Thursday, April 30, 2015


There are some countries that excel in only one or two styles of art, but Iran is not one of those countries. They are known for utilizing many mediums of art and are renowned at many of them. 


Probably one of the most iconic styles of art is Persian rugs or Persian carpets. These carpets are usually quite colorful, using a variety of colored threads. The dyes used in these rugs tend to come from wildflowers and other natural sources. If you look closely, the designs used in these rugs resemble those of nature: flowers, vines, leaves, birds, and other animals. Depending on the region, there are different colors and patterns and types of weaving. But this art also has its economic advantage as well: Iran has about two million weavers who make these rugs to keep up with international demand. 

Another famous type of art comes in a different form: Persian gardens. Partly where the designs for the Persian rugs come from, these gardens are known for being elaborately planned out. This style of garden can be seen from Spain to India. These gardens are where we get the word “paradise” from. 

I have always thought that mosques and Islamic architecture are some of the most eye-pleasing buildings in the world. Highly built around mathematics, the attention to detail is exquisite. Even the smallest space and border is engraved in geometric patterns. Another key architectural aspect is the use of tile. Many mosques utilize a deep blue tile that is usually a stark contrast against the desert backdrop. But other tilework is in the form of mosaic designs. 

Early Persians were also skilled in painting. What started as cave drawings dating back 5000 years, their skills quickly got tons better throughout the centuries. Some historians believe that painting reached its peak in popularity during the reign of Tamerlane where new styles of painting were introduced. Kamal ud-Din Behzad was probably one of the most famous Persian miniature painters (or rather, he was the most famous painter who painted miniatures. The first way makes it sound like he’s Stuart Little.). Many of the subjects of paintings were important historical or religious figures and religious scenes. 

As you can probably judge for yourself, most of the Persian arts involved making things with their hands. Besides painting perhaps, most of these involve really getting into their art. Pottery with intricate designs and a variety of different metalwork techniques were also fairly popular. 

As far as world literature goes, Persian literature stands as one of the oldest. And of all types of literature the Persians excelled at is poetry. Even from the days before Islam was introduced to Iran, poetry has held an important role in their society. Writing in verse was a requirement for any scholar, regardless of which field they were specializing in. However, there were different styles and subjects based on location and when it was written. For example, Khorasani poetry has a very dignified and scholarly tone to it. Sufi poetry (sometimes called Iraqi poetry) is characterized by a lyrical diction and simplistic word choices. One of the most famous Sufi poets from this era was Rumi. Many of these poems and poets had its effect on world literature: Shakespeare was fascinated with Rumi’s poetry, and Persian poetry has also made its way into English, Swedish, German, and Italian literature.  

Pre-modern literature wasn’t strictly limited to poetry. There were also many essays, hagiographies (odes to holy figures), biographies, stories (such as the famous One Thousand and One Nights, or sometimes called Arabian Nights), historical works, and even literary criticism that were written during this time. There were also a number of dictionaries produced during this time as well.

Starting in the mid-19th century and into the 20th century, an intellectual movement began to take hold of the upper crust of academics and other philosophers. And of course, many literary figures were at the heart of these movements as well. There were many questions on how much Western influence on their culture were they going to adapt into Iranian culture. Today, there are numerous Iranian writers who produce works in a number of categories such as novels, satirical works, poetry, short stories, and literary criticism. 

Iran also has a very successful film industry. Some critics have ranked Iran among the top countries for movie exports and one of the most important national cinemas. Iranian films have won numerous awards at many film festivals around the world, and there are even a growing number of female film directors and actresses.

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, April 26, 2015


It’s one of the oldest places in the world. These ancient lands have been traversed for thousands of years. It’s the setting of many of the exotic stories from Arabian Nights and often conjure up thoughts of bands of horsemen waving swords and stealing the sultan’s beautiful daughter for ransom. And even though it’s such a controversial place in the news today, I just have a feeling there’s more than what meets the eye about Iran. I have a feeling there’s much more to this country than what we’re willing to admit and talk about. Years ago, I was working at a Japanese camp in northern Minnesota (part of Concordia Language Villages), and we had a woman who worked there for one week. One day when I was talking with her privately, I found out she was a native Farsi speaker because her family was originally from Iran. I was so fascinated with how the Farsi (Persian) language sounded, that it’s stuck in my head all these years. I wish I had known her for longer. She was such an interesting person to talk to. 


Iran used to be called Persia, which has leant its name to certain things, such as Persian rugs, Persian cats, and the movie/video game Prince of Persia, among other things. The word “Iran” came from a word meaning “land of Aryans.” The word “Persia” came from the word that the ancient Greeks used for this area. Although both terms refer to this country, the word “Iran” is its official name. 

Iran is a fairly large country in the Middle East, surrounded by the countries of Iraq (which I’m doing next), Armenia, Azerbaijan (including the Naxcivan exclave), Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It also touches the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Gulf of Oman. It’s directly across the Persian Gulf from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Oman. It’s also across the Caspian Sea from Russia and Kazakhstan. This country has a very diverse landscape: from desert to the mountainous regions of the Hindu Kush to coastal regions to salt lakes. Because this country has a diverse climate and landscape, it also has a diverse flora and fauna including Persian leopards and Asiatic cheetahs. Almost half of the country is desert, and it only has one navigable river (the Karun River), but it’s only navigable for a short distance. 

