By Morgana RavenTree
How does a child of Diaspora find her ancestors? How does she connect with her ancestral culture when it exists on another continent she has never, and possibly will never, visit?
My parents were born in Indonesia when it was a colony of the Netherlands. After Indonesian independence, in the early 1950’s, they, my brother and their extended family all left the only home most of them had ever known and migrated to the Netherlands, the “homeland” most of them had never seen. They found it difficult to adapt to a cold (in more than one way) country and after I was born, immigrated to Massachusetts, then California. Growing up in Southern California, there were no other Dutch-Indonesian (“Indo”) families where we lived. My parents told me stories of growing up in Indonesia, but for the most part, they wanted me to be “American”. English became our primary language and in school I absorbed “American” history and culture. The strongest connection to the culture into which they had been born was food. My mother cooked mostly Indonesian food for my father, but even then, she made separate “American” food for me. The only time I ate Indonesian food was for special occasions, when we would go to “Little Bali” restaurant in Inglewood for “Rijstaffel”, an Indonesian feast. It was not until I was in college, visited my grandmother in the Netherlands, and collected her recipes that I learned to appreciate Indo food. For a while I was really into cooking Indo food, but I discovered that my friends did not like it (or maybe they just did not like my cooking), so I stopped gradually. It has been several years since I have prepared any Indo dishes. Meanwhile, I ate Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino and other Asian foods, but neglected my own food heritage.
At several recent Pantheacons, I attended workshops on Hoodoo and Conjure paths that have become popular. Rather than studying those paths, it awakened in me a desire to learn more about the Pagan cultures of my ancestors. Although my ancestors were both European and Asian, my Pagan practice has always been European-origin Wicca (with a detour to Ancient Egypt). At one of the Pagans of Color caucuses I expressed my desire to connect with my own ancestral Indonesian culture, but did not know how to start, as my most recent Indonesian ancestors were Muslim. One of the other attendees recommended that I do “ancestor work” and try to connect with more distant ancestors. After thinking about it, I realized I did not have to go back that far. My mother had told me that her grandmother was a “witchdoctor” who lit candles for spirits. I doubt she was a “witch” in the European sense of the word. It was more likely that she was a practitioner of folk-magic. She died when I was 2 years old, so I am not her reincarnation, but my mother often said I was very much like her.
I want to reconnect to pre-Islamic Indonesian culture (the islands of Indonesia were once a hub of Hindu-Buddhist culture) using my great grandmother as a bridge. As the Balinese never converted to Islam, I looked to Balinese culture for clues as to how the pre-Islamic culture of the rest of Indonesia would have been. I know enough about Balinese culture to know that great feasts are prepared for the gods (or in this case, my ancestors), but after they have eaten the spirits in the foods, it’s the people that eat the food. I feel that before I can call upon and commune with my ancestors, particularly with my great-grandmother, I need to show them that I am serious about pursuing this and honor them as they deserve.
This long explanation is leading up to this: during the pandemic, I suddenly found myself mostly homebound for three months. That is when I decided to re-learn how to cook Indo foods. I have an added complication. For health reasons, my doctors do not want me to eat red meat (and by “red meat” they mean mammals), empty carbs (white rice, white potatoes), and restrict sugar and saturated fat (which includes coconut). Dairy too, but that doesn’t really figure in Indo cooking much. I started with some simple dishes – “frikadel” (a meatloaf made with potatoes), “sayoer lodeh” (vegetables in coconut cream) and “atjar” (pickled vegetables). I have had to make each dish several times, each time trying to “perfect” the recipe. For the frikadel, I had to replace ground beef with ground turkey and mashed potatoes with mashed sweet potatoes (higher in fiber and nutrients). It smelled and tasted like my mother’s frikadel but was disturbingly pale. I think I will need to make it one more time and mix the soy sauce into the loaf instead of pouring it on top in an effort “darken” the loaf.