Connecting ancient foods to contemporary Indonesia

Connecting ancient foods to contemporary Indonesia

Three Indonesian Studies specialists discuss the links between the food networks and practices during the Early Modern Period and those of Southeast Asian cuisine today.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA, 2020)


Across health and lifestyle blogs, the “paleo diet”, or caveman diet, is newly gaining popularity, but the history of paleolithic food is rooted in global exchange networks that have shaped the palette, culture, and identity of the world today. The work of preserving and analyzing where these plants, animals, intoxicants, and medicines come from and their applications directly inform not only the food scene, but culture and society as well. In a roundtable discussion on April 26, 2019 hosted by the Indonesian Studies Program, under UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Barbara Watson Andaya (University of Hawaii-Manoa), Leonard Andaya University of Hawaii-Manoa), and Peter Lape (University of Washington) discussed their archeological and anthropological work with food in Indonesia in the Early Modern Period.

Global Influences and Local Adaptations

“Foods have status. What you eat in a way defines what you are, so as we have these societies meeting, these cultures meeting…food assumes a status of its own,” began Dr. Watson Andaya. During the Early Modern Period, roughly 1450 to 1820, there were a lot of changes due to foreign influences and global trade. The Dutch, British, and Chinese, among others, arrived in Indonesia with a number of imports including chilies, peanuts, and cassava, all of which are now considered integral to Indonesian cuisine. Prior to having foreign imports, the paleolithic Indonesian diet mainly consisted of root crops (wild yams, taro), bananas, and nuts, but during the Neolithic Period, the introduction of farming and new tools radically changed the dominant cuisine and encouraged the domestication of pigs, chicken, and dogs.

The domestication of food production later had many implications as well, especially when Islam arrived. “It’s quite remarkable how quickly people see not eating pork as a sign of being Muslim. It becomes the quintessential indication that you’ve accepted this new faith,” she explains. In eastern Indonesia, where wild pigs were the largest animals available and incorporated in rituals, communities that became Muslim saw a shift in ritual and gendered care responsibilities, particularly because women were the ones taking care of the pigs.

Dr. Andaya shared a personal experience in which food became an essential part of his cultural experience. During his time in eastern Indonesia, he learned that it was popular to chew on betel nuts wrapped in a betel leaf sometimes along with slaked lime and spices. However, because he personally did not like the taste, he was advised to hold the betel nut in his hand instead as a sign of respect and would often bring betel nuts as gifts whenever he was a guest.

Challenges of Food Research

Despite the importance of food, when it comes to understanding historical trends and modes of living, Dr. Lape admitted that researchers “face a challenge in that food is primarily organic material. It does not last very well in our record. You have to get lucky to find ancient evidence of food.” Often times, he would find old pots and analyze the remaining residue under a microscope, but certain foods do not last with time, such as starches.

However, there is a better understanding of animal products than plants. “This has implications for the labor of getting those foods. Archeologists have tended to think that animals are the realm of men, that men tend to get those animals for eating and women tend to be in the realm of plants to get those plants. So, we have undervalued women’s contributions to ancient foods.”

Dr. Watson Andaya also underscores the importance of women’s involvement with food production at all levels from growing to cooking. For example, historically in Southeast Asia, there is a gendered role of labor in rice production because women were tasked with the delicate process of transferring the rice plants from the nurseries to the irrigation fields and tending to them individually with small tools. “If women were not involved, the community couldn’t eat.” The role of women in the family was so important that there was also a saying, “The more daughters a man has, the richer he is.” This mentality seeped into the culture as well. When a woman is about to be married, her family is financially compensated, and the young man would typically go live with the wife’s family.

While women are undeniably important in food history, there is debate surrounding rice and whether it is considered ancient or recent. Some scholars claim that rice came from southern China during the Neolithic Period but some archeologists say that they have not found the evidence during excavations. As with the knowledge and ideas surrounding ancient foods, the conversation is ongoing.

To watch the full panel discussion: