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Bungkusan: Indonesian take-away food

By: Diana Darling

This article was originally published in Latitudes magazine, a renowned bi-monthly magazine focusing on Indonesian culture. The magazine hailing from the island of Bali previously existed in paper form and was especially known for its in-depth critical articles and beautiful photography. As a tribute to all contributors of this magazine presents a selection of articles published in the years 2001-2004.

The point of wrapping food is so that it doesn’t dribble through your fingers. But the different ways that people wrap food is interesting for the code it holds about the people who wrap it and also about the people who observe them. Diana Darling explores the mysteries of bungkusan.

Food wrapping and the stages of Baliphilia

Foreigners in Bali seem to have an evolutionary relationship with local food packaging (bungkusan).
At first, there’s the fear of all things wrapped in banana leaves: cakes; steamed spicy meats; nasi campur (which basically means ‘lunch’). To the newcomer, food wrapped in banana leaves reads: ‘This food is an E. coli. grenade.”

Next, once you have savoured the secrets contained in these packets, there’s the stage of being infatuated with all things wrapped in banana leaves. You eat only in warungs, and always with your fingers. You develop a network of favourite vendors in the market (who are careful to wrap your bean sprouts or chillies, or whatever, in a big fresh expensive piece of banana leaf, rather than in the handy plastic bags that are about a thousand times cheaper: vendors know what they’re doing).

Stage three is when you start saying at dinner parties, “They drop trash on the ground because they’re used to dropping banana leaves on the ground. They just don’t know the difference yet between banana leaves and plastic. Now, the maids in our house are adorable people—really, they’re like family—but try to get them to separate the organic garbage from the inorganic garbage … this is going to take time.” And so on.
You are fully integrated when you start throwing trash out the car window.

Cooking and serving

Obviously there’s a big difference between plastic and leaves, especially in cooking, where the plant lends subtle flavouring to the food it envelopes. The ketupat in Java (called tipat in Bali) is rice steamed in little packets of ingeniously woven young coconut palm leaves. Topot is like tipat, except that the raw rice is mixed with salt and oil, and the wrapping is much simpler, made with leaves from the bamboo plant. Bantal (meaning ‘pillow’) are Balinese steamed cakes made of rice, sugar, coconut and a pinch of salt, stuffed into a little tube, which is made by winding a young coconut frond around your first three fingers and then pinning it shut, like a pillow, with a sliver of bamboo.
Across Indonesia, pépés is the technique of mashing fish or meat with ground fresh herbs and spices, wrapping bits of it up in little banana leaf packets and roasting them.

The Balinese dish bétutu is duck or chicken steamed with spices inside the inner membrane of a branch of the areca nut tree. The wrappings for this steaming technique have recently evolved to include a layer of aluminium foil to catch the juices. And these days, many Balinese women steam rice for tipat in little plastic bags, but they have not yet figured out a way to successfully use plastic bags in roasting, except as fuel.

Serving food in leaves used to make good housekeeping sense: plants with enormous leaves—such as bananas and taro—grew all around the house, free for the plucking, and (as we all know from dinner party conversation) when you were finished with your banana leaf plate, you dropped it on the ground, where it was later swept up and tossed into the garden to become compost.

These days, cheaply available porcelain plates are popular for domestic use; but they require washing, or at least a quick rinse. So for festive events like weddings and funerals, people set out stacks of plates that are composed of cut-out rounds of waxed paper supported by woven rattan discs. When the guests have finished dining, the hostess simply collects the rattan discs and throws the used waxed paper into a corner near the outhouse.

Wrapped food in retail

Field research at two supermarkets in Ubud, and among my neighbours, suggests that there are two competing trends in what Balinese today consider to be cool in food wrapping.

On the one hand is what seems to be the choice of the conservative majority (both buyers and vendors)—that is, plastic. And who can blame them? Plastic is unbeatably convenient. Everyone knows that a bag of a certain size holds a kilogram of sugar or a half-kilogram of coffee. A plastic bag of sugar is easier to store than a banana leaf of sugar. Salt fish does less damage to the contents of your purse if it’s wrapped in plastic than if it’s wrapped in newspaper.

In recent years, cottage-industry foods—such as certain kué (small cakes), tahu (tofu) and tapé (fermented cassava)—have started appearing in Balinese supermarkets in a thin plastic box that opens like a pair of jaws. The lips of the box must be fastened shut with staples. Now eggs, too, are sold in these wobbly plastic boxes that shoot staples all over the kitchen floor when you try to open them.

