Homemade Indonesian Pickles and the Importance of Personal Possessions

A couple of years before the words covid, coronavirus, and pandemic were ever a part of our regular vernacular,  there was a school of thought that was running wild around the internet regarding personal belongings. It was a trend, at that point, to say that possessions no longer mattered. That experiences enjoyed out and about in the world were all that was important for an engaging existence. Fill your life with experiences not things. Have stories to share, not stuff to show. Do you remember this? These statements could be seen emblazoned on t-shirts and mugs, travel bags and inspirational posters, wall decals and photographs that ran all over Etsy and Pinterest. Collect moments not things.

It was an interesting, carefree idea. One that adopted a bohemian-type spirit and encouraged a minimal, slightly nomadic lifestyle cut down to the barest essence of tangible materials. Experiences not things was (and still is!) a popular catchphrase that could be hashtagged on social media (#experiencesnotthings) alongside photos of exhilerating experiences like friends gathered at a crowded restaurant laughing their way through a meal…

Photo by Kraken Images.

and snapshots taken of exotic travel to places like Iceland to see the stars or to the Maldives to snorkel or to Bali to find some inner peace. It was a mantra that valued people and places, conversations and connections, over the seemingly trivial day-to-day objects that shared the space of life in our living spaces.

Pekhri, India. Photo by Rahul Dey.

At first, it sounded like a liberating idea. Unburden yourself from the unnecessary stuff that was weighing down your life. It went beyond Marie Kondo and her idea of tidying up, of keeping only the things that brought us joy. This experiences-only viewpoint of life was a bit more enthusiastic. Devotees of this philosophy liked the idea of owning one bowl, one spoon, one plate, one cup. That’s all that was needed in the kitchen cupboard. They liked the idea of one lamp, one book, one plant, one couch. That’s all that was needed in the living room.  Two pants, three shirts, two shoes, one suitcase. Life wasn’t meant to be lived at home after all, so how many things did we actually need anyway?

Photo by Annie Spratt

 It an ambitious viewpoint. It meant a bland environment at home, but an exuberant, colorful experience out in the world. It placed meaning on an ever-changing horizon and made joy dependent on other people and other places beyond one’s own control. If you valued experiences over things it meant that you weren’t materialistic or a hoarder. It meant that you were adventurous, a thrill-seeker, a bon vivant and on the go-getter. It was exciting. The point of this school of thought was meant to propel you out into the world to live an exuberant adventure-filled life, somewhere between Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and a dogged travel journalist hunting down the next best place to visit, thing to eat, event to participate in. It meant a life that was awe-inspiring, sensational, and worthy of a beautiful Instagram feed.

Then Covid happened followed by lockdowns and a second-guessing of the safety of the outside world. Suddenly experiences weren’t happening.  Home was happening. And suddenly the things in our homes mattered, more than ever. Possessions mattered.

Overnight, our interior spaces took on a sentimental glow and objects soothed and comforted our spirits. The wildly adventurous experiences out in the world from the “before days” dimmed and seemed like far-away fantasies tempting, taunting, reminding us of what we were missing out on. Memories of those past experiences enjoyed out in the exhuberant and colorful world were not propelling us forward during Covid with joy in our hearts, they were reminding us of what had been lost. During lockdown, I wondered about the devotees of the experiences not things philosophy. How were they coping in spaces that consisted of one spoon, one bowl, one plate? How was it going with one book, one, plant, one lamp?

Life in the pandemic kitchen!

 

During the last eighteen months of pandemic life, the things that have comforted me most, apart from my friends and my family and my pets, were the things that the experience philosophy easily dismissed. It was my pots and pans and my deceased dad’s apron. It was a seasoned tomato-red dutch oven and a pair of vintage green plates that look like lily pads. It was Edith Piaf singing on Alexa from far-away France.  It was a cutting board put to work every day, a 100-year-old mixing bowl speckled with age, and my grandmother’s gold and green teacups, survivors from the Great Depression. It was fridge magnets that my neice made in the early 2000s – ones that now hold little love notes and words of encouragement sent between my husband and I. It was recipes bound in books from other cooks of decades long ago.  It was this blog, and the hunting down of stories for it. It was heirloom items collected for the shop. It was finding connections to things from the past that signaled we weren’t alone in the present.

