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Indonesian Food Etiquette

When I moved to Jakarta, I was roaming the streets of Kemang to find a small house to rent, when I met my new friend. He kindly drove me around to help me find a place to live, after which I gave him the job of driving me around on a permanent basis. I got to know his family and was very often invited over. I thought, well, that’s nice, and a great opportunity to get to know some of the Indonesian culture, which I indeed did!

The first time I came, there were kue (cakes) and gorengan (fried snacks) galore set out on the table. The mum took some cake and said with a gesture unfamiliar to me,: “makan, iya” (literally translated: “Eat, yes”). So of course I took a piece of cake too. Later the wife took a gorengan and said “Makan, iya”, so I took a gorengan too. This went on and when I came home I was oversaturated with food!

A few days later, I was invited over again and again was overwhelmed by people saying “Makan, iya” every time they took some food. I was starting to get a bit worried since I had lost 8 kilos in the past year and did not really fancy them back. Lovely food the Indonesians have, but very rich with coconut milk and oil, oil, oil. The constant being “offered food” was not only limited to my friend’s house but everyone I met in Jakarta did it too! “Makan iya, Makan iya” until I nearly had nightmares of myself with big fat blabs.

I was starting to avoid meeting local people and accepting invitations, so I didn’t have to feel bad about offending them if I didn’t want to eat every single time one of them was eating! I had heard from others that this was an impolite thing to do in Indonesia and of course I didn’t want to be impolite!

Then one day, my friend was early picking me up and I was still eating. I thought I’d offer him some food too, so I said “Makan, iya!”, to which he replied “Silahkan” (you’re welcome), gesturing me to eat. “Huh?” I said,: “No I meant do you want some?” To which he replied politely: “No thank you, I just had lunch myself.” I felt a bit confused and frustrated. Why was he not accepting my offer, whilst I always, purely to be polite really, took up their offers when they were eating? Why would I try to be polite if they actually didn’t do so themselves?

Whilst this stress was going on in my mind, my friend spotted a photo frame with some of my pictures and asked me if he could see them. His first sensitive compliment was “Wow, when was this? You were really fat!” Grrr, Now that’s enough! I thought, I have to explain myself. So I told him I had lost 8 kilos and that I was sometimes a bit worried when I was at his place. “It’s not that I don’t like your family’s food, actually I love it, but I am just so worried about gaining weight again! But every time I am at your place I end up eating so much because everyone says “Makan, iya” to me all the time.

Then there was a silence and my little friend burst out into laughter. Now, hey, what was so funny? Confused again! What did the bule say now that was so funny? He blurted out: “Noooo, Makan iya doesn’t mean we’re offering YOU food. We are asking permission from you for ourselves to eat.”

And that’s the glorious moment when I learnt, that in Indonesian culture, if you want to start eating something, and there are others in your presence, you seek permission from them to start eating by saying “Makan, iya” (I eat, yes). To which they should reply: “Silahkan!” (Go ahead!) So from that day on, when I hear “Makan, iya”, I politely reply: “Silahkan”. And when I get offered food when I’m not hungry, I reply with a modest smile saying: “No thank you, I have eaten already and I’m on a diet”. This last bit I have added just for effect, so they don’t feel offended by me not eating, by thinking I don’t like their cooking”. I have understood this small part of the complex rules and norms of the Indonesian culture. Though I know there’s plenty more for me to learn during my stay in Jakarta!

Tips: Nice snacks to try: Kue cincin (ring shaped small cakes), OndeOnde (little balls with coconut), tempe goreng (fried tofu slice) and ketoprak (vegetables with peanut sauce).

by Bianca

Comments on this Story

Biancas cute story reminds me of the "Three No" rule.

Often in Indonesia one is offered something which one might not want. Not wanting it, you will refuse the offer kindly and thank them. Five to ten minutes later you will be offered it again. Once again you will refuse it. Five, ten, twenty minutes go by and you are offered it again. Once you refuse it the third time they accept that and won't offer it again unless you are there for a couple hours and then it will start all over again.

Same thing goes when you offer someone something. Whether they want it or not they will most likely refuse it. Let five to ten minutes go by and offer it a second time. It will then get refused again, even if they would really like it. On the third try you will know if they really don't want it or if they actually do.

Sometimes when I know someone could really use the help, to avoid the three no rule I might say something like this, "It would really make me happy if you would accept my gift." That guaranteed, in the past, allows them happily to accept for they are helping me by making me happy. (Of course it is important that you really know they would like it or could use it. You don't want someone accepting something they don't want just to please you, now do you?

I found this out purely by observation ... being offered and offering. What a gift it was figuring that cultural intricacy out.

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