Sri Owen is a classic legend. She first learned about food the old fashioned way: as a child, from her grandmother and her mother. After marrying an Englishman in the early Sixties, she moved to London where she worked at the BBC for years, and began writing her famous cookbook series on Indonesian and Asian cooking in Seventies. UFF will have the privilege of hosting her in early June, and she granted Rio Helmi this interview by email from London.
RIO HELMI: Sri, you’ve worked hard all your life: as a young woman in Indonesia supporting yourself and your family; studying English literature; working for radio in Yogya; later on working for the BBC for some twenty years as presenter, producer, and translator; for more than 40 years busy writing cookbooks on Indonesian and Asian food, in which you were a pioneer. You’ve done Indonesia proud. Is it time to rest on your laurels, or are you cooking something new up now?
SRI: I’m still hoping that I might be commissioned to write just one more book. My latest, Sri Owen’s Indonesian Food, has a reasonable amount of my life story, which I’m told by many friends makes quite good reading. But if a publisher was to ask me to write another cookbook, I would like it to be more of an educational sort of book. I would like it to be a cookbook for young people who want to learn to cook Indonesian food – a book for non-Indonesian people also, who want to know more about how to cook an Indonesian meal properly, how to go about making their cooking taste delicious.
I would like them not to worry too much about achieving a 100% authentic Indonesian taste. In my books I always put alternatives for ingredients you cannot get in the West, things like kencur, daun salam, daun kunyit, ruku ruku, keluak and a few other herbs that just don’t grow in a temperate climate. Though nowadays, of course, almost all herbs and spices that only grow in tropical climates can be imported from where they were grown. I want to emphasise in this new book of mine – if it ever gets to be written at all – that every cook must use fresh ingredients whenever possible, and the best ingredients they can afford. However, some of my readers will point out that in my first book, I used ground and powdered ingredients, such as ground ginger, ground lemon grass, chilli powder – things I don’t use any more, because of course now you can get fresh chillies, fresh lemon grass , fresh ginger, galangal, kaffir lime leaves etc. etc. Tamarind is another useful ingredient that can now be bought fresh in the west. Or at least you can get tamarind pulp, that can easily be made into tamarind water, and be frozen in your ice-cube container and kept in the freezer for easy use any time you need it. And by the way – avoid tamarind concentrate! It’s is easy to find now in supermarkets, but if you read the the list of ingredients you’ll soon see that monosodium glutamate is on the top of the list.
If I do write another book, it will contain recipes that I will choose carefully and test-cook many times till I am satisfied that they can be made entirely with fresh ingredients. I would like to show any newcomer to Indonesian cuisine that short cuts are possible, but not by getting ready-made or commercially-produced stuff that’s full of chemicals.
RH: There’s a bit of irony that’s been going on now for the last couple of decades in the cuisine world. As the West embraces more and more of Asian food and spices, Asia is consistently continuing to embrace Western fast food, junk food, and chemical additives (I used to love street food when I was younger, now I am super careful about it). What can cuisine heroes like yourself do to reach out to people here about that?
Sri: Yes I’m aware of this. That’s the reason I still want to write just one more book, and I still would like to continue as a cookery teacher.
RH: What made up your mind to accept the invitation from Ubud Food Festival?
Sri: My English husband and I had our honeymoon in Bali. And though I’ve visited Bali several more times since then, I haven’t been back since 2001. The invitation came from Janet de Neefe through my good friend, Janice Gabriel, who’s told me that I’m to be given a Lifetime Achievement Award. Who could resist that! I was aware of the globally successful Ubud Writers Festival, so am excited to be part of the inaugural Ubud Food Festival. Furthermore, Garuda UK were kind enough to support me with business class flights and I am looking forward to sampling the new Garuda menus and award winning service. Yes indeed – I’m grateful to Garuda UK for this great support. My thanks of course also to Janet for inviting me.
RH: There are many ‘timeless’ Indonesian dishes, yet they too have come about through assimilation over the centuries. Apparently chillies didn’t exist in Asia before the Portuguese and Spaniards sailed in with seeds from South America. What do you think of all the innovation going on now in the elite realms of Asian cuisine? Is fusion just a lot of fuss? Or are we seeing the evolution of a new “timeless” cuisine?
Sri: I always think ‘innovation’ is a good thing. I don’t think one should say that fusion food is bad, even if some people still say, “not fusion but confusion”. This is not correct in my opinion. Fusion food was around for years before it was recognised as such. If I remember correctly, either in one of my books, or perhaps in one of my press articles, I wrote that I consider Indonesian food to be the result of a fusion of the many already established regional foods in the archipelago. The food of every region or province in Indonesia is influenced by all the others. For example, several methods of cooking in Sumatra have been borrowed by cooks in Java, and vice versa. One thing that I’ve been saying is that for fusion food to be good, the cook that creates the fusion between two cuisines must know both cuisines well.
RH: Running on from that, what for you, if anything, has changed in modern popular Indonesian cuisine?
Sri: Not sure if I can look at this in general. But I can give one example of a popular dish – pisang goreng, which is fried banana in English. The traditional Indonesian fried banana – pisang goreng – I find tastes very good, and it has become very popular. I like it still hot, sprinkled with freshly grated coconut mixed with just a tiny amount of salt. But now, I see (and have been served) pisang goreng sprinkled with grated cheese and with melted chocolate poured over it. Do I like this new way of presenting of pisang goreng? I’m not sure. I like cheese, I like chocolate – but separately. The combination of the two? Well, I don’t think it’s all that great, especially when I consider that cheese contains fat, and so does chocolate, so they can make you fat also. Why put more fat into an already nice-tasting fried banana? Okay, coconut also has some saturated fat. But nowadays coconut is considered to be a healthy food.
RH: Forgive me the inevitable question: What do you miss most about Indonesia?
Sri: During the first year of my life here in London, naturally I missed my family most of all. I missed the way of life in Indonesia, which is so different from the life I was starting to know about here in the UK. The longer I live here in London, the more familiar the way of life here becomes. And as I started to have my own immediate family – one son, then two sons, and now one grandson – naturally I became more happier here, and I missed my life in Indonesia less and less. Especially also I regretted not being there when my parents passed away, then three of my five sisters. Of course I miss all of them still. I’ve lived in or near London for more than 50 years now – so it has become my home. As for missing Indonesian food, I miss everything about it: the way you eat using your fingers, the way you eat with the family, with friends, and at a selamatan and on Hari Raya and other festivities. But I’ve been cooking my own Indonesian food now for more than fifty years, I like my food, I like my cooking. So it is difficult for me to say what I miss most. But I’m looking forward very much to coming to Ubud, to seeing the place where I spent my honeymoon, and to seeing some old friends, and making many new ones. I’ve been told, because I’ve not been to Bali since 2001, that everything there has changed. I look forward very much to attending the UFF, and to eating all those lovely and delicious new foods which I know will be very different from the food we had during our honeymoon in 1962. No doubt I will have lots of good memories of good experiences to bring back to London from Ubud!