Building Blocks From The Archipelago
WINE&DINE|April - June 2021
For the smorgasbord of dishes found in Indonesian cuisine, it is a little known secret that the modest bumbu, in all its variants, is the bedrock of such flavourful fare.
Andre Fois

“Endowing Indonesian cuisine with its irreplicable, nuanced complexity and filling the hearts of its diners, the herbs and spices that go into bumbu have also charted the course of world history for thousands of years.”

You might have heard of this term thrown about by connoisseurs of Indonesian cuisine: bumbu. Translating to ‘flavour’ or ‘seasoning’, bumbu is the central pillar of Indonesia’s epicurean landscape and is not to be confused with rempah meaning ‘spices’. Getting a type of bumbu correct is hardly as simple as following a recipe from an Indonesian chef or off the Internet.

Arini, a domestic worker working in Singapore, fondly recalls learning how to prepare different kinds of bumbu in her mother’s kitchen. “I was taught to make the bumbu of popular local dishes, which mostly require turmeric, lemongrass, candlenut and so on,” describes the native of Indramayu, a city in West Java that is steeped in history. She shares that Indonesia’s famous dishes like soto ayam and mie goreng are beloved across all of the archipelago’s islands, but the recipes for their bumbu vary from region to region.

“Good chefs mix their own bumbu and don’t rely on instant mixes,” remarks Arini, who opts for grinding spices with a pestle and mortar to make her own, instead of turning to a blender.

Endowing Indonesian cuisine with its irreplicable, nuanced complexity and filling the hearts of its diners, the herbs and spices that go into bumbu have also charted the course of world history for thousands of years.

The Spice War

The Srivijaya empire spanning the 7th and 12th century was a Buddhist kingdom with trade ties to the Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East. The trade routes propelled the spread of Malay culture across Borneo, Java and Sumatra, while Arab merchants brought about the gradual conversion of the Austronesian natives to Islam.

It was only later in the 1500s that the Spanish and Portuguese (collectively known as ‘the Iberians’) came to know about the riches of the Maluku Islands in the eastern Indonesian archipelago. Spices they had never seen before such as cloves, nutmeg and mace grew in abundance, and the Iberians became infatuated.

The Dutch were so enamoured that they took over the Iberians’ trading posts by force and made over 2,000 voyages, eventually establishing a colony for the megacorporation, Dutch East India Company. They transported an estimated 2.5 million tonnes of Indonesian spices to Europe, where the cargo was purportedly sold for 300 times their cost.

Indonesia’s colonial masters were so adamant about controlling the spice trade that they tried to restrict locals from selling spices to other traders from the likes of Arabia, Britain, India, and Java. Attempts to monopolise what they knew as the ‘Spice Islands’ resulted in a genocide of 15,000 Bandanese and as the English and Dutch fought for control, many members from both sides were tortured and killed. After copious bloodshed, treaties drawn up between both sides saw the English taking Malaya and the Dutch taking Indonesia.

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