Fill your life with experiences not things. Have stories to share, not stuff to show. My one curiousity with this philosphy was in the riddle ran around my mind. Isn’t it the stories of our stuff that we want to share? Don’t our things lead to experiences and our experiences lead to things? My grandmother’s tea cups were part of her wedding china when she married in 1933. My tomato red dutch oven saw more action on the stovetop in 2020 then it had in its entire life.  My dad’s apron was over 35 years old and contained more memories woven into its fabric than a photo album could ever hold. Each time I opened a cookbook last year, it ignited a new culinary adventure. One that led me down paths to other people and other places. Wasn’t that an experience in and of itself?

Take the pickles for example.

This pickle recipe is not the traditional refrigerated pickle recipe full of vinegar and dill and salt and sugar that gets passed around each summer when cucumbers are growing out of the garden at gangbuster speeds. This vintage pickle recipe dating to the 1970s is a touch more exotic. First off it comes from Indonesia –  the next stop on the International Vintage Recipe Tour. Secondly, the pickles were not only a food to be eaten but also a travel ticket to explore a country, a cuisine and a culture that I knew little about. That exploration led to not only discovering a unique cultural Indonesian tradition but also shed light on a powerful understanding of the importance of posessions. How they add context, inspiration and value to our daily lives and our living spaces.

The Tour has been on hiatus for much of the spring and summer due to a special surprise that has been brewing for many months. Hopefully soon, I’ll be able to share more on that front, but in the meantime, when I passed the cucumber baskets at the farmers market each Saturday this summer, and saw them overflowing with pride, I knew it was time to dive back into the Tour with a recipe that featured a mighty grower from a country that understands the value and the power of preserving an abundant life.

Indonesia is home to many interesting things including the komodo dragon, the corpse lily, over 17,000 islands and the second-longest coastline in the world. But one of the most fascinating things about it has to do not so much with its beautiful natural landscape but with its artistic attributes.

In religious sculptures and icons, in the details of interior and exterior architecture, in giftware and decor items, in functional products and even in jewelry and fashion accessories, stylish craftsmanship abounds in Indonesia. Most eye-catchingly in the form of intricately carved art ranging in a variety of mediums from stone to bamboo.

Incredibly artistic in all formats, there is one special type of Indonesian wood carving that carries signifigant meaning in the form of a posession.  In the hills of South Sulawesi, artisans make carved icons in the unique likeness of their ancestors.

A tau-tau ancestral portrait figure from the design book Tropical Houses by Tim Street-Porter

 

These icons, known as ancestral portrait figures, are part of a deeply-rooted funeral tradition that has been occurring in certain areas of Indonesia since the 1800s. Believed to protect the living, they usually stand guard at the entrance to  gravesites or tombs signifying the spirit of a deceased person and the presence of a life that once was. Carved from jackfruit, sandalwood or bamboo, depending on the financial status of the person they represent, they are called tau-taus, each one completely unique.  Many tau-taus from the past century can be seen in crowd-like fashion tucked into the nooks of cliffs in the South Sulawesi area, near where their human counterparts are buried. Tourists to this area of Indonesia have remarked that seeing all these faces poking out from the cliffs is both a strangely sobering but also comforting scene. Serving as everpresent reminders that past ancestors are always part of present day life, the tau-taus with their companding physical presence and life-like faces watch over, protect and bestow good wishes on the living.

Photo courtesy of Tropical Houses by Tim Street-Porter

In the late 20th century, looting of gravesites resulted in many tau-tau statues being illegally removed and sold on the open market where they have since become collectors items, sought after around the world for both private collections and public museums. It is a haunting notion to think that some of these spirits are now roaming the globe instead of protecting their families back home in Indonesia, but much like a treasured heirloom or an old recipe that gets passed down through generations or traded between countries and cultures, these relics of history have become valued possesions and stories in other people’s lives now. They offer a unique view on an old way of life. One that we may never have known about had they not been jockeyed about in the world. Like present day cultural ambassadors, they humbly illustrate of a way of life that is unique and specific to a particular place and person in time. These are posessions that propel us. They help us understand where we’ve been and where we come from, so that we know where to go in the future.