This area was mainly agricultural in ancient times, and there are actually many pre-historic sites that have been excavated by archaeologists. Iran was once like a corner lot in the neighborhood – all the kids would cut across your yard. It seemed like everyone was passing through this country, and there were many tribes and empires that fought their way in and stayed. For hundreds of years, Persia was occupied and ruled by one ruling tribe, there would be a fight, and then the power would change hands. First there was the Median Empire and the Achaemenid Empire who unified several city-states under their power and eventually grew to be quite a large empire.  Then Alexander the Great invaded the country, followed by the Parthian Empire and the Sassanid Empire. Islam was introduced to Persia and became a dominant and important religion. Turkic tribes integrated into Persia, and then the country was invaded by Genghis Khan. And of course, the Ottoman Empire had their turn, too (you know you were waiting for their entrance). During the 1800s, Persia still had quite a large empire, but in efforts to avoid being controlled by any European country (namely Britain or Russia), they conceded part of their territory (although the British did occupy Persia during WWI, and then acted like an unwelcome house guest and didn’t leave until three years after the war was over). From the 1950s through the 1970s, there were several events that led to instability in the government and economy, building up to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. At this regime change, Iran officially became an Islamic Republic, which promoted a very strict theocratic government. Throughout most of the 1980s, Iran and Iraq were biting each other’s heads off.  Mahmoud Amedinejad (who I share a birthday with – and how many people can say they share birthdays with ballsy world leaders? It’s kind of a small club.) was under fire for corruption and voter fraud, and many world leaders questioned their intentions concerning nuclear weapons as opposed to utilizing nuclear energy. 

Tehran is Iran’s largest city and is the capital. Now, the US has only had a couple of cities act as its capital before finally settling on Washington, D.C. But Iran has had 32 cities act as the capital city at one point in its history. At that rate, it’s like an Olympic host rather than a capital. But seeing how Tehran has been the capital since 1796, I’m pretty sure it’s staying. For now. With about 12.7 million people in the metro area, this city is definitely a 21st century city. Today, it’s filled with shopping centers, traditional bazaars, traditional and world cuisine restaurants, public transit, universities, sports arenas, theatres, museums, parks and gardens, and iconic religious institutions.  However, Tehran is one of the worst polluted cities in the world. Some estimates report that as many as 27 people die each day from air pollution-related diseases.  So, if you visit Tehran, be sure to wear a fine-particle mask like they do (or should be doing) in China. 

Iran has a varied economy with a mix of local agriculture to large private corporations to government-owned oil and utilities businesses. Some of the major agricultural products include a variety of fruits (apricots, sour cherries, watermelons, quinces, cherries, dates, figs), vegetables (cucumbers, eggplant, gherkins), and nuts (pistachios, walnuts). They also have a thriving tourism industry, albeit most of it is domestic tourism. Some of the most visited cities are Tehran, Isfahan, Mashhad, and Shiraz (also the name of my favorite red wine). Of course, everyone knows that Iran is an energy superpower: they are OPEC’s number two exporter of oil.  They are also working toward diversifying their energy sources by utilizing natural gas, hydroelectric power, nuclear power, wind power, geothermal power, and solar thermal power. 

The official language of Iran is Persian (although it’s sometimes referred to as Farsi, whish is the form of Persian spoken in Iran. There are actually two other dialects of Persian: Dari is the variety of Persian spoken in Afghanistan, and Tajiki is the variety of Persian spoken in Tajikistan.). While most people in Iran speak Farsi, there are a number of minority languages spoken throughout the country: Luri, Lari, Kurdish, Turkic dialects, Azerbaijani, Arabic, Armenian, Georgian, and Neo-Aramaic. 

Before Islam arrived in the area, Zoroastrianism was the major religion of this area. Today, Iran is mainly dominated by the Twelver Shi’a branch of Islam. I’ve never heard of this branch, but apparently, it’s one of the largest branches and acts as the state religion in Iran. A very small number of Muslims in Iran are Sunni Muslims, and Iran also has small pockets of Zoroastrians, Christians, Jews, Yarsanis, Yezidis, Bahá’ís, and Mandeans. However, since the Revolution of 1979, the Bahá’ís have consistently received prejudicial treatment, namely in the forms of the denial of their rights and civil liberties, free access to higher education and employment, and in some cases, they have been subjected to executions. It always blows my mind that this treatment happens in Iran because the Bahá’í Faith was started in Persia during the 19th century. But part of the Bahá’í belief system is the unity of humankind and that all major religions have the same God, which I suppose doesn’t sit well with the Muslims. 

