A passionate team of cultural entrepreneurs is redefining what it means to eat, drink and live like an Indonesian— in Sai Ying Pun. Ronald Akili introduces Charmaine Mok to Potato Head and its celebration of his island nation.
n a time when dining trends are dictated by how intricately a chef can plate his microgreens and edible flowers, there is a certain charm to the rusticity of a simple plate of rendang—a rich elixir of coconut milk and spices enveloping meat and vegetables—unfussily garnished yet proudly presented. The version we try comes with a flutter of purple sweet potato crisps, a drizzle of ivory coconut cream and a tangle of red chilli and fried shallots. We knock elbows with our fellow diners, each desperate for another helping of the tender beef and red beans, which have soaked up the flavours of ginger, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric leaves and ground red chillies—the thick sauce a product of at least eight hours of slow cooking to achieve its sultry complexity.
Rendang daging sapi is one of the standout dishes of the newly opened Kaum restaurant at Potato Head Hong Kong, and the ritual of eating it is an ideal way to start exploring the philosophy behind this ambitiously multifaceted lifestyle project by PTT Family, headed by Indonesian entrepreneurs Ronald Akili and Jason Gunawan. The duo started their business seven years ago in Jakarta with the original Potato Head, a casual restaurant serving comfort food and killer cocktails, and have since created several of the region’s hottest destinations—most famously the Potato Head Beach Club at Seminyak, Bali, and Potato Head Folk in Singapore’s Keong Saik district, where international hipsters mingle with Chinatown denizens. At the heart of this budding empire, though, is a yearning to capture and disseminate the richness and diversity of Indonesian culture and cuisine while presenting it through the eyes of the global citizen.
Ronald, who is of Chinese and Indonesian heritage (his father’s side hails from northern Sulawesi), explains that the Hong Kong project has been an opportunity for him to continue learning about his own culture through creating a microcosm of Indonesia via its food, drink, design and architecture. Ronald spent 13 years at school and university in Hawaii, graduating with a master’s degree in entrepreneurial studies, before returning to his hometown of Jakarta in his early-twenties to do an internship with a property developer. After a year, Ronald started his own residential project, Tanah Teduh, with acclaimed architect Andra Matin and nine other leading Indonesian designers, who instilled in him an appreciation for local materials and sustainable design. “When I went back to Indonesia, I realised how rich and unique our culture was,” he recalls. Indeed, just two years after embarking on the project, Ronald decided to launch the first Potato Head in Jakarta’s Pacific Place; Tanah Teduh was completed in 2012.
There is a certain charm to the rusticity of a simple plate of rendang unfussily garnished yet proudly presented
This curiousity about Indonesian culture and aesthetics is clear in his Hong Kong project, opened in collaboration with Yenn Wong’s Jia Group (which provided the premises, a multistorey former kindergarten on Third Street, Sai Ying Pun) and with interior design by Sou Fujimoto. It’s easy to clock the acclaimed Japanese architect’s signature geometric style, with stacked square frames creating individual spaces for the I Love You So Coffee bar that greets guests upon entry to Potato Head, or Canaan, a lifestyle boutique peddling Indonesian crafts and clothing. But move further into the space, where the all-day cafe and bar blends into Kaum, the restaurant, and you begin to see the intricate detailing of the ceiling panels that represents the artistry of the Torajans, an ethnic group from South Sulawesi known for their abstract wood carvings. Here, dishes such as that extraordinary rendang are served, thanks to the work of chef Antoine Audran and champion of Indonesian cuisine Lisa Virgiano, who have collaborated on a culinary programme that highlights traditions from at least five of Indonesia’s major islands.
“It’s so underrated,” Ronald says of the cuisine. “We have at least 600 different tribes in Indonesia and every single one has different ingredients and techniques. There are dishes that even I’m not familiar with, because they come from different tribes that I’ve never been exposed to. We have so much potential to offer, and here we are given the opportunity to put our cuisine on the global map.”
Adds Lisa, “The public tends to misunderstand Indonesian cuisine as only street food or Javanese-centric, when Indonesia consists of more than 17,000 islands with diverse ethnicities, cultures and sublanguages. From Aceh in Sumatra to Papua in the east, there are amazing techniques for cooking, preserving and highlighting the harmony of nature though local ingredients and Indonesian flavours.”
