The Aksara bookstore at Jakarta’s Pacific Place mall was decked out for a celebration of Indonesian cuisine. In one corner, a photo of the pempek fish cakes doused in vinegar sauce from South Sumatra’s provincial capital Palembang, appealed to the viewer’s taste buds. In another corner, a picture of ayam taliwang, a chicken recipe from Lombok, East Nusa Tenggara, evoked fond memories from those who have savored its spicy taste.
The food, as well as locals from where the cuisine originates, made the backdrop for the bestselling Indonesian writer Laksmi Pamuntjak’s latest book, published by Gramedia, entitled “Aruna dan Lidahnya” or “Aruna and His Tongue.”
She is best known as the author of “The Jakarta Food Guide,” which ran four editions between 2001 to 2009. “Aruna dan Lidahnya” combines elements of that tone and her 2010 historical novel “Amba.”
“The cuisine of a certain time and place reflects the changes and social trends that a place is undergoing. This culinary approach is similar to the restaurant reviews various editions of ‘The Jakarta Food Guide,’ when we go into the restaurant’s sociopolitical background and the story behind their food,” the 43-year-old said during the book’s launch in Aksara, a bookstore she co-founded in 2001 along with Arini Subianto and Winfred Hutabarat.
“Aruna dan Lidahnya” follows the title character, epidemiologist Aruna Rai, as he travels to eight Indonesian cities including Palembang, Pamekasan on the East Java island of Madura, and Mataram, the provincial capital of East Nusa Tenggara, to trace bird flu’s inroads. However, his nationwide travels took an unpredictable turn, as his friends, Nouvelle Cuisine chef Bono and writer Nadezhda Azhari joined him. Tied together by their mutual love of good food, the three embarked on a culinary voyage of discovery throughout Indonesia to find out about the food’s backgrounds and how they reflect their respective cultures. The culinary experience is also the first step to their understanding of the regions’ traditions, history, and social circumstances.
“[‘Aruna dan Lidahnya’] combined my lifelong interest in the culinary and medical fields. The novel is also a satire on bird flu, as well as the role that corruption, collusion, conspiracies and misinformation about the epidemic that was spread by pharmaceutical companies and House, as well as the ensuing panic,” Laksmi said, dispelling any notions that the book would be on the lines of books such as Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller “Eat Pray Love.”
“During my research of ‘Aruna dan Lidahnya,’ I saw how woefully unprepared many parts of Indonesia would be in tackling epidemics like the bird flu. For instance, conditions at one hospital in Lombok were deplorable, as I saw firsthand how there was garbage in its corridors and even a cat eating from a patient’s tray in an isolation ward” she added. “The rigors of traveling through the eight cities where the novel took place also took its toll. I fell ill for a number of months, which was a real challenge as I couldn’t use my hands to write.”
Nevertheless, Laksmi admitted that her travels were indispensable in structuring the novel and fleshing out her characters, as she got a feel for their tastes and surroundings. She noted that her main character Aruna’s name started with the letter A, as with her previous work “Ambar.”
But she denied that it’s an idiosyncrasy similar to Stan Lee’s use of names such as Peter Parker or Bruce Banner as Spiderman and the Hulk’s alter egos, claiming that Aruna and Ambar’s names are mere coincidence. But she admitted that the novel affirms her thoughts about good food.
“Good cuisine has a way of bringing various people together, just as it did Aruna, Bono and Nadezhda in the book. Food played a big role in strengthening their friendship, as it does with real life people; it’s also one of the best ways to break the ice,” Laksmi said.
Aside from launching “Aruna,” Laskmi celebrated another milestone as her previous novel, “Ambar,” was archived in the HB Jassin Literary Center. “Aruna dan Lidahnya” is Laksmi’s 13th book, and her eighth work in Indonesian.