London's Greatest Indonesian Meals Is in an 82-12 months-Outdated’s Kitchen


Illustration by Jenny Mörtsell

“Bear in mind, my beloved granddaughter,” Sri Owen’s grandmother cautioned her one morning in 1942. “While you develop up, don’t marry a foreigner.”

Owen was seven years outdated, and her grandmother was referring to somebody from an island aside from their native one in West Sumatra. However she didn’t pay attention: Owen would find yourself marrying a shy, good-looking man from the UK, Roger Owen, twenty years later. She would observe him from Yogyakarta to London, the place she discovered herself removed from the vibrancy and luxury of her grandmother’s cooking. Owen grew to become fixated on the opportunity of recreating it within the kitchen of her new flat.

She carried this fascination together with her all through her life, and it has amounted to a physique of labor subtly structured across the losses of her youth, which she spent as a refugee in her personal nation. Owen has written 9 different books since her first, The Home Book of Indonesian Cookery, in 1976. Maybe essentially the most well-known is 1993’s The Rice Book, an expansive and elaborate devotion to the wonders of rice the world over, compressing centuries of the grain’s historical past into 400 pages. Upon launch, the e-book was nominated for a James Beard Award and received the Andre Simon Memorial Fund Award; seven years in the past, the e-book graced the Observer Meals Month-to-month’s record of the very best cookbooks ever written. The quotation was a conferral of legitimacy to a technology who grew up not figuring out who Owen was.

Owen is now 82, and he or she lives in Wimbledon in south-west London. She envisions herself as a author in everlasting exile, fulfilling totally different goals for various constituencies. For the UK, she has assumed the position of a missionary, stimulating its curiosity within the meals of Indonesia’s sprawling, diffuse circuit board of islands, every with its personal culinary language. In the meantime, for Indonesia, she has labored onerous to reassure her fellow islanders of its meals’s splendor.

Cooking grew to become a means of gazing on the previous Owen needed to depart behind. Referred to because the Grande Dame of Indonesian cookery, she maintains a sterling repute to those that acknowledge her title, however not sufficient do. Owen, whose coronary heart is battered by a quadruple bypass surgical procedure she underwent a decade in the past, discovered herself underneath outstanding and unexpected duress over the course of our correspondence. However she soldiered on, treating our change as a welcome and vital ordeal. “It is going to be good if any individual would write about me, too,” she informed me once I first reached out to her earlier this month, as if involved nobody else would.


Owen arrived in London throughout a chilly January in 1964. It was the primary time she left her nation, and although she would miss her mother and father and sisters terribly, she justified this by saying she would discover in London a brand new life that Indonesia couldn’t give her.

She was born the primary of six daughters in a middle-class family in Padang Panjang, a tiny hill city in West Sumatra. Each of her mother and father had been lecturers. As a toddler, she discovered it not possible to go away her grandmother’s facet. Indonesia was an overwhelmingly rural nation within the 1930s, nonetheless underneath Dutch management, and every household possessed its personal small chunk of land the place they raised greens and chickens, with homes cocooned by papaya and breadfruit bushes. Owen would roam throughout the rice fields and low gardens adjoining to the household’s home, accompanying her grandmother to markets close by to fetch dried fish, salt, tea, and sugar.

Although the household was comparatively rich on this pre-conflict interval, their kitchen, like that of most others on the island, was barren. It lived in a constructing separate from the dwelling quarters to scale back the chance of fireside, and it had no fuel, electrical energy, or working water. Owen’s father, her grandmother’s baby, was the household’s prepare dinner. So Owen assumed the position of a de-facto sous chef beside him. He cooked with round-bottomed earthenware pots over mounds of bricks on woodfire or charcoal. At mealtime, Owen often sat cross-legged on low-platform mats, consuming together with her fingers off plates lined with giant banana leaves.

The opening pages of Sri Owen's 'The Rice Book' (1993). Illustration by Soun Vannithone.
The opening pages of Sri Owen’s ‘The Rice E-book’ (1993). Illustration by Soun Vannithone.
Picture by Sri Owen

Owen’s childhood was quickly ruptured by trauma. As Japanese troopers made landfall within the nation throughout World Struggle II, the household was compelled to desert their comfy existence for certainly one of genteel poverty, frequently migrating eastwards. The turmoil led to 1949, once they settled within the Central Javanese city of Magelang. After Owen completed junior excessive, she traveled 25 miles south for highschool in Yogyakarta; she enrolled within the English division at Universitas Gajah Mada, the place she would full each her undergraduate and graduate research, in 1955.

She developed a case of Anglophilia on this interval, accelerated by her research of Jane Austen. Owen discovered these tales of expressive, passionate ladies buried beneath strict social codes to resemble her personal life in Indonesia. She usually daydreamed about being whisked off to the UK on scholarship, believing she might discover a residence there, too.

