Sun, 01 Jun 2003

Suryatini still hungry for knowledge

Maria Endah Hulupi, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Suryatini N. Ganie knows her way around a kitchen, that's for sure. Her contributions to the field of gastronomy have served up the richness of the country's culinary traditions to the public both here and abroad.

She has authored a total of seven cookbooks in either English or Indonesian, as well as numerous articles as a food columnist and correspondent, in a career spanning 21 years.

Today, she is also editor in chief of djakarta, the monthly magazine known for its hard-hitting, satirical, irreverent take on the capital and its denizens.

While some may consider the career switch from passionate foodie to head of a cutting-edge publication a bit hard to swallow, Suryatini prefers not to discuss the matter too much.

She does point to her considerable experience as a columnist for such leading media as women's weekly Femina, her husband's family long involvement in the publication of the now defunct Indonesian Observer and the fact that one of her two sons, Kiki, a backer of the magazine, asked her to take the reins.

But the chairwoman of the Indonesian Institute of Gastronomy returns instead to how her love of food has influenced her life and career.

"I love everything about it, the ingredients, the history, how they influence relationships between nations and how a food or a cake traveled from its country of origin to other countries," said Suryatini, who was a finalist in the World Gourmet Summit Award of Excellence 2003 for her article, titled Marco Polo's Chinese Wheat Affairs, published in Garuda In-flight magazine.

"I've never run out of ideas for writing but unfortunately I did not collect my articles," she said.

Her love of all things culinary comes from her childhood, a period when she had the opportunity to try different food from the different parts of the country where her father, then head of the state court, was stationed.

But she was too young to understand about gastronomy and education came as a top priority in her family.

"My father was one of Eyang (grandmother) Kartini's first students and the latter wished to see me continue my education at Sorbonne university," Suryatini said, referring to the country's emancipation fighter R.A. Kartini, who was her grandmother's sister.

That plan was stymied by the outbreak of World War II and the occupation by the Japanese. However, a loyal family servant encouraged her to learn how to cook, with the aim of her one day landing a regent as a husband.

"Mbok (Mrs) Kromo not only taught me cooking techniques but she also enlightened me about the history of some dishes, and from which country or part of Indonesia they came from. I was eager to learn and I can say that she nourished my love for gastronomy," said Suryatini, who inherited R.A. Kartini's hand- written recipes.

She did not marry a Javanese regent but an Acehnese, Nazarudin Ganie. They subsequently spent 20 years living in Europe, mainly in Germany and the Netherlands, where Suryatini, who speaks 10 languages, was able to indulge her passion for gastronomy.

"People in Europe are very proud of their traditional dishes and I could see this when we traveled to some small European cities, like in Spain or Italy. Locals have lots of knowledge about their food," she said.

"I wished to be able to nurture such a passion for traditional food among Indonesians so they can be proud of the dishes from their own regions."

The couple returned to Indonesia when her father-in-law died. The transition of returning to her homeland after many years in Europe was not too difficult as Suryatini endeavored to keep herself busy, working with several newspapers and magazines, including Femina magazine.

"I did the cooking and they did the photography," she recalled.

Food, she said, must be a feast for all the senses, when it is carefully and hygienically prepared and beautifully served. It is in this area that she sees much room for improvement in the country's kitchens.

"It saddens me to see very little progress has been made in local gastronomy," she said.

"Through the Indonesian Institute of Gastronomy, several friends and I try to promote local dishes and create a 'standard' for quality and quantity that the sector is lacking. I think this is the reason why it (local gastronomy) has been left behind."

She urges the upgrading of local culinary education and encouragement for people to serve local food when entertaining at home, especially with the proliferation of restaurants with Western cuisine on the menu.

"I'm very proud of former tourism minister Joop Ave, who showed a lot of support for the promotion of local dishes and the development of local gastronomy. He had jajanan pasar (traditional snacks) like serabi (a traditional pancake made from rice flour), served for Queen Elizabeth during her visit to Indonesia," she said.

Local ingredients must also be given attention, particularly as spices and herbs are increasingly championed for their health benefits.

In her recently launched book, Upaboga Di Indonesia (an encyclopedia of food items and a collection of recipes), she provides a glossary of information on ingredients and their role in local cuisine.

"As for the recipes, the book contains mainly Javanese dishes, but hopefully other people would explore food in their respective region and put them in a book."

Her one major career regret is giving up her position as editor in chief of Selera food magazine, which she had helped to establish, in 1995.

"I thought I was bored but I wasn't. That sort of thing happens. I just thought I need new challenges (in gastronomy)."

In her recollections, one can immediately tell that she treasures every experience, including seemingly trivial things which have nevertheless enriched her eager mind, and that she never wants to give up the things she loves.

She is still hungry to learn.

"I think I was born too early, I still want to see the world," she said.