, whenever I tell an Indonesian I’ve studied in Central Java, they immediately start complaining about the region’s sugar obsession! As a result of the region’s sweet tooth, the most difficult aspect of visiting my friend’s family members was not following and engaging in conversations in Indonesian, but honing my ability to consume vast amounts of sugar without feeling physically sick!

Es buah, meaning ‘iced fruit,’ is a like a soup of cold cordial, with chopped fruit and jelly.

Bubur matiara is a sago pudding, served with sweetened coconut milk and coloured with syrup.

Rujak is a mixture of raw fruit and vegetables served with spicy peanut sauce. We were served this with iced syrup (cordial) and biscuits.

Kretek (clove cigarettes)

Famous for its kretek factories, Kudus is the largest producer of tobacco products in Indonesia. Unlike Australia, there are few restrictions on cigarettes sales or advertising. And with cigarette packs costing less than AU$1, it’s no wonder Indonesia has some of the highest rates of smoking in the world.

As Adit and I drove on her motorbike through tobacco plantations and the factory-lined streets, the smell of clove-flavoured kretek wafted into our helmets. She even took me on a tour through the Cigarette Museum!

Museum Kretek/Cigarette Museum chronicles the history of tobacco farming and cigarette production in Central Java.

Cigarette companies can now advertise their products on street signs! A sign for ‘Gang 6’ (Street Number 6) is displayed with a cigarette manufacturer’s logo.

Keluarga (family)

I was also able to meet many different members of Adit’s family. Every few months, a different member of her family will host a large meal at their house. This time, her mum hosted the event. Adit and her parents woke up at 3:30am to begin preparing the food, then the first family members arrived at 6am. By 9am, the meal was over!

Food boxes prepared for members of the family who couldn’t attend (there were about 20).

Another important element of Indonesian formal gatherings are selfies, of which there were many (particularly with my friend’s mum).

Myself with my friend and her family, eating buffalo satay.

Teman-teman baru (new friends)

Me and Adit with new friends made on our morning run through local rice paddies.

Kudus is a small town, and not visited by many tourists – either bule (Westerner) or Indonesian! So I was often met with curiosity and asked ‘why are you in Indonesia?’ My answer was always this: “wherever I have gone in Indonesia, it’s been impossible to not make friends!”

Whether I was visiting the famous Menara Mosque in Kudus, taking selfies with Adit’s mum, visiting the local Protestant church on Sunday or going for an early morning run along rice fields with Adit and her friends, I was welcomed. My trip to Kudus represented the reason why I continue to study about and return to Indonesia: friends.

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Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team