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Can Indonesian Cuisine Spice Up the World? Yes, If It Gets Enough of a Vital Ingredient

Policy support from the Thai government was the secret behind the phenomenal success of Thai restaurants. The same recipe can work for Indonesian restaurateurs.

By Ignatius Puguh Priambodo


One late night in Antwerp, Belgium recently Maryna Mai worked in her kitchen until morning. She had just come home from her day job as a business consultant and from attending a Flemish (Dutch) language class in the evening. A local organic food shop had ordered extra bottles of her homemade Indonesian sauces and she was determined to fill the order right away. That night and on many similar occasions, Marina found happiness in hard work.

In one month she usually produces 400 bottles of Indonesian  condiments for various vendors in Antwerp, including the supermarket chain Carrefour. Maryna says she enjoys making Indonesian sauces following her mother’s recipe, as it reminds her of Indonesia where her parents live. “I miss my family, especially during this pandemic when it is much more difficult to go home. Cooking Indonesian food provides some comfort,” she says.

Indonesian dishes are still very exotic to the Belgian market, unlike in its northern neighbour, the Netherlands. However, Belgians love sauces, in which they would dip their national food: pommes frites in French, or frieten in Flemish, or French fries to you Americanophiles, although Belgians would fiercely argue that there is nothing French about their famous potato fries. 

Maryna saw this quirk of the Belgian tastebud as an opportunity and decided to produce her Indonesian sauces. Under the brand “Maily’s Kitchen,” Maryna sells various sauce flavours, including balado (sugar and tomato), rendang (Sumatran curry), srundeng (coconut flakes), and srikaya (coconut vanilla custard), as well as homemade almond coconut cookies.

Maryna’s business began with her venture into the small scale pop-up catering service. To apply for a residence permit in Antwerp, she had to attend Belgian civics and Flemish language courses. The course required her to carry out a particular personal project that involves engaging with the local Flemish community. Usually people would apply for a job or take further courses at a local university. Maryna however thought it would be interesting to cook and introduce Indonesian food to Belgians. Through the open kitchen digital platform Eatwith, Maily’s Kitchen offers personal and unique Indonesian dining experience to residents of Antwerp and other parts of Belgium. She has created a four-course set menu that is priced at around 40-60 Euros, excluding beverage.

Usually for those new to Indonesian food, Maryna would serve it in the form of rijsttafel, a Dutch word meaning rice-table. This is rice matched with an assortment of meat and vegetable dishes, such as beef rendang, which is an excellent start for those who are new to Indonesian food. The rijsttafel is served in many Indonesian restaurants in the Netherlands. For those who already have some experience with Indonesian food and are more adventurous, Maryna would prepare a customized set menu.

Today there is only one Indonesian restaurant in Belgium. Worldwide, the number of Indonesian restaurants is quite small, not more than 2,500, according to the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This pales in comparison to the number of Thai restaurants all over the globe (outside Thailand), which is more than 15,000. 

Renowned Indonesian chef, William Wongso, described immigration as a propelling factor for the rise of foreign cuisine in any country. That explains the popularity of, for instance, Vietnamese restaurants in several countries: they cater to Vietnamese immigrants. These restaurants would later attract interest of the locals themselves and become popular. 

Although immigration is a sound explanation, it does not tell the whole story behind the amazing proliferation of Thai restaurants almost everywhere. According to a report by Vice.com, in the United States, there are only around 300,000 Thai-Americans, yet more than 5,000 Thai restaurants are doing brisk business. If you compare that to the number of Mexican restaurants, around 54,000, and the Mexican-American population of 36 million, then Thai restaurants clearly surpass Mexican restaurants on a people-to-restaurant ratio. 

In fact, the recipe for Thai success is Thai government support. In 2001 the Thai government launched a program called “Global Thai” aimed at building 3,000 Thai restaurants globally. In a span of less than 20 years the Thais have surpassed their target by 400 percent. This program trained Thai cuisine chefs, both locally and abroad, provided incentives for those who wished to invest in Thai restaurants overseas, as well as logistical support to make it easier for restaurants to import foods and ingredients directly from Thailand. This program is still being implemented and periodically reviewed by the Thai government.

Maryna is hopeful that the Indonesian government would do the same. As she gradually expands her business, both in the pop-up dining sector as well as in the mass manufacture of Indonesian condiments, Maryna confesses that she would benefit greatly from logistical support from the government in the importation of Indonesian homegrown ingredients, to add more authenticity to her end products. 

Maryna is by no means alone. All Indonesian restaurateurs abroad are from the diaspora. In some countries it is relatively easy to find ingredients for Indonesian cuisine or their substitutes. When it is not, direct importing could be unfeasible because of the overwhelming costs. Hence, logistical support is welcome. 

Restaurant owners may also need a refresher course in Indonesian cuisine to update themselves on current culinary trends at home. That would greatly help them in developing their menus. Those interested in opening restaurants, or starting a pop-up catering service like Maryna’s, would also benefit from seed investments and incentives. Upscale Indonesian restaurants already operating could also use additional investments. These are all feasible programs that the Indonesian government should do, considering its intent to further promote Indonesian gastronomy as a tool of economic diplomacy. 

As Chef Wongso likes to say, it is now time for Indonesia to spice up the world! 



The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pinter Politik.

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