INDONESIAN FOOD AND COOKERY
My first book was published in 1976, twelve years after I first came to England. By that time Roger and I were well settled in London, with two small children, and both of us were earning, he as a teacher, I as a broadcaster and producer in the Indonesian Section of the BBC Overseas Service. We both worked fairly flexible hours and we gave lots of dinner parties; Indonesians love to entertain. When we first came to London I knew almost no one, so to start with we invited Roger’s old university friends, one of whom was a literary agent. He clearly liked the Indonesian dishes I was putting in front of him, and said many times, “If you write an Indonesian cookery book, Sri, I’ll guarantee to find you a publisher.” Eventually, the first book proposal was put together and sent on its rounds. It soon found a taker, no less than Faber, who wanted it for their Home Book series; I cooked (of course) for the launch party at their offices in Queen Square. The party took place in the Chairman’s room, with my picture between a bust of T.S. Eliot and a portrait of James Joyce. Our timing was just right. Southeast Asian food was becoming popular in London, and exotic little food shops were appearing, selling strange and aromatic ingredients. Indonesia was opening up to tourism and the food was said to be delicious. But very few people in Britain or America knew how to shop for or cook these alien herbs and spices. So the market for my book, though rather small, was enthusiastic, and I soon found myself being asked to contribute to the new foodie magazines that were springing up, and to those big Asian cookery encyclopaedias that were popular for a while.
However, Faber didn’t think my book had sold fast enough to justify reprinting, so the copyright in time reverted to me and everyone wanted to know what I would do next. Then I had a great stroke of good luck: I met the late Alan Davidson. In fact, we both wanted to meet each other, and we got together just when he, Elizabeth David and others were setting up a new company, Prospect Books, to publish books on all aspects of food. I told Alan that I wanted to expand and improve my Faber book, and rather nervously asked if Prospect Books would be interested in it. He accepted this offer, if it was an offer, on the spot, and my ‘Home Book’ was re-born as Prospect Books’ first baby, the start of what has since proved a remarkable family. For me, too, this was the beginning of a friendship with Alan that continued until his recent death. Like all the other food writers, scholar-cooks and Oxford Symposiasts, I like to think that I made my small contribution to his multiple projects and his great work, The Oxford Companion to Food - but we all know that we received far more from him in help and encouragement than we could ever repay. It was a privilege to know him, and it’s a joy to recall the crowd of us - over five hundred people - who, in November 2003, assembled in the Royal Palace in Amsterdam to see him receive that year’s Erasmus Prize from Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. Just two months earlier, at that year’s Oxford Food Symposium, we had all stood to applaud him as he entered the dining hall of St Antony’s College for a lunch given in his honour. Four weeks after the ceremony in Amsterdam, he was gone.
Anyway, ‘Indonesian Food and Cookery’, or IFAC as it is always known by those who have regular dealings with it, appeared in 1980 in paperback with a green cover (not illustrated here). Four years later a second edition, with some further recipes and one or two corrections, was published in hardback and in paper covers. The drawing on its jacket, of ladies selling fruit and veg in a Javanese market, is of course by Soun Vannithone, the young Laotian artist who, with his family, was helped by Alan Davidson (who had been the British Ambassador in Laos) to settle in Britain after their country was bombed and attacked during the Vietnam War. Soun’s exquisite black-and-white drawings decorate several of my early books.
The bottom picture in this little gallery may be familiar to people who toured or worked in Indonesia in the 1980s and 90s (as far as I know it’s not available there any longer). It was published in Jakarta by a small family firm called Indira. I’m not sure what the contractual arrangement was between them and Prospect, but for some years I was able, on my occasional visits to Jakarta, to meet the head of the company and collect whatever royalties had accumulated since I was last there. As they were in rupiah, and in cash, the large bag of paper money I received had to be spent within the country and fairly quickly, but it was very useful. I still come across copies of this reprint in unexpected places; a friend in Paris took me to an Indonesian restaurant near Montmartre, and said to the chef proprietor, “This is Sri Owen, who has written an Indonesian cookbook.” “I know,” he said, reaching up to a shelf and taking down a battered copy, “I cook from it!”
Another good site for food books is Acanthus ....
... and the Erasmus Prize website is worth visiting - you can also read Alan’s acceptance speech.
The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery takes place annually, usually in September.