'I Think Food Can Make Us More Democratic'

What food can teach us about diversity, and unity, in Indonesia.
October 8, 2018, 4:15am

Why do we care about food? Think about it for a second. Sure, it tastes good, but that alone can't be the reason we're all so obsessed with it. There's magazines, television stations, and countless travel series all devoted to food. And now, here at VICE's Indonesia office, we have our own food show too.

Akarasa is all about the reasons why we care about food so much. It's because food is more than a simple meal. It's history. It's people and places and hours, days, weeks, months of hard work. Food is something that can bring us together. Or pull us apart.

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We spoke with Lisa Virgiano, an expert in all things food, about how cuisines and cultures intersect in ways we might not have ever imagined.


Watch: How Colonialism Brought South Indian Flavors to Indonesia: Akarasa


VICE: Why do you think Indonesians think connect with food so much?
Lisa Virgiano: I think individuals have a deep connection with food. It's one of the elements that also touches on how we embrace diversity in Indonesia. We are a very diverse nation, made up of so many different ethnicities, and I think food touches everyone without discriminating.

But it's also tied up so much about our national identity as well, right?
You can actually look at that from many sides, about how food can represent history and history can represent food. But, in my opinion, food culture is created and it continues to evolve from that time to our new age. It plays a role in the formation of [our] identity, and that's originally because of our history.

How so?
Indonesia culinary culture is what it is because we are a very open nation. Actually, we already knew about globalization way before it was mentioned everywhere in the media.

What's the proof? Our food. It has a lot of foreign influences because even before the Dutch came, the Indonesian kingdoms were trading with other countries, with the Arabs, the Chinese, the Persians, Mongolians, and Indians. And I believe that that's why Indonesian food can also have deep meanings or symbolism, that it is actually about our character as a nation that's tolerant, friendly, and open to new things.

I think food can make us more democratic, or at least help us run a democracy. If we didn't have the guts to try something new, especially when it is something really basic, like tasting new food, then how could we ever have the guts to try something else? And because in these dishes are a lot of elements, the taste always represents something new, I believe believe our tongue makes us more democratic.

So, for you, food also brings us together.
Food is really populist. It's like that now and back then too. We can see how food can be a way to unite people. The tongue is a unifier.

And it can unite cultures too, like how you see influences from Chinese, Indian, and Japanese food being integrated into Indonesian food, or adapted to suit the environment and marketplace here, right?
Yeah, I think roti canai is really interesting, because Indonesians didn't have a tradition of eating bread. So then how can roti canai exist? Was it influenced by Dutch or Indian cooking? Well, from what I understand, the fact that we have places like Kampung Madras, in Medan, where a lot of Indian-Indonesians live, is because the Dutch VOC brought them here to live and work on the tobacco plantations. And they brought this bread culture with them from South India. They found out that, "oh, the Dutch import wheat," so they took that wheat and created their own bread. Then local people thought, "let's do this our own way," and they called it roti canai.

This interview has been translated and edited for content and clarity.