I believe this Persian cat is my husband's spirit animal.
I am also puzzled and ashamed at the oppressive treatment of women in Iran. It’s just so bizarre that people can treat anyone like that. I don’t know how widespread some of these things are (I’m sure there are probably individuals who may not think or treat women this way), but in some areas, girls can be married off after their first period (the fancy word is menarche). Homosexuality is illegal, but polygamy is legal. However, once a girl is married, she has to stop going to school. Women and girls above the age of 9 must wear a hijab and can be punished for not wearing it or not wearing it properly. If women want to get a job, then they must ask their husband for permission, and in some cases, women are barred from studying certain fields in universities. Iran is also at the heart of the international eye as a haven for human trafficking. To read more about these issues, do a search for Amnesty International. There are numerous reports online with information on how to donate or get involved. But on the plus side, Iran has some tasty food. It was difficult, but I finally set my menu. And I get to purchase a lot of fresh herbs, which makes me very happy.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, April 19, 2015


This has been a great week. I went to the library’s Half Price Day for their book sale and filled a huge grocery sack for only $5.65! I got my husband a manual on Kawasaki motorcycles, a GRE study guide for me, and I picked up a few books for the kids. And of course, I also found eight classics to add to my collection. The problem with owning hundreds and hundreds of books is that sometimes I forget which ones I already own!

So, although I’d love to just sit and stare at all my books (even though I’m supposed to start putting some of them in boxes since we’re supposed to be moving toward the end of the summer, I hope), I know I have something just as good waiting for me: Indonesian food. From the land of coffee (in fact, the island of Java has become another name for coffee itself), their cuisine takes in many of the flavors of Southeast Asia. Many of the recipes I found have a ton of ingredients but with only a few steps to make them. 

This is the bees knees.
Today, I started with Indonesian Potato Bread.  First I began by peeling and shredding a potato, then cooking it for about ten minutes in just enough water to cover it.  Once it’s done, I drained the water off and cooled it. In the same bowl with my cooled shredded potato, I poured in some orange juice concentrate, water, orange marmalade, oil, and an egg. In a separate bowl, I added in my dry ingredients: flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Once I mixed those together, I poured in my liquids and stirred it all together.  The recipe called to pour the batter into mini-loaf pans, but I used a regular one instead, so it took a little longer than indicated on the recipe. It took almost 50 minutes, and even at that, it probably needed to be in a little longer. The crumb was still a little mushy in places, although it may have been the marmalade.  However, the taste was phenomenal. I think it’ll go great with my Sumatra blend coffee in the morning.  

My husband thought this was the best part.
Next, I made Cap Cai.  I heating up some vegetable oil in a pan, stirring in garlic and onion when it was hot. Then I added in the shrimp, bok choy (I bought baby bok choy because it was so cute), chopped broccoli (and I left out the cauliflower because no one in my family actually cares for cauliflower), carrots, and green onions. After pouring in some water, I covered it and left it cook for about ten minutes.  I bought my shrimp already cooked, so really it was just allowing it to heat up sufficiently.  Then in a smaller bowl, I dissolved some cornstarch into the fish sauce, then poured it onto the pan with the vegetables and shrimp, along with some sugar, salt, and pepper and stir it so that everything is coated evenly. (It also called for oyster sauce, and I bought some, but I didn’t realize it has MSG in it, so now I have to figure out a way to get rid of it.) This dish was good, but a little salty, and the fish sauce definitely gave it a fishy flavor; perhaps I should’ve used a little less.

This is comfort wrapped up in noodles and shrimp.
I love noodle dishes, and I always have. Noodles are so comforting. Anyone who doesn’t like noodles is a little bit shady and should probably be put on the no-fly list. When I came across this recipe for Mie Goreng (there are about 500 versions out there), I knew it was the one. The first thing I did was cook ramen noodles and then set them aside (I purchased the cheap kind that are popular on college campuses. However, I threw out the MSG-laden “flavor” packets.) I don’t have a wok, so I used a skillet to heat my oil, throwing in garlic, crushed red pepper, scallions, and cabbage when it was hot. (Word of caution: I didn’t purchase a Savoy cabbage just for a little bit that was needed. I did, however, use some Salvadoran curtido that I already had. The flavor is probably not the same, but it’s generally the same stuff, right? Kinda?). Then I added in my shrimp and the eggs. When it had cooked for a few minutes, I threw in the rest of the ingredients: sriracha (in lieu of sambal oelek, a another type of chili sauce), soy sauce, salt, pepper, and fried onions (in lieu of fried shallots). Again, this recipe called for oyster sauce as well. Once this was all mixed together, I threw in my noodles and tossed everything so that the noodles were completely covered. The flavor was more subtle than I thought, and a lot of my noodles stuck together. Actually, I thought it was much better when I mixed the cap cai into the noodles. It’s like they helped each other. 