You’ll find familiar Indonesian dishes that have pervaded kitchens around the globe, such as gado gado and sate, but Kaum’s chefs will also be highlighting esoteric ingredients such as field mushrooms exclusively found on Bangka Island off Sumatra, or rice harvested by a small producer in Kalimantan, Borneo. Rare Andaliman wild pepper from North Sumatra adds its citrussy tinge (much like Sichuan pepper) to wok-fried noodles, highlighting the Chinese influence in the cuisine. To fire the
palate even more, four distinctive sambals are offered: ikan asar bakar (salted fish with red chilli), matah (shallot, lemongrass, torch ginger, red chilli and coconut oil), kluwek (roasted black nut and chilli) and rica rica (lemongrass, ginger, red chilli and fresh lime).
Over 18 months, Antoine and Lisa have been researching the unique food cultures of Indonesian tribes (indeed, kaum means tribe in Bahasa Indonesia), bringing back with them forgotten techniques such as bamboo grilling and various applications of fermentation. The former technique from Toraja lends a thrilling smokiness to pa’piong ayam, free-range chicken marinated in Sulawesi spices, grated coconut and sweet potato leaves, which is wrapped in banana leaf before being stuffed into the hollow of bamboo and grilled.
Ronald plans to open more branches of Kaum, starting with Bali later this summer. It’s a symbolic move for the young Indonesian, who stays connected to his culture even when building an international empire. “We’re all global citizens. We’re exposed to many different cultures and are constantly travelling,” he says. “But we also have our own traditions that we’re proud of, and we always want to bring that back to the forefront.”
To express social and religious concepts, Torajans carve wood, calling it Pa'ssura (or "the writing"). Wood carvings are therefore Toraja's cultural manifestation.
Each carving receives a special name, and common motifs are animals and plants that symbolise some virtue. For example, water plants and animals, such as crabs, tadpoles and water weeds, are commonly found to symbolise fertility. In some areas noble elders claim these symbols refer to strength of noble family, but not everyone agrees. The overall meaning of groups of carved motifs on houses remains debated and tourism has further complicated these debates because some feel a uniform explanation must be presented to tourists. The image to the left shows an example of Torajan wood carving, consisting of 15 square panels. The center bottom panel represents buffalo or wealth, a wish for many buffaloes for the family. The center panel represents a knot and a box, a hope that all of the family's offspring will be happy and live in harmony, like goods kept safe in a box. The top left and top right squares represent an aquatic animal, indicating the need for fast and hard work, just like moving on the surface of water. It also represents the need for a certain skill to produce good results.
Regularity and order are common features in Toraja wood carving (see table below), as well as abstracts and geometrical designs. Nature is frequently used as the basis of Toraja's ornaments, because nature is full of abstractions and geometries with regularities and ordering. Toraja's ornaments have been studied in ethnomathematics to reveal their mathematical structure, but Torajans base this art only on approximations. To create an ornament, bamboo sticks are used as a geometrical tool.
"Discovered" and opened to the world from their long isolation only since the beginning of the last century, the Toraja ethnic group, living in the northern mountains of South Sulawesi, until today still adhere to their age-old beliefs, rituals and traditions. Uniquely, to the Torajans, death has always been a central theme, where in addition to the well-known elaborate funeral ceremonies, Torajans also honor the deceased by carving out the likeness of the dead, known as Tau-tau.
In the Torajan culture, Tau-tau is an effigy that represents the person who has passed away. Carved from wood or bamboo, Tau-tau statues are usually found near where the body of the deceased has been laid to rest. Believed to have originated in the 19th century, these effigies were once produced only for aristocrats and the wealthy to reflect status and opulence. As a representation of the deceased, Tau-tau are also regarded as guardians of the tomb as well as protectors of the living. In so doing, they preserve the link between the dead and the living.
The word Tau-tau is derived from the term “Tau” which means human, and the repetition of the word in the local as well as in the Indonesian language often means “something that resembles”. Therefore, tau-tau can be defined as something that resembles humans. Although they are carved based on the physical form of the deceased, Tau-tau represent their spirits that are believed to continue to exist in the afterlife (a realm known as Poyo in the Torajan Culture).