These plastic boxes seem to have hit an aesthetic joy spot among modern Balinese housewives. In keeping with, but improving upon, the old tradition of ngejot (sending ceremonial food to friends, relatives, and dignitaries when you’re having a festive ritual at home), people are no longer sending out festive food wrapped in banana leaves; they send it stapled into these little plastic boxes instead. Indeed there are whole sections of the supermarket devoted to ceremonial-food packaging, with stacks of plastic boxes as high as an eight-year-old.

On the other hand, you see more fresh produce being sold loose in the supermarkets, so that buyers can sniff and feel each tomato or custard apple and have it weighed just like it would have been in the old farmers’ markets. And you see the important soy protein source, tempeh, being sold wrapped in banana leaf (which is then sealed in plastic wrap), as well a cheaper variety packaged only in plastic. Balinese teenagers tell their mothers to buy tempeh don—the kind in wrapped in leaves—with no prompting by television commercials, since there are none. They say it tastes better.

Wrapped beverages

One of the cutest things about pre-industrial Indonesia was the way people used to carry fluids—drinking water, holy water, palm-flower beer, and so forth—in bamboo tubes called bumbung. These are lengths of bamboo cut just below, and high above, one of the nodes in a bamboo stalk. If you scrubbed the inner fuzz from this bumbung, and carved the upper end to form a thin rim, it would provide a kind of beaker that would last possibly months, before (depending on whether it reached its prime in the rainy season or the dry season) either splitting or rotting. The advent of glass bottles and plastic jerry cans soon replaced the bumbung in almost all its roles, except as the keys in the bamboo xylophone of the same name, and as vehicles for holy water of the highest octane, or for any holy water that is likely to appear in a documentary film.

These days, in the warungs and in Balinese homes, coffee and tea are served in glasses—or in cups and saucers for special occasions or as an expression of respect for rank. (Those young urban Balinese who are beginning to offer their guests Chardonnay, cappuccino or their choice of mineral water do so with such international aplomb and correctness that they are off the ethnographic map of this article.)
At snack time in the afternoons, before the advent of tinned or bottled soft drinks, there used to be a resounding business in the warungs for home-made iced drinks—such as es cendol (that favourite of guidebooks, which skilfully describe its squiggles of coloured seaweed jelly and slices of sour fruit, over ice, doused in lightly salted coconut milk), or the divinely conceived soda gembira (‘happy soda’), which is basically a can of condensed sweetened milk over blocks of ice, animated by a bottle of plain soda water, and rendered romantic with a big squirt of red syrup.

These are best consumed in, respectively, a porcelain bowl or a big glass mug, while sitting quietly in the shade of a warung at around three in the afternoon. But for school children in a hurry, the vendors will happily pour these concoctions into a sturdy little plastic bag and tie it off with a plastic straw at the top. This allows teenagers to do what they excel at: walking, talking, laughing, screaming AND drinking something sticky while shoving each other around in the middle of the sidewalk—all at the same time.

I hesitate to call it a refinement of this tradition, but I have been grateful more than once for the willingness of the vendors at a particular warung in northwest Ubud to let us, too, take home their wares in a plastic bag with a straw. This warung is famous for the size, depth and radiance of its martinis; the accuracy with which the staff take specifications in regard to martini orders; the flair with which the staff shake the martinis; and the quality of the stainless steel martini shakers.

When they bring you a martini, they first set down before you a frosted classic martini glass. It’s good-sized, but not grotesque; certainly not intimidating. Somewhere behind you, you hear the icy rattle of the martini shaker and then suddenly your glass is filling up with something silvery—up to the brim, then swelling over the brim.

“Take a sip!” says the waitress in English. She is a hearty-looking person with a grin rising in her dark eyes.
You take a sip, and she pours the last bit from her martini shaker into your glass, making it swell again. You take another sip and then you ask her to call you a taxi and would she mind putting the rest of your martini in a doggy bag.
“No problem!” she says, as if you’d asked her to pass the ketchup.

For the rest of the week, you entertain your friends with off-cuts of your left-over martini, and this in itself gives you pleasure. But the greatest pleasure is unloading from the freezer, before the eyes of your friends, the plastic bag in which they packaged your unfinished martini, with the straw at the top that you have barely disturbed.

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