Oh, clearly chicken satay with peanut sauce represents everything good in the world.
And finally, one of the most iconic street foods from Southeast Asia: chicken satay. I started out making my marinade in a bowl: soy sauce, tomato sauce, sesame oil (in lieu of peanut oil; I used to see it in stores all the time as a kid, now it’s nowhere), garlic, pepper, and cumin. Then I put my chicken cubes into this mixture and coated it, letting it sit in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes while I made the sauce. To make the sauce, I heated the oil and sautéed onion and garlic, then I added in water, peanut butter, soy sauce, and sugar. Once it was well blended, I took it off the heat and added in my lemon juice.  By this time, the chicken was done marinating, and I put it on skewers. I was going to let my husband handle the grilling outside, but today was one of those all-day rains that we get during the spring. So, it wasn’t the best conditions. I used our George Foreman grill instead. Once it was done, we served this with the peanut sauce I just made. Clearly, this was the winner of the evening. It actually prompted a discussion on which sauce we would bathe in. I picked this peanut sauce, my daughter picked queso blanco, and my son picked peppermint pudding. I’m not sure what peppermint pudding is, but I feel the need to make this happen.  

I think this photo sums up Indonesian food: color and flavor.
This was a great meal, and it seems like everywhere I turned, I was coming across articles or programs about Indonesia. I am an avid fan of the show Vice on HBO, and while I was researching India, they had a story about surrogacy mills in India. A couple days ago, they ran a story about how medical researchers are searching the rainforests of Southeast Asia for plants they can use as antibiotics and for cancer research. However, many of these rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia are being burned for the palm oil industry. It always seems that the places in the world that are the richest in natural resources are in the poorest ran areas. These areas are usually notorious for government corruption and unethical environmental treatment of the land. And of course, the local people are often at the short end of the stick when it comes to being compensated for having corporations strip their valuable resources. But outside of that, I would love to have the chance to visit areas like Indonesia. If not just for the food. And the beaches. Maybe one day….

Up next: Iran


Music, dance, and theatre have long been a part of Indonesian culture. There are many different nuances, practices, instruments, and styles of playing that vary across the islands. 

One of the most well-known styles of music hails from the islands of Java, Bali, and Lombok. I had to study gamelan music when I was in college. As a music major, I was required to study world music, and this was one of the cultures we discussed at length. I found it one of the most aesthetically pleasing styles of music I’ve ever heard. Gamelan music is made of a variety of tuned percussion instruments, mostly metallophones (like a marimba or xylophone but with metal bars and struck with a wooden mallet), drums, bamboo flutes, spike fiddle, and gongs. In fact, the word “gong” is one of the few Malay/Javanese words that have entered into English.  It’s actually quite complex music; the metallophones usually have the melody and counter melody lines while the gongs punctuate the music. Each instrument is tuned to itself, which sounds kind of hard to believe that the ensemble will sound good. The gongs are often thought to be the soul of gamelan music, and there are usually a variety of gongs (sometimes in different sizes) in an ensemble. It’s also common for other instruments to join the gamelan orchestra as well as vocalists. 

There are other instruments from other areas that also create popular musical styles. Angklung is a type of musical instrument made from bamboo tubes suspended from a frame and originated in West Java. Kecapi suling, also from West Java, is characterized by a zither (kecapi) and a bamboo flute (suling). Tapanuli ogong is a type of dance music from North Sumatra a type of lute, a type of flute, and a trumpet. 

Because of the diversity of Indonesia and of its history, there have understandably been many influences on its music and dance as well.  Some different genres of music reflect more local influences from different islands in Indonesia as well as Malaysia and the Philippines.  Tembang sunda is a type of sung poetry from Cainjur.  The Sudanese people living in western Java introduced a complex rhythmic dance music called Jaipongan.  Dangdut is another type of dance music that has gained popularity in Southeast Asia. The video above was from some sort of Dangdut competition, I believe that took place a couple of days ago.

Some musical genres were influenced by the Arab traders who arrived in the islands.  Not only did they introduce musical styles and concepts but also a few instruments as well.  The Indonesian style called Gambus is named after the oud, an instrument that looks like a bowl-shaped lute with 12 strings.  Qasidah modern is a type of chanted poetry accompanied by percussion instruments.  This style stemmed from traditions in Yemen.

When the Portuguese arrived, they brought along a myriad of European instruments that the native Indonesians had never seen.  However, they adapted these instruments into some of their own indigenous musical styles, such as kroncong.  This particular style gained popularity when it was introduced and fused into film music.  Classical music in the Western sense, which was also utilized in film music, has also played an important part in Indonesian music education.  

Each island and ethnic group has their own set of cultural dances. There are generally three different kinds of dances: court dances, folk dances, and religious dances. Court dances were divided along class lines. And some cultures drew those lines stiffer than others. Many Javanese dances stem from this tradition, and there were a lot of strict rules surrounding these dances. Folk dances were for the common people, and therefore generally had fewer rules associated with it. Hinduism and Buddhism were very much tied to certain dance traditions. Many of these dances were based on different deities or rituals or rites. 

There were quite a few popular bands and groups that I listened to. Generally speaking, most of what I listened to fell into some kind of rock or pop category.  I started with Radja, which wasn’t bad. They had a very basic rock sound circa 1990s. I can tell they had some Indian influences on their music in certain places. They were ok. Dewa 19 is another band that performs in almost the same style as Radja. Again, it’s a lot of acoustic guitar with a few unexpected chord changes. Not bad, but not enough to make me want to buy it. But not bad.