If we abandoned all of our posessions, all of our stuff, all the things that we identify with in the space we call home in exchange for experiences out in the world, how would we understand ourselves each time we finished an adventure and came back home? In the quiet times, when thrilling experiences are not coming at us from every angle, how would we keep true to what we valued and keep inspired to live a life that holds our interest? That’s the power of a good posession. That is the sentiment we would miss if we didn’t surround ourselves with objects, with things, with stuff that holds meaning to us. Experiences are fantastic, stories are important to share, but its the posessions that we select and care for and hold onto that glue these those two nouns together. If we didn’t have  experiences we would not have things. If we didn’t have meaningful things in our life, we wouldn’t have meaningful stories to share. If we didn’t have meaningful stories to share we wouldn’t have meaningful experiences to seek. 

This seems like a long road to get to one pickle recipe, but history emits light in unusual ways around here sometimes! And sometimes an abundance of things (whether it be cucumbers, or philosophical conversations, or ancestral artifacts) are exactly what you need to navigate the world during these pandemic times. If you agree or disagree, please send us a comment below so that we can continue the conversation. In the meantime, pickling awaits!

This recipe known as Atjar is a traditional staple in Indonesian cooking, but it is actually a popular componant of Dutch cusine as well. Dutch colonists had control and influence over Indonesia for three and a half centuries, which finally ended in the mid 1940s when Indonesia declared its independence. Up until then, Dutch influence seeped into all aspects of Indonesian life, including cooking. If you ate Atjar in the Netherlands, it would be made with cool season vegetables like carrots, cabbage and cauliflower, but those crops didn’t grow well in Indonesia’s heat and humidity, so the Indonesian version of Atjar evolved to include warm weather ingredients like cucumbers and peppers. Either way, essentially it is a pickled dish of vegetables. The Indonesian version has a simpler, more relish-like consistency while the Dutch version is more salad or chutney-like due to the inclusion of chunkier vegetables and additional spices.

A breeze to make (less than 10 minutes prep time), this recipe is best enjoyed cold from the fridge and can be modified as far as spice level based on your personal preferences. I used a purple onion to add a little additional color, but really any type of onion will do wonderfully well here. 

Atjar – Indonesian Pickles

Serves 6

1 cucumber

1 small onion ( I used a purple onion for color)

1 clove garlic, finely minced

salt to taste

1/4 cup white vinegar

4 teaspoons granulated sugar

1 small hot red pepper ( I used a serrano pepper)

Peel the cucumber and split it in half. Scoop out the seeds with a spoon and cut the cucumber into thin matchlike sticks.

Peel the onion and slice it as thin as possible. Add it to the cucumber then add the garlic and remaining ingredients. Chill until ready to serve.

These pickles last in the fridge for a week or longer. If you use purple onions too, please note that they will eventually turn all the ingredients in this recipe a pretty shade of pink after a few days. The longer they marinate, the more dramatic the color change.

Just a little sweet, a little spicy and a little tangy, we loved these pickles best served on fish tacos and turkey sandwiches. Hope this recipe provides new inspiration as you celebrate the abundance of end-of-summer cucumber season!

Cheers to ancestors that protects us, posessions that inspire us, and pickles that add a little zest to life! Join us next time for Week 24 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour as we head to Israel for dinner and dessert – a special two recipe meal to make up for our long absence this summer. If you are new to the blog, catch up on our previous International Vintage Recipe Tour posts here, beginning with Week 1: Armenia.

2 thoughts on “Homemade Indonesian Pickles and the Importance of Personal Possessions

  1. This was my favorite part! “Experiences are fantastic, stories are important to share, but its the possessions that we select and care for and hold onto that glue these those two nouns together. If we didn’t have experiences we would not have things. If we didn’t have meaningful things in our life, we wouldn’t have meaningful stories to share. If we didn’t have meaningful stories to share we wouldn’t have meaningful experiences to seek.” So true! I especially feel this way in connection to recipes. When I make a recipe of my mom’s, sister’s, aunt’s or grandmother’s it conjures up the times I spent with them making or enjoying that recipe. And gives me the opportunity share a story about them with my daughter. How wonderful is it that I can enjoy a holiday meal on my great grandmother’s china while eating her steamed Christmas pudding? Not only do you get to share a story but a bit of the story is here physically be part of that story telling. Amazing!

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