In 1962, she met her husband-to-be, Roger Owen, a newly-minted Oxford graduate who discovered himself in Indonesia to spend the following three years as a lecturer within the college’s Historical past division. As she tells it, he was clearly smitten, although he couldn’t muster up the boldness to ask Owen out till a yr after assembly her. Regardless of an aggressively un-romantic first date movie—a documentary in regards to the London Blitz—they had been engaged three months later.

Owen, her husband Roger, her parents, and her sisters on the day of her wedding in August 1962.
Owen, her husband Roger, her mother and father, and her sisters on the day of her wedding ceremony in August 1962.
Picture by Sri Owen

The pair had a sublime wedding ceremony that stretched over three days in August 1962, with a gamelan orchestra and tons of of friends, ending at her mother and father’ residence in Magelang. (Her grandmother was now not alive; any anxiousness Owen nonetheless had about abiding by her grandmother’s needs had dissipated.) A couple of days after, she took an oath of allegiance to Elizabeth II within the British Consulate in Jakarta, receiving her British passport. It got here simply in time: Her husband’s contract in Indonesia was about to finish, and he was being despatched again to London.


Throughout her first years in London, Owen discovered herself battling the backyard selection despair that tends to befall those that discover themselves removed from their household. She wrestled the uneasy feeling that she was extra of a vacationer than an immigrant in London—so she started to reconstitute her sense of what meals meant to her in Indonesia. Owen was eager to prepare dinner for herself, looking for the corporate of her grandmother’s recipes: telur dadar padang, the breakfast omelette with grated coconut that might look as fluffy as a cake, or pangek ikan, braised trout with younger fern shoots.

She describes her first decade in London as “sedate,” enlivened mainly by the beginning of two sons in 1966 and 1972. Owen labored for the BBC, first as a secretary within the Swahili Division after which within the Indonesian Service. It was at this level when she discovered how little individuals in England knew about Indonesia, not to mention Indonesian meals: On the primary day of her new job, her boss greeted her with the gleefully incorrect assumption that Indonesia was a part of the British commonwealth.

Owen and her husband at a party the day after their wedding.
Owen and her husband at a celebration the day after their wedding ceremony.
Picture by Sri Owen

Although Owen took such gaffes in stride, she was silently horrified on the stage of ignorance she needed to work towards. She got here, finally, to see this cultural illiteracy as a chance. One among her husband’s mates from college was a literary agent who’d come over for dinner usually, and he informed Owen that he reckoned she had a e-book inside her. He persuaded Owen to jot down a e-book about Indonesian meals, promising to seek out her a writer. She drafted a proposal for esteemed publishing home Faber & Faber, leaning on the rising curiosity in Indonesia as a vacationer’s vacation spot and insisting that the market wanted an Indonesian cookbook; it was uncharted literary terrain. Faber accepted.

From the beginning, Owen handled meals writing as a approach to attain into the previous that escaped her and summon it to the current. The Residence E-book of Indonesian Cookery is a recipe e-book with the structure of a memoir. In it, Owen conveys how Indonesia’s meals bear the stamps and scars of its aggressors—the Chinese language, the Indian, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Arab—and locations herself inside this historical past. The e-book was launched in 1976 to reasonable success, its viewers tiny however vigorous. It introduced her to the eye of Alan Davidson, the diplomat-turned-food author who had simply completed a tour of Southeast Asia. He was finishing some creatively fruitful golden years in meals writing, engaged on books about fisheries in Laos, and he launched her to luminaries like Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Jill Norman, Claudia Roden, a lot of whom she would come to depend as mates.

Roger and Sri Owen at their wedding in 1962.
Roger and Sri Owen at their wedding ceremony in 1962.
Picture by Sri Owen

Owen nonetheless credit Davidson, who died in 2003, with giving her the boldness to pursue writing about cooking with stealth and rigor. When Faber determined to not reprint her first e-book, arguing its copies didn’t promote rapidly sufficient to justify a full-blown reissue, Davidson provided to publish it as a substitute underneath his new publishing enterprise, Prospect Books, in 1980 underneath the title Indonesian Meals and Cookery. It was the home’s first title.

Owen retired from the BBC in 1983, after which she dedicated her time to changing into a full-time meals author. This got here with the occasional dalliance: In the summertime of 1984, she and her husband started London’s first Indonesian meals retailer and delicatessen, Mustika Rasa, or “the crown of style,” within the floor ground of their flat. The endeavor was an experiment nobody had tried earlier than or after them, and enterprise was sluggish. The shop closed after three years.