The band Sheila on 7 has a very 1990s-early 2000s sound to it. At times, they remind me of Matchbox 20. They use a type of guitar in a few songs that gives it a psychedelic sound sometimes, sounding a little like the Cambodian-American band Dengue Fever in places. 

Then we get to a hard rock band called Killing Me Inside. What sets them apart is 1) they’re hard rock bordering on metal, 2) the lead singer is a female. And that will always draw me to them. There are some quieter songs, but I’m more impressed with them than others.

There are several bands/groups that model themselves after the globally popular pop-rock genres of Japan and Korea. In fact one Indonesian band calls themselves J-Rocks. And having done a study abroad in Tokyo during the summer of 1998 (I’m a little out of the loop as to what’s popular now; I’ll update myself later this summer when I get to Japan.), I can definitely tell they are really into the J-rock sound. Gotta love a band that sort of reminds me of GLAY. I like it, but I might be a little biased. 7icons (or The Icons) is another group in this category. Definitely pop. Definitely J-pop/K-pop girl group style. The group Cherrybelle is essentially the same style. Hardly distinguishable, except for the fact that Cherrybelle uses more of a “band” and possibly real instruments rather than an electronic pop sound. 

Three bands have a strong 1980s sound to them: Nicky Astria, Anggun, and Slank. If you like the pop-rock of the 1980s, then you’ll like these bands. I’m not such a fan of much of the 1980s except my childhood. If it were more like the hair metal bands, then I might be able to give them a pass, but alas, I’m passing.

One band that stuck out from the rest of SambaSunda. They basically took a lot of their traditional sounds and instruments and fused it with more modern instrumentation, melody lines, and song form. I really liked it.  Another group that did this same kind of thing was Krakatau, except theirs leaned a little more toward traditional sounds in my opinion.

Up next: the food

Thursday, April 16, 2015


Early art in Indonesia was pretty much relegated to being religious in nature. Generally speaking, it was more or less centered around Hindu deities and important stories; however, there are also plenty of Buddhist-centered art as well.  There were also decorative motifs as well, mostly with natural themes that include leaves, flowers, and local animals.

When the Dutch arrived, they introduced European art techniques to the native Indonesians. However, when the Dutch used the term “Indonesian painting,” it didn’t solely refer to paintings by Indonesians, but also for Dutch and other foreign artists who were living in Indonesia (called Dutch East Indies at that time) as well.  The late 1800s into the early 1900s saw a period of popularity in Balinese art. It was often considered one of the most vibrant styles of art in this area. 

by Inombong Sayad Ubud
During the latter part of the 20th century, Indonesian art began to become influenced by several styles of art, namely European-inspired abstract expressionism and Islamic-based art. As Indonesia began the search for a national identity among its multi-ethnic cultures, much of the frustration and self-finding sentiments were reflected through the artist’s paintbrush. 

Sculpture was also an important medium of art in Indonesia. There are many examples of sculptures dating back to the earliest of days. Each island essentially has its own culture and language and indigenous belief systems, so the styles can vary greatly from island to island, ranging from wooden sculptures to masks to sculptures similar to totem poles. With the introduction of Hinduism and Buddhism, artistic sculptures began to reflect this new reign of thought. Temples and shrines were the main sites for these religious-based sculptures of deities and other religious objects and symbols. The Temple of Borobudur in central Java is famous for its frescos of hundreds of stone buddhas. Other sites show a strong Hindu influence. Today, the majority of carvings and sculptures are in the form of souvenirs for tourists as well as elaborate folding screens.

Indonesia has some very unique architecture as well. Although much of it was influenced from India, there were also other notable influences as well. Probably the most well known style can be seen in the stilt houses.  Used in areas of Sumatra, Borneo, Minangkabau, Sulawesi, these stilt houses were elevated on poles for a number of reasons: to guard against flooding, to keep certain rodents out, and to give a cool place to work or store items. Many of these houses had highly peaked roofs called saddle roofs; it has points protruding upwards that looked as if someone pulled the roof toward the sky like taffy. Some of these houses (usually those belonging to a higher social status) are surrounded by highly decorated walls. 

Example of songket

And of course, there were a number of handicraft-like items. Indonesia is famous for its cloth, and there are a few different types of traditional cloth that are produced here. The first one is batik, which utilizes a technique of using wax to create patterns on the cloth before adding the dye. Ikat is another type of dying process where either the warp fibers (lengthwise fibers) or the weft fibers (the ones that are being wove into the warp fibers) are dyed prior to weaving. Songket is a type of weaving that is commonly found in Indonesia but also in Malaysia and Brunei. This beautiful cloth is usually silver or gold threads wove into silk or cotton. The islands of Java and Bali are also well known for their making of the kris, a curvy-bladed dagger. Some people have a religious ritual that accompanies the making and use of this weapon, and the hilt (the handle) and sheath are often highly decorated. It’s also surrounded by special superstitions that it holds magical powers or that some kris are have good auras while others have bad ones. 

