Growing up in Central Java I was brought up with many strong customs about what food to eat, when and how. Some of it folklore, some of it religious, all of it traditional.
We were taught not to make a sound while chewing because the sound resembles animals eating, especially cows.
When eating on the floor men are permitted to sit cross-legged, however women must sit with their thighs together as it’s considered rude to sit with your legs open.
In contemporary Java many people now eat with cutlery, however, traditionally we ate with our hands.
Some food is considered damaging for our spiritual growth. For example, we don’t eat catfish or pork because we believe that it drains our energy. Sometimes my ‘modern’ mind questions this, but then my ‘traditional’ mind thinks that there must be a reason why my ancestors considered it forbidden.
Food is how we Javanese connect to our universe. Since I was a child, my mother always taught me that the most important thing was not what we were eating, but the time we spent together eating.
We must eat with the right hand, even if left handed. When taking food from the table one must use the right hand, serving the father first, then the mother.
Unlike the Balinese who don’t sit down together for daily meals, we do.
We were taught that it is very important to stop eating before we are full. It’s a way to learn how not to be greedy
We were taught to respect rice by honouring Shri Dewi (the Goddess of rice) and we do this by never leaving any rice on our plate.
Young Javanese women are forbidden to eat chicken wings and buttocks as it’s considered bad luck.
Single woman eating from the same serving dish will be unlucky in love.
When I was growing up every monday night we did “white fasting” (mutih) where we only ate rice and drank water for 24 hours. We believe this fasting helps to purify our mind, body and soul. I still practice this fasting because I believe it’s a good way to learn to detach from food.
These guiding principles influence me when I choose what food to put in my body. As a woman I try to eat intuitively because my body knows which food is healthy for me and what is not. As a mother of an active 17-year-old son I do my best to serve healthy food and be a good example when it comes to eating habits. Living in Bali at the beginning was difficult for me. I found the Balinese food too spicy and with not enough variety. However, I’ve had a Javanese maid for 17 years who is a great chef and cooks and makes whatever I ask. So wherever I go or wherever I am, I will always be in heaven.
Noviana Kusumawardhani is a bahasa indonesian teacher and writer