According to the Torajan belief (called Aluk Todolo), every person who has passed away will enter Poyo, the realm where all spirits gather. However, they can only enter Poyo when they have passed all correct funeral ceremonies in accordance with their social status. Therefore, the Tau-taus must be made of materials that are suited to the social status of the deceased. Failing which, will result in the spirit being stranded or lost wandering between two worlds. This is the reason why holding the correct and perfect funeral ceremony as well as the creation of the Tau-tau for the deceased are crucial in the life cycle of every Torajan.
For those of lower social status, Tau-tau may be made of bamboo, while for the middle-class Tau-taus are made of Sandalwood or Randu wood; whereas for the highest class (or royalty), the material used for Tau-tau is made from the Jackfruit tree. Additionally, buffalo horn or bones are often used for the eye balls.
The creation of a Tau-tau must also follow precise steps in its carving following specified rituals, starting right from the felling of the tree for its wood. While, during the carving process, the artisan also needs to work near the body of the deceased. For the funeral ceremony, the Tau-tau is dressed in traditional costume. The male Tau-tau often wears sarong, while the female Tau-tau are dressed in the traditional ‘kebaya’ blouse. Tau-taus are also decorated with head ornaments, a purse filled with silver and gold pieces, a sacred knife, and other heirlooms closely associated with royalty and divinity.
When the funeral ceremony is completed, the Tau-tau is placed on a balcony over the cliff or on the outer part of the cave where the body of the deceased has been placed. Such “hanging cliffs” can be visited by the village of Londa. The Torajans believe that the spirit of the dead enters the Tau-tau and continues to live on, thus maintaining the essential link between the dead and the living. Although nowadays most Torajans have converted to Christianity, Tau-tau remains an important symbol in its culture.
A stunning range of the exquisite tie-and-dye craft will be on show between September 1 and 16 at the World Ikat exhibition in Delhi.
Ikat is a craft that tests the skills of two sets of craftsmen — tie-dye experts and weavers — to create some stunning masterpieces. They drawfrom the cultural nuances of different regions. It is a celebration of this tradition across the world at the World Craft Council Asia Pacific Region exhibition in New Delhi. Aptly titled ‘World Ikat Textiles… Ties that Bind,’ it opens today at Bikaner House.
Edric Ong, who wears several hats as advisor World Craft Council Asia Pacific Region, co-curator of the exhibition, designer and artist, says, “The technique of ikat is practised in at least 28 to 30 countries across all the continents. It is therefore global and stretches across the five regions of the World Crafts Council.”
To put it in perspective, it is done in Asia-Pacific (China, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan ), Latin America (Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina ), the Middle East (Egypt, Iran, Syria, Turkey and Yemen), West Africa and Europe (Italy and Spain). In each country, there are regional differences, historical and cultural significance.
Manjari Nirula, vice-president World Craft Council Asia Pacific Region and co-curator of the exhibition says, “It is amazing how the entire world comes together with this one fabric. The process of tying and dyeing and weaving is the same everywhere. What changes is the yarn (cotton, silk, wool, banana fibre, grass) together with the colour combination and the formation of motifs that gives ikat from each country a distinctive touch .”
That is the beauty of the craft. Despite similar technique, the Patola of Gujarat is different from Telia Rumal of Telengana, Iban of Malaysia, Ulos of Sumatra, Kasuri of Japan and so on. Ikat weaving, especially double ikat (where both the warp and weft threads are tie/dyed), is amongst the most complicated. The process of weaving can be described as one wherein both the warp and weft are tie-and-dyed in colours as required in the final product. The tie-die is done so cleverly that once the weaving starts, the colours on the warp and weft fit in beautifully to create exquisite patterns. In single ikkat, only the warp or weft is tie-dyed.
The journey to build the exhibition lasted a year and the culmination of it was the exhibition in London last year. “In researching for the exhibition, I discovered African ikat textiles (Ivory Coast); and also ikat ponchos in Argentina; double ikkats in Guatemala and the beautiful ‘rebozos’ in Mexico. I also discovered variants of the ikat in the Victorian era which were woven in France known as chine a la branche and famously used as silk ribbons. We have some beautiful samples at the exhibition. Then there is the Meissen ikat kimonos of the Edo period. These are actually stencilled patterns on the warp threads before they were woven on the loom.”