The literature of Indonesia is somewhat of a confusing term.  In general, it refers to literature not only in Indonesia but also includes Malaysia and Brunei.  And Indonesian literature is written in a multitude of languages: early literature was almost entirely written in Malay, but it also includes works written in Indonesian, Javanese, Sundanese, Batak, Balinese, Madurese, or even Dutch or English. Malay and Indonesian are very similar languages and different dialects of both languages are fairly intelligible to many speakers.

There were a lot of different periods of Indonesian literature.  Traditional literature was normally marked as being after the introduction of Islam, but before the modern period of the 20th century. Prior to this period, stories and histories were pretty much oral at that point. Then you also have older Malay literature, which was generally from around 1870 to 1942. During this time, many popular American and European novels were being translated as well as syair poetry and highly romanticized stories called hikayat.

The early 20th century brought about a lot of changes. First, the Indonesian language was introduced as a lingua franca, unifying all of the islands. Although Malay had commonly been used as a lingua franca, it was by no means a national language. The Balai Pustaka was formed; it was this government-sponsored agency that was responsible for promoting and publishing literature. It was in response against the Dutch; however, it came at the cost of much censorship. The first Indonesian novels were published during this time with the help of the Balai Pustaka.

From about 1933, an era called the New Literates emerged. Many of the young intellectuals began to sense a change in what was acceptable as literature. They knew a change needed to happen but distrusted the Balai Pustaka because it was run by the government. The answer came in the form of Indonesia’s first literary magazine, lasting into the early 1950s. By the end of WWII, Indonesian writers were focused more on their own independence and writing about the pressing political matters of the day; literature was far more realistic in style. 

author Remy Sylado
Short stories and poetry dominated through the 1950s, and by the mid-1960s, writers who were associated with leftist groups left Indonesia and began to write from abroad. The romance novel was the hot genre during the 1980s and 1990s, and previously quasi-taboo subjects such as femininity and gender identity became common themes in short stories and novels. 

Although there have been many foreign authors using Indonesia as the setting for their novels (such as The Twenty-One Balloons by William du Bois), there have been a plethora of authors that people on the Internets seem to mention.  I did find a nice list with comments from The Guardian dated in 2011, and it’s worth taking a look at here.  It’ll at least point you in the right direction for finding something to read.  As if you have that problem.

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, April 12, 2015


When I was in elementary school, one of my favorite books was The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois, published in 1947.  It centered around the eruption of Krakatau, and I was fascinated by the true story of the 1883 Eruption of this island. Years ago while I was a music major at Indiana State University, I was required to take a World Music course.  One of the topics we studied was the gamalan music of Indonesia. It was some of the most relaxing, beautiful music I’ve ever heard. It seems like there were little things popping up in my life that kept me interested in this island country. 

The name Indonesia came from the Greek word Indós, referring to the Indus River, and the word nésos, the word for islands. It’s also referred to as the “Indian archipelago.” The British were the first to call this island chain Indonesia, but when the Dutch took over this area, it was often referred to as part of the East Indies or Dutch East Indies. 

The country of Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, is located in the south Pacific and is spread across thousands of islands. Actually, there are a little over 17,500 islands, of which only about 6000 of them are inhabited. This country straddles the Equator, giving it a tropical climate year round. There are several main islands and island chains in Indonesia including many that are well known: Sumatra, Java, Bali, Papua, Maluku Islands, Sulawesi, and Kalimantan (which is actually on the island of Borneo). It shares a border with Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and East Timor (or Timor Leste), but it is also close to the islands of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (India), Christmas Island (Australia), the Cocos (Keeling) Islands (Australia), the Philippines, and Australia as well. Indonesia has one of the most diverse flora and fauna in the entire world. The islands are essentially the tops of underwater mountains and volcanoes; likewise, this area is highly susceptible to earthquakes and tsunamis as well. 

The Indonesian islands have shown evidence that it has been inhabited for nearly 45,000 years. Soon people learned how to cultivate rice here, and soon religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam began to spread throughout the island chain. Muslim traders had been doing business with the native Indonesians for centuries before the Europeans got wind of the spices produced in the islands. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to regularly visit the islands, followed by the Dutch and the British. The Dutch founded the Dutch East India Company, which controlled the spice trade industry in what they called the Dutch East Indies. Even after the Dutch East India Company filed bankruptcy and dissolved, the Dutch government stayed in Indonesia. During WWII, the Japanese occupied the island nation.  After the war was over and the Japanese retreated from the island, the Dutch tried to take it back, but they were met with contempt and conflict from the Indonesian people. Indonesia was granted its independence in December of 1949. Sukarno was the first president of the country (apparently it is a common tradition in Javanese to only have one name). He slowly turned the country from a democratic society to one with an authoritarian government. A 1965 coup put General Suharto in control of the country; however, it was still more of the same corruption that they had earlier. Financial and political struggles eventually led to Suharto stepping down and East Timor breaking off to become its own country.  However, the country is on a general slow upswing financially and politically (although there are disruptions here and there). 

