On my trip home in late March and April 2017, I spent some time with my late cousin’s wife and two children in Jakarta. I was sucked through an accelerated, repeated process of grieving in the space of 24 hours, interspersed with wonderful meals, and I came out the other side feeling that I received the closure I didn’t have before.
My cousin, Harry, was a few years older than me: he was my first friend, we were close throughout our childhoods, and as adults, we always had that connection, which I rarely experience with my other cousins. We aren’t, weren’t, perfect, we just took our flaws in stride, embraced them even. Our closeness was facilitated, partly, by the fact that the two of us were the much-loved, much-hugged-and-kissed favourites of our paternal grandparents and of our fathers’ only sister, Tante Ann.
Weekends were either spent at our grandparents’ or at Tante Ann and Oom Djoko’s homes, without our parents, and often, without our younger siblings. Tante Ann, Oom Djoko, Harry and I were our own family unit: we went on adventures and built hidden castles out of pillows and blankets, we swam in the sea and watched breathtaking Balinese sunsets, played tennis and rode horses in the mountains, rode our bikes through Jakarta streets, we caught fish and we ate a lot of delicious things along the way.
Harry was always there, that mix of comforting-and-maddening presence who’d tease me endlessly, mercilessly, but he’d be the first to save my ass from whatever trouble I landed myself in. Our aunt passed away in 2013, our uncle in 2015. Harry passed away in 2016, exactly a year to the day that my uncle died, at 41 years old. A Tante-Ann-Oom-Djoko-and-Harry-shaped hole in my universe. I mourn them, yet I’m finding my way in this, shaped by the great great love we had.
Anyway. I could not stay away. I had to get closure.
Harry left behind a wife, Vonny, and two children, aged 14 and 10, at the time of his passing. It was therapeutic for me to stay over at theirs, Vonny and I talked a lot about his last days and the days after his death. I shed some tears, slept on his side of the bed, touched and smelled all his clothes, he was everywhere in their home.
I can’t even imagine Vonny’s grief, her children’s grief, their loss.
Vonny saw my grief, and she took care of me. She told me,
I’ve lost my will to cook. I don’t know how to get it back. Harry loved my cooking, he always complimented me on everything I made for us to eat and he always encouraged me to do something with food.
Vonny is an accomplished chef, who runs a part-time catering business out of personal passion, in addition to running her own successful companies. Harry raved about her cooking, and I was lucky that I got to eat her delicious food when they visited me in Milan, and when I showed up to family pot-luck gatherings in Jakarta. The thing about chefs, even homecooks, is that we’re used to taking care of people, we take care of people every day through our cooking, food is how we connect to people.
She looked over my Jakarta food list and took me to eat some of the items I had on my list. The rest of our time together was spent in a market, over more food, and we didn’t stop talking. It was a frantic 24 hours of downloading from and uploading to each other. We were rather all over the place.
Pasar tradisional AKA traditional markets
Vonny drove us to a Jakarta market in the morning, where we shopped for lunch ingredients. I love markets! Especially markets in Asia with all kinds of exotic ingredients that I don’t see in Europe. Like a kid, I want to touch everything and put them in my mouth, I want to talk to everyone and take photos of everything.
My mom had often taken me to pasar tradisional when I was a kid growing up in Jakarta, and reward me with beef rendang afterwards. Most Jakartans my generation prefer shopping at supermarkets in malls. Somehow, traditional markets have gotten a reputation for being dirty, busy and ripe for petty crime like pickpocketing. I’d have to say that while this is true, some local markets have popped up in the streets of residential compounds, and the ones housed in market halls have gotten cleaned up.
Definitely put this on your to-do list: it’s so fun to visit and the eateries around the market are great for breakfast afterwards. If you are lucky like me, your market buddy would be an accomplished chef who would cook you yummy food using your market purchases.
Afterwards Vonny steered me to a noodle stall for a bowl of delicious noodle soup whose broth warmed me all over, and the nutmeg juice was one of the most memorable things I had during that trip. I had no idea we could make juice with nutmeg! So so good!
The “kampung” lunch
Our time together in Jakarta ended with Vonny cooking us a kampung lunch of fish, oncom, rice and salad leaves, all eaten with the hands and dipped into chili paste. The food swung Sundanese, since like me, Vonny is of Javanese and Sundanese heritage. Oncom is a Sundanese staple, as is fried fish.
She’s still trying to find her will to cook again.
Thanks for reading.
Vonny and I really bonded during those 24 hours I spent with her and her kids. I’m currently with her in Berlin. I get her for 5 days, which is quite the luxury for me. Husband, my London twin and our Berlin friends notwithstanding, I never get more than 48-72 hours with my loved ones in one go.
We are eating our way through town. We are also cooking together.
I’m hoping, she’ll find the will to cook again.