This exhibition is for a passionate textile enthusiast. There are over 120 exhibits with 40 from India. The rest are examples of ikat across the world. What is significant about this exhibition, as Nirula points out, “Is its growth and evolution. There is something new at each one of them. In London, it had a European flavour with the inclusion of a French weaver, Claude Demas. The Indian one has some unique pieces. We found beautiful ikat in Guatemala and Peru at Santa Fe, which is part of this exhibition. The Indian ikat, of course, will be under the spotlight. The next exhibition at Kuching Sarawak, Malaysia will have a distinctive local flavour .” Thus, unlike a travelling exhibition with a fixed set of acquired pieces, it is presented more as a living tradition and heritage.
The title piece of this exhibition is the Shrikar Bhat Patola — of two large elephants in procession with a Jain monk. This piece was woven by a Salvi family in 2009. Brothers, Rohit and Rahul Salvi, will be present in Delhi. Another equally stunning piece is the Telia Rumal by Gajam Govardhan. It is amazing how so many beautiful motifs can be fitted into one piece. And then there are Jayadeva’s Gita Govind saris woven by the legendary Surendra Patra and Kalidas’s ‘Ritu Samhar’ by Pitabas Meher. Yes, the verses come alive in ikat on the weaves.
In the international section there are Victorian era ribbons. There is Miyako Kawahito, renowned designer and revivalist, from Japan. Miyako is known for indigo-dyed creations that are wearable art. In Japan, the technique of ikat is known as Kasuri and pursued in several regions. This includes both the single and double ikat. The Indonesian double and single ikat will be well-represented too.
In China, Li people of Hainan Island are experts in this technique, which is woven on back strap looms. Here again, indigo dyeing stands out. Alfonso Guinoo, the Czar of the Philippines fashion, has done remarkable work with the natural fibres of tribal groups. His creations seamlessly merge tradition with contemporary. This includes the famous tinalak weaving done using abaca fibres which are dyed with vegetable colours. This is a rare form of weaving practised in Southern Mindanao, Philippines.
Ikat, or ikkat, is a dyeing technique used to pattern textiles that employs resist dyeing on the yarns prior to dyeing and weaving the fabric.
In ikat the resist is formed by binding individual yarns or bundles of yarns with a tight wrapping applied in the desired pattern. The yarns are then dyed. The bindings may then be altered to create a new pattern and the yarns dyed again with another colour. This process may be repeated multiple times to produce elaborate, multicolored patterns. When the dyeing is finished all the bindings are removed and the yarns are woven into cloth. In other resist-dyeing techniques such as tie-dye and batik the resist is applied to the woven cloth, whereas in ikat the resist is applied to the yarns before they are woven into cloth. Because the surface design is created in the yarns rather than on the finished cloth, in ikat both fabric faces are patterned.
A characteristic of ikat textiles is an apparent "blurriness" to the design. The blurriness is a result of the extreme difficulty the weaver has lining up the dyed yarns so that the pattern comes out perfectly in the finished cloth. The blurriness can be reduced by using finer yarns or by the skill of the craftsperson. Ikats with little blurriness, multiple colours and complicated patterns are more difficult to create and therefore often more expensive. However, the blurriness that is so characteristic of ikat is often prized by textile collectors.
Ikat is produced in many traditional textile centres around the world, from India to Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Japan (where it is called kasuri), Africa and Latin America. Double ikats—in which both the warp and weft yarns are tied and dyed before being woven into a single textile—are relatively rare because of the intensive skilled labour required to produce them. They are produced in Okinawa islands of Japan, the village of Tenganan in Indonesia, and the villages of Puttapaka and Bhoodan Pochampally in Telangana in India. In fact, many other parts of India have their indigenous Ikat weaving techniques. Orissa’s Sambalpuri Ikat is quite different from the sharp Ikat patterns, woven in Patan of Gujarat. The latter, known as Patan Patola, is one of the rarest forms of double Ikat, which takes a lot of time and effort in dyeing and weaving. A different form of Patola ikat is made in Rajkot, Gujarat. Telia Rumal made in Andhra, Pasapalli from Odisha and Puttapaka from Telangana are other Indian Ikats.