Jakarta is the capital of Indonesia. Situated on the island of Java, Jakarta is the largest city in the country – and in fact, the Jakarta urban area is the second largest urban area in the world. It’s considered a global city and modern in every sense (even though it doesn’t have a high-speed rail system yet due to budget contraints). The city is home to numerous museums, culinary traditions (both haute-cuisine and traditional), media center, government center, banking and financial center, luxury shopping and local markets, music and theatre, and sports arenas.  

Traditionally, agriculture has been one of the main economic drivers. Indonesia went through periods of economic instability and was hit hard during the financial crisis in Asia during the late 1990s as well as the numerous times of political instability. Today, there are many manufacturing companies that bring a lot of revenue to the country in the form of exports, and the country receives quite a bit of foreign investments as well, especially in export manufacturing companies. And of course, its oil reserves used to be fairly significant, and they were once the only OPEC member in Southeast Asia. (They left the organization in 2008). 

Indonesia is a multi-ethnic country with many religions. Although their constitution does state religious freedom, the country officially only recognizes six religions (so, I suppose you’re free to practice any religion you want as long as it’s one of these six): Hinduism, Buddhism, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Islam, and Confucianism. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. The government requires its people to prescribe to one of these six religions, regardless of what you actually believe, and it’s also against the law to marry someone with another religion, unless one person converts to the other’s religion.

Indonesia has more than 700 languages spoken among its islands. The official language is Indonesian, sometimes called Bahasa Indonesia, which is closely related to Malay (or Bahasa Melayu). Indonesian is the language in which education is taught in and official documents are written in, and essentially everyone uses Indonesian as a lingua franca. However, most people speak one other language; Javanese is the most spoken, followed by Sundanese and Madurese. Although Dutch was spoken here at one time, there are very few people who can speak Dutch today. There are actually a few codes of the law that are written in Dutch, so some people studying law find it advantageous to learn Dutch. 

Indonesia is quite a culinary country.  The big names in world cuisine TV shows almost always make a stop in Indonesia. One odd thing is that Indonesia exports nearly 3000 lbs of frog legs to France every year. (When I was a kid, I had no idea frog legs had bones in them. Frogs are squishy, why would they have bones? My mind wasn’t nearly as developed at age 12 as it is now apparently.) Indonesia is also known for the kopi luwak, the world’s most expensive coffee.  See, someone – how they figured this out is beyond me – thought to feed coffee beans to this cat-like animal called an Asian palm civit. When it poops out the coffee beans, it’s collected, washed, then made into coffee. It sounds absolutely, diabolically disgusting to me, but I’ve read that this unorthodox process takes out a lot of the bitterness of the coffee beans. I guess I’ll just have to take their word on it. I’ll just take my regular Sumatran blend. Although Indonesians have borrowed from many cultures in their cuisines, their customs, and their languages, there is one word we’ve borrowed from Indonesian into English: the phrase “run amok.” Originally from the word mengamuk, it means “to make a furious and desperate charge.” Today, it means closer to “behave uncontrollably and disruptively.”  But there will be no running amok once I serve the Indonesian dishes I picked out. I super can’t wait for this.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, April 5, 2015


So, we survived the past two weeks with the kids being home for spring break. And amazingly, I did manage to get some work done. I’m not sure how that happened. I did try to get them out of the house to do a few things and give my husband a few moments of peace (although I’m still waiting for my moments of peace). We spent an afternoon at the art museum before they change their prices. It makes me so sad. For decades, the Indianapolis Museum of Art has had free parking and free general admission. Now, they decide to start charging a fee, but instead of charging a modest fee considering the fact that we’re a medium-large city in the Midwest, they want to start charging adults $18 and children $10. (They will now be one of the most expensive art museums in the world.) I guess we won’t be heading back. I wonder how long it’ll take before they realize their attendance has dropped off.

While I mourn the culture of our city, I will drown my sorrows in delicious food. Today is a day I have been looking to with anticipation for a while. I love Indian food, and I’m so happy there are several places in Indianapolis offering Indian buffets.  But now I get to make it myself.

I know two kids who love garlic naan as much as I do.

Today’s bread choice was a no-brainer. I absolutely love garlic naan.  I started by mixing all of the ingredients together in a bowl: lukewarm milk, flour, yeast, salt, baking powder, sugar, plain yogurt, garlic, eggs, and olive oil. I had to add quite a bit of flour to stop it from being so sticky. Then I rolled it in oil and let it rest for almost two hours. After it was ready, I made baseball-sized balls and let it sit for another 15-20 minutes. Now comes the fun part: I pressed each ball out into an oval shape with my hand – and it didn’t matter whether it was uniform or not – and brushed it with a garlic paste (I just took my minced garlic and used my mortar and pestle to pound it to a paste) and sprinkled chopped cilantro on top. Then I laid the dough on a baking sheet and brushed milk on top of each naan before putting it in the oven for about 18 minutes. It smelled wonderful, and although there was garlic in the dough and a little garlic brushed on top, it wasn’t overwhelming on the garlic side. I know the cilantro was baked in, but this is the least aromatic cilantro I’ve ever bought.  Regardless, it was very good. 