Afterward, her husband retired too, and Owen resolved extra intently to deliver Indonesian cookery to the British lots by means of writing. She printed ten books over the course of 4 a long time. Her second cookbook was 1988’s Indonesian and Thai Cookery. Owen’s writer urged her to swap the order of the 2 international locations within the title to account for Thai meals’s extra established stature in the UK at that time, a lot to Owen’s consternation; she grew to become resolute in her refusal to compromise, and her writer complied. When the e-book was launched in america 9 years later, it was referred to as Thai and Indonesian Cookery with out her consent.

Regardless of her prolific nature, Owen expresses faint displeasure on the means her personal legacy has shaken out. She owes every thing to the international locations that gave her a house, and so they owe her greater than they might notice: “I might certainly prefer to see myself as Western ambassador for Indonesian meals, although I might have cherished it if my very own individuals or the federal government in Indonesia thought of acknowledging me as such an envoy.” In Indonesia, she finds herself hardly recognized or talked about. Even after she acquired a Lifetime Achievement Award for her companies to Indonesian meals on the inaugural Ubud Meals Pageant in Bali in 2015, little appeared to vary.

In relation to the UK, Owen was hopeful that the point out of The Rice E-book within the Observer would result in a late resurgence in reputation of her work. However after a short spike within the paperback value of the e-book, the rights reverted to Owen, and the e-book fell out of print once more. It’s her want that the e-book be launched within the coming years in hardcover or Kindle, however neither has occurred.


One morning earlier this month, whereas rummaging by means of her kitchen and deciding what to make for breakfast, Owen discovered a small papaya. It was ripening properly. She determined to make a dish modeled after the rice porridge her grandmother would make in Padang Panjang. Owen’s variation can be a bowl of Swiss Alpen, fairly than rice, with papaya and bananas, topped with ladles of heat coconut milk dotted with salt.

From Sri Owen's 'The Rice Book' (1993). Illustration by Soun Vannithone.
From Sri Owen’s ‘The Rice E-book’ (1993). Illustration by Soun Vannithone.
Picture by Sri Owen

However one thing within the last product wasn’t fairly proper. It tasted fairly totally different from what her late grandmother made. Her grandmother often served freshly-picked papaya and banana, ripened on bushes in her backyard, atop of her personal home made rice porridge. She would cloak it with milk she squeezed from freshly-grated coconut, mixing it with a splash of water.

The breakfast, on reflection, introduced forth a rigidity that has existed all through Owen’s profession. Sure substances would all the time be out of attain for her. When she first went searching for groceries in London 5 a long time in the past, she couldn’t discover what she wanted to prepare dinner what she desired, like an artist with out her supplies. So Owen and her husband needed to go to varied cities in Holland—Amsterdam, Den Haag, Rotterdam—to purchase Indonesian substances. This was usually time-consuming, so she gained a knack for substitutions: bitter gourds as a substitute of papaya flowers, black cabbage rather than cassava leaves.

From Sri Owen's 'The Rice Book' (1993). Illustration by Soun Vannithone.
From Sri Owen’s ‘The Rice E-book’ (1993). Illustration by Soun Vannithone.
Picture by Sri Owen

“These days, in fact, I can get every thing, nearly every thing that I’ll want for my Indonesian cooking,” Owen tells me. By the following decade, just a few Chinese language and Indian outlets in SoHo started promoting powdered canisters of turmeric, ginger, and chili she wanted to make sure pastes like her grandmother’s. It was solely when a wave of Thai eating places opened in early 1970s, she remembers, that increasingly cooking substances from Southeast Asia had been imported to the area.

In her final e-book, 2008’s Sri Owen’s Indonesian Food, Owen proclaimed London to be the best metropolis of the world for public consuming, and he or she nonetheless holds this place. To her thoughts, it’s a metropolis that has reinvented itself and its meals ten instances over once more, exhibiting a unprecedented expertise for survival. The London she sees now’s crammed with Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Nepalese, Tibetan, and Burmese eating places. The Chinese language and Indian eating places that had been already there when she arrived within the metropolis have improved vastly in high quality.

From Sri Owen's 'The Rice Book' (1993). Illustration by Soun Vannithone.
From Sri Owen’s ‘The Rice E-book’ (1993). Illustration by Soun Vannithone.
Picture by Sri Owen

However she has no favourite Indonesian eating places within the metropolis. After I ask her what they’re, she comes up dry, as a substitute responding with a easy declaration: “I discover I can prepare dinner higher than any of the typical consuming locations.”

Owen needs it had been the case that Londoners’ notion of Indonesian meals would have progressed considerably since she first arrived within the metropolis, however it hasn’t. There may be nonetheless unfinished enterprise. “Solely individuals who have gone to Indonesia past Bali, to Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Sulawesi, together with smaller islands, like Sumba, Sumbawa, Lombok, can perceive Indonesian meals deeply,” she prices. She names locations she has traveled—in her lifetime, and in her writing.

Jenny Mörtsell is a Swedish illustrator who divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and Stockholm, Sweden.

See extra of Meals52’s Information to London here.



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