People of various ethnicities love that feeling of superiority and pride in the grand cultural achievements of their forefathers. Like the Greeks who will brag about how the ancient Greeks invented democracy. (Although if democracy is so grand, how did it produce a President like George W Bush? Anyway, I digress.) So yes, we have much to thank various cultures for introducing the rest of us to things we now take for granted. The Chinese invented paper, printing and gunpowder, the Croatians invented the necktie, the Arabs came up with glass and algebra, and the Dutch invented the TV show Big Brother, legalised spliff and a way to make carrots orange.
But what about Indonesia? I’m here to stick up for a nation whose contributions to global culture are criminally underappreciated.
There are hardly any words in the English language to originate from an Indonesian language. Bamboo is one. Ketchup is too. Amok is the other. In Java, amok means to suddenly flip out and go on a rampage. This is obviously not an exclusively Indonesian phenomenon, but clearly this occurred enough for the Javanese to give it a name which found its way into English.
Typically, the amok person would be an otherwise normal citizen who would suddenly, inexplicably snap and run around trying to kill people. It could be perceived as the result of black magic placed upon the person; modern science would probably recognise this phenomenon as some form of schizophrenic psychosis. But it also fits with the emotional repression that is a part of Javanese culture. The Javanese place a great deal of emphasis on remaining halus (smooth), meaning that you keep calm and diplomatic at all times, and don’t let show any displeasure or anger. After a lifetime of acting like that, is it any wonder that somebody might snap?
The staple diet of millions of cash-strapped students all over the world. Instant noodles are hardly an original concept, but Indomie is the caviar of the instant noodle world, coming with things like fried shallots, kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), chili sauce and flavoured oil within the packet. There are roadside stalls in Indonesia that specialise solely in selling this stuff, which you may see as the lowest possible rung on the restauranteur’s ladder, but hey, it’s a tasty and cheap way of getting your fix of simple carbohydrates and saturated fats.
Korupsi, Kolusi & Nepotisme
Otherwise known as corruption, collusion and nepotism. Sure, not an original creation by any means, but as a nation Indonesians have perfected this unholy trinity to a fine art form. If you’ve never been involved in bribing an official or police officer, you are probably not a real Indonesian.
Fried rice was invented by the Chinese, but the Indonesian adaptation is so much better that it makes the original Chinese version pretty much redundant. The difference? More onions, more garlic, a generous helping of chili sambal. Commonly eaten for breakfast, since you’ve got to find something to do with last night’s leftover rice.
Anti-colonialism and pro-colonialism in the guise of nationalism
Having defiantly thrown off the shackles of Western imperalism when they kicked the Dutch out in the 40s, Indonesians are justifiably proud of their nation’s legacy of struggle and suspicious of Western interference in the affairs of the archipelago. Strangely, few Indonesians see any irony in their own colonialist subjugation of East Timor or West Papua, as those peoples should be honoured to be part of the greater state of Indonesia. Because clearly, colonialism is only bad when the West do it.
Malaysians might try to claim this as their own – to them I say “back off lah”. This dish, as I understand it, originates in Padang in Sumatra. Like much food of that region, it was probably based on the Indian idea of a curry, yet with entirely Indonesian ingredients. Cooked for hours in coconut milk and a myriad of herbs and spices, this is one of the great curry-type-dishes of the world.
Fermented soybeans pressed into a firm cake – again the Indonesian specialty of taking something from a bigger nation (China in this case) and making something new out of it. Tempeh is fairly uninspiring if you don’t know how to cook it properly, but potentially brilliant when done right. Sometimes seen as a poor man’s food, tempeh is protein-rich and very good for you, and has become adopted by vegetarians worldwide.
Clove Cigarettes (Kretek)
The value of nutmeg and cloves, used for flavouring and preserving food, was the main stimulus for a 16th century European race to colonize and exploit the various kingdoms that made up the Indonesian archipelago, with the Dutch ultimately beating off the Portuguese and others to claim what was then the Dutch East Indies. Thus without these two spices, Indonesia as we know it would not exist today. Strange then, that Indonesians have almost no culinary use for them. The main purpose for an Indonesian clove is to be shredded up and mixed with tobacco to make the kretek cigarette, so named for the crackling sound it makes when smoked. The cloves give a pleasant numbing sensation and mild sweetness to the cigarettes, which is not really a good thing since they are very high in tar and generally bad for you.
Yes, move over Brazil, Indonesia is now the world leader in rainforest clearing. Its rank as one of the highest carbon emitters is due to the phenomenal amount of trees being cut down. Much of this is done illegally, but when it comes to big business interests operating out in the jungle away from prying eyes, illegality is a fairly loose concept. It is for this reason that the orang-utan, a beautiful creature and one of our close relatives, seems certain to become extinct in the not-so-distant future. I wonder: would we would treat orang-utans with more respect if they didn’t have red hair?
Otherwise known as sweet soya sauce, a thick molasses-spiked version of the traditional Chinese variety, invaluable for marinating satay and making peanut sauce, among other things. I've seen a lot of Australian TV chefs using this now, and none of them pronounce it properly (usually they come out with something like "keckap manners"). There is irony in that, since the English word ketchup is derived from the Indonesian/Malay word kecap, and is pronounced pretty much the same.
Not a well-developed variant of English in the way Manglish (Malaysian English) is, the Indonesian way of speaking English still has much going for it. Common characteristics include:
· inability to pronounce the sounds sh, f and th, which do not naturally occur in Bahasa Indonesia except in foreign words. They are respectively replaced with the sounds s, p and d. Thus, “the film” is pronounced de pilem, and “fishing” becomes pissing. The phrase “I have finished” thus sounds like the slightly unnecessary declaration “I have penis”.
· Apparent gender confusion – this is caused by the misuse of pronouns rather than any sort of indigenous Indonesian sexual identity dysfunction. Since the Indonesian language uses the word “dia” to mean both “he” and “she”, this carries over into speaking English. For example: “Hey Chris, you have girlfriend? What is his name?”
· Enthusiastic rolling of Rs. The unkind might call it “machine gun mouth”. Most common example said to foreigners: “Hallo misterrrr!”
Ketch you leterrr, ya?