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When I was little, I lived on the island of Lombok in Indonesia, the ancestral home of my father. Often, a woman selling satay ayam walked around the neighborhood. She didn’t push a cart or drive a food truck. Instead, she carried a large metal bowl on top of her head that held everything she needed: the marinated chicken skewers, the coals on which she cooked them, and the banana leaves on which she served them. I’d hear her yell, “Satay! Satay!” and, like her echo, I’d run out of the house yelling “Satay!” in pursuit of her delicious food.
Perhaps our neighborhood satay vendor was the spark that ignited my lifelong connection to food. But spending most of my life in the U.S., surrounded by diet culture and the far-reaching tentacles of colonialism, I developed a complicated relationship with food—including an eating disorder.
My natural instinct is to celebrate and respect food, to see it as an offering, to relish in the connection and deep joy and nourishment it can bring. But growing up, this longing was often suppressed and overshadowed by diet culture telling me that the significance of food was for sustaining and maintaining my health—and, more critically, my weight—that certain cultural foods are unhealthy, and that I should feel shame if I indulge too much.
In my blood is a culture that is inextricable from its food. How could I reclaim this after years of denying myself this birthright?
I’m not the only one with a fractured relationship with food. Nearly 45 million Americans go on a diet every year, while the wellness industry gains millions in profit. In an interview for Elle Canada, author and nutritionist Christy Harrison speaks to one aspect of diet culture that “demonizes or praises certain foods.” Culturally in the U.S., we have attached morality to food, meaning some foods are “good” (and even “super!”) while others are “bad.” And our obsession with this false dichotomy, combined with our shame over eating “too much,” distracts us from addressing the heart of the issue: food access.
On a rainy Seattle afternoon in November, I spoke with Patricia Fifita, Ph.D., an assistant professor of ethnic studies at the School of Language, Culture, and Society at Oregon State University. A joke about quinoa, an ancient Indigenous food, being appropriated by White wellness influencers turned into a conversation about the nuance of food access. “Having access doesn’t just mean we can buy [quinoa], overpriced, from a health food store,” she says. “We can talk about restoring food systems so that the whole foodway is accessible. … It’s much more empowering to say, ‘Not only can I have access to quinoa, but I can still practice in a tradition of growing it and seeing how it’s a part of my life—it’s not just this abstraction that I can purchase for an experience.’”
The roots of both diet culture and restricted food access stem from colonization, which has had a deep, complex impact on our collective relationship with food, Fifita explains. “With colonization, it’s such a major social, political, economic transformation. It alters, it displaces, and it creates new foodways. … With food specifically, colonization and these new pathways that open up for capitalism, it changes our relationship with food and the way that we’re connected to how food is produced,” she says. “The biggest shift would be from small-scale subsistence farming to this massive-scale agricultural production.” That shift has indeed created distance, even a chasm, between us and the food we eat.
During quarantine last year, as I contemplated the physical distance between me and my loved ones, I also meditated on the distance I felt between me and food. In my blood is a culture that is inextricable from its food. Celebrations of all kinds are punctuated by communal feasts. Food is so precious, so savored, that it’s eaten with our hands instead of utensils. Eating is a sensory experience that stimulates our touch and spirit and connection to each other as much as it satisfies our smell and taste. How could I reclaim this after years of denying myself this birthright?
Food is so deeply symbolic on so many levels.
I started by trying to shift my perspective on food and cooking. At the time, I lived in a 400-square-foot apartment with my partner. Our kitchen was also our living room, and it was admittedly not the most comfortable space for cooking—my partner called it our “one-butt kitchen.” Still, it had everything I needed. Not to mention, my father is a professional chef, his love of food borne of his love for his mother, my nenek, and her food. Food and cooking are my lineage, my inheritance. A tiny kitchen was no excuse.
I poured more of myself into the meals I made. Instead of just cooking dinner because we needed to eat, I chopped vegetables like it was an act of love. Washing rice became meditative. Adding ingredients was less about exact measurements and more about instinct. Serving food became an offering, an act of devotion to my loved ones, my ancestors, myself.
I cooked dishes my dad made for us growing up, like curry, stir-fry, fried rice, mi goreng (fried noodles). But one day, I decided to make bakso, a meatball and noodle soup that even my dad hadn’t cooked for me since we had moved to the U.S. The last time I had eaten it was in Indonesia, when my nenek was still alive. I was 8.
This dish felt more intimidating than the others. It held so much meaning to me; it was more than something I’d just consume. I wanted everything, from the process of making it to the eating, to feel like a dance, a reciprocal exchange.
This meant finding locally sourced ingredients. I wanted to know where my food was coming from, talk to the people behind the ingredients, and support their labor. I was grateful to find meat and cilantro at my local farmers market. The garlic I used had been lovingly grown by my stepdad on his small farm.
“Food is so deeply symbolic on so many levels,” says Fifita. “At the same time, it really is a physical manifestation of our cultures, our histories, our desires to connect and nourish people, which I think is also tied to our cultural practice and our values and our traditions.”
I felt giddy hearing this, validated in this knowledge I had always intuitively understood. As I washed the cilantro, I felt the thinness of its leaves and the crispness of its stems. I relished in the aromas of crushed garlic and herbs like incense in a temple. With every meatball I rolled between my hands, I offered a prayer of gratitude.
Before I sat down to eat, I prepared a bowl as an offering to my nenek. Serving food to our dearly departed is a custom in my culture. I lit incense and kneeled before her picture and this bowl of steaming bakso. I normally did this at my dad’s house with the rest of my family, so doing it alone felt different. But I asked her to come eat and apologized that I hadn’t fed her in awhile.
When I took my first bite, I was immediately overwhelmed. It tasted so similar to what I remembered that it brought me back to Indonesia. Yet, while I momentarily felt so close to my family and my culture, I also felt the distance—and the layers of shame and regret. I haven’t seen my family in years. I’m not as close to them as I’d like to be. I’m not fluent in Indonesian.
Eating that meal, I felt closer to understanding the power of food beyond consumption. Inside that bakso, held tenderly by its ingredients, I felt connection, nostalgia, joy, deep nourishment, and equally deep sorrow and grief. That bowl of bakso was a portal to my past, to the parts of me I had long neglected, revealing the invisible strings that tether me to my loved ones, my past, and my legacy, despite time and distance.
And this portal has always been there—I just had to walk through.
What food makes you feel connected to your roots? Click over to our friendly commenting platform to tell us about the food that moves you—and you may see it on YES! Our editors will select several responses to have illustrated and shared on the YES! website and social media in the coming weeks.
Ayu Sutriasa is the digital editor at YES!, where she edits stories in the health and wellness beat, in addition to specializing in gender and body politics. She currently lives on unceded Duwamish territory, also known as Seattle, Washington. She speaks English and French. Find more of her writing on Substack.