Something about myself ...
I was born in West Sumatra, before World War 2, when Indonesia was still ruled by the Dutch. As a toddler, I was always in my grandmother's kitchen, watching her cook. But childhood ended when my parents took me and my younger sisters to Java, to my mother's family home, because they thought we would be safer there from the invading Japanese. When the war ended, Indonesia declared its independence and soon we were refugees in our own country, fleeing from the Dutch and their allies, the British.
When peace returned, we were living in Central Java, and that was where I went to secondary school and then to university. My great ambition was to study and travel abroad, and for that I knew I needed English, so I took my first degree in English literature. I had to earn money to support myself and to help my parents and sisters: I worked as secretary to one of the university professors, and as English Department librarian, and then as a junior lecturer in the Department. I was offered several scholarships to study in Australia and the USA, but I was determined I would go to England - some day. Meanwhile, I was enjoying myself at home in Yogyakarta, acting as interpreter when foreign VIPs were in town, and taking part in poetry and play readings which were broadcast on the Yogyakarta radio station.
Then, to quote my favourite English novel, "Reader, I married him" - a young lecturer who arrived from England on a three-year contract. That was in 1962, and eighteen months later we were in London, where my broadcasting experience helped me to get a job with the BBC Indonesian Service. I was to work for the BBC for nearly twenty years, as a presenter, producer, and translator.
But all the time I was remembering the wonderful food I'd had in my parents' old home in Sumatra, and the hours I'd spent watching my grandmother cook for her large household - she often cooked for twenty or thirty people. She didn't have to do this - she was a rich woman, a landowner with her own ricefields and a coffee garden - but she just loved cooking and eating. Her son, my father, also enjoyed cooking and was very good at it. As a student, I'd lived largely on street food, which in Indonesia in those days was extremely good and very healthy, if you knew where to go. As a newly-married wife I had started cooking for the two of us in our small house on the university campus, in a kitchen with a kerosene stove and a very temperamental fridge. Even with this tiny kitchen, I started entertaining - I was taking after my grandmother and my father. By the time we came to London I was quite an experienced hostess for lunch and dinner parties, and it happened that the first flat we rented in England had a large living and dining room.
Among our regular guests in those days was an old college friend of my husband. He was now a literary agent, and he clearly enjoyed my Indonesian cooking (for English guests, I cut down on the chillies - I've been addicted to them since the age of five, but I realise that if you were not raised in Southeast Asia you may not share this passion). He persuaded me to write my first cookbook, which was published in 1976 by Faber: 'The Home Book of Indonesian Cookery'. It appeared just as the British were becoming aware of Southeast Asia as a tourist destination, the first Thai restaurants were opening in London, and a few Southeast Asian fruits, vegetables and spices were appearing in adventurous food shops. Soon, I was being approached by publishers who were interested in commissioning further books. (To see the results, go to the 'My Books' page in this website)
Now my life has become entirely dedicated to food and cookery and food writing. I used to read literature and nothing else, but now, though my personal library still has room for fiction and non-fiction in Indonesian and English, and a few art books, the other shelves are filled with food and cookery books, many of which I haven't got time to read from cover to cover. Together with my husband, Roger, I am writing the Oxford Companion to Southeast Asian Food, to be published by OUP in 2009 or 2010. Whether we can meet the deadline for this is another matter. I am not giving up what I most love doing - teaching cookery, travelling to explore everything that comes under the heading of 'good food', and cooking with the freshest locally-grown ingredients I can find.
I am a freelance food and cookery writer, a travelling cookery teacher, and a food consultant. I am not trained as a restaurant chef, but I have had enough training in many different cuisines to be able to cook professionally in the many countries I have visited. I can cook in foreign kitchens for up to 200 people alongside the chefs and their teams in whatever country I happen to be. And of course my main aim is still the same as when I started to be a food writer and a cookery teacher more than 40 years ago: to show everybody, not just my students, how to cook Indonesian food to perfection. I must emphasise, though, that my repertoire has gone far beyond Indonesia. I am experienced in all the Asian cuisines, and familiar with the materials and techniques of Western kitchens. I believe in knowing both, so that I can compare their traditions and work confidently in either.