This has got to be a health food, right? Minus the fried cheese and butter. Think of the redeeming spinach!

Let’s start with the side dish, which is one of my favorites: saag paneer.  In a pot with boiling water, I added in two bunches of spinach and some frozen fenugreek leaves and cooked those for a few minutes until they were wilted. I drained off all the water, and although the recipe called to puree it, I decided to keep it as is.  In a skillet, I fried the paneer cubes in oil until they were brown and set them aside. In the same skillet, I sautéed cumin in oil and added onions to it. Once the onions were translucent, I stirred in the ginger, garlic, a half-can of tomatoes, garam masala, turmeric, and cayenne pepper and let it cook for about ten minutes. Then I stirred in the greens, some heavy whipping cream, the paneer cubes, and a little salt. Putting the lid on the skillet, I let it cook for another 10-15 minutes. This was very good.  I was amazed that everyone – even my finicky six-year-old – ate this up.  

Can you really go wrong with rice and meat dishes? Not hardly.
I made two main dishes for this meal. The first is pork biryani. I was supposed to marinate my pork loin in spices (ginger, garlic, garam masala, chili powder, tumeric, green chillies, mint, and ground coriander) overnight, but I forgot, so I was hoping doing this for a few hours would be sufficient. Then, I sliced some onions and rolled it in salt in a colander to extract its liquid. I don’t have a Dutch oven, so I had to improvise here. After I fried onions in oil and removed them, I threw in my pork that had been marinating. When it was thoroughly cooked, I added my onions back in along with some yogurt and let it simmer for about 30 minutes. I bought some instant Indian-seasoned basmati rice and made it according to the package and added it to the pork-onion mix in my large pot, throwing in some lemon juice, saffron that has been soaked in milk, and a few spoonfuls of ghee. (Ghee is a type of clarified butter. It’s my first time using it; most times it comes in a glass jar and looks like butter that has started to separate.) And because I can’t put my skillet in the oven, I transferred all the contents to a casserole dish and put the lid on it, baking it for about 25 minutes. The spices were quite strong, I think. No one else thought so, but I think there needed to be a little bit more liquid to dilute some of the spices from the marinade. But since everyone else liked it, I suppose it was pretty good then. Biryani is a favorite of my husband’s, so I made it for him. 

I could almost bathe myself in this. Well, not literally. That would be pretty gross. I do have standards. But I'm sure I could lower them for this, though.
The other main dish I chose was cardamom butter chicken. (I actually made this on dish separately from the others on a different day.) Butter chicken is apparently a super popular dish in the UK as is chicken tikka masala. And I now know why. This recipes starts out with grinding several spices and ingredients together to form a paste: garlic, ginger, green chillies, salt, and cilantro (with the stalks). Then I took some ghee (I’ve always called it Indian butter) and slowly fried my onions in it until they are almost caramelized (like, 10 minutes or so). After this, I added in my garlic-ginger paste to my onions, and after about five minutes, I added in my ground spices (turmeric, garam masala, cumin, fenugreek, and ground cloves in lieu of whole cloves). After I mix it all together and sauté it for about five minutes, I scoop everything out in a bowl. Adding a bit more ghee, it’s now time to throw in my diced chicken breast to brown completely. When it’s done, I remove it to its own bowl to set aside. Now, I throw my onion mixture back in the skillet, adding in my whole spices (seedless cardamom pods and cinnamon sticks), a can of diced tomatoes, and a can of water. I let this come to a boil and then simmer for about a half hour. After this time, I add my chicken back into the skillet and cook for another ten minutes until everything is cooked through and mixed together. Finally, the last step in all of this is to add in my yogurt and heavy whipping cream, stirring it all together. I had to add in a little bit of flour to help thicken up the sauce. I served this on that instant basmati rice that I found. (And as far as instant rice goes, this is very good. I’m definitely buying this again.) I was kind of sad that I forgot to garnish this with cilantro leaves. I practically inhaled my dish before I even remembered. This, my friends, was the pièce de résistance. I’m pretty sure that if I believed in myself and tried really hard, I could’ve eaten the entire skillet myself. You know, most people have ham or something for Easter dinner. This year, we had cardamom butter chicken. And it was so awesome.

One of the best meals I've had for a long time.
I definitely had fun with one. Perhaps, it’s because I already had a long-time interest in India. I’ve been of fan of Bollywood-style dance music for years, and we certainly had fun watching Dhoom: 2 and Dhoom: 3 (we agreed Dhoom: 3 was better). However, watching these movies made me think about their use of code switching. They’ll start speaking in Hindi (I’m assuming it’s Hindi because I have no idea) and then switch to English. I figured there were English words because most other foreign languages have English-based loan words. But they will also switch whole sentences back and forth between English and Hindi. Do people actually speak that way in India? Or is it something more of a habit of Indian cinema? This would make for a good research topic if I pursued that master’s degree in linguistics like I wanted to thirteen years ago. Anyway, I enjoyed this country a lot. And I’ll definitely have some good lunches and dinners for the next couple of days.

Up next: Indonesia