“There are so many layers to uncover for each dish in terms of taste – but the same can be said about their stories.”
Author | Founder – Kebun Bumi Herbal Dago & Aku Cinta Makanan Indonesia (ACMI)
On nurturing responsibility, developing intimacy with food, and life lessons from her father.
It was centuries ago when powerful European nations scuffled for control of the global spice trade with Indonesia as its beating heart. Trade routes carrying cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves flowed like currents through the Middle East and into Europe where they were coveted and consumed by those willing to pay a hefty price to immerse themselves in the exotic flavors of the east.
Today, the eagerness to discover Indonesia’s spices and cuisine remains just as strong. The archipelago is home to an eclectic spectrum of dishes teeming with flavors, textures and aromas; enticing the curiosity of food connoisseurs from diverse backgrounds and professions who seek to connect with, and retell the stories of their origin.
One such woman is Santhi Serad.
A self-driven culinary explorer with a Masters in Food Science and Technology, she founded Kebun Bumi Herbal, a eight-hectare herbal garden nestled in the bustling city of Bandung, built on a foundation rooted in a deep sense of responsibility to preserve and cultivate herbs and spices and a love for the stories behind Indonesian cuisine and its ingredients.
After traversing the country for years, she authored Leaf it To Tea, an intimate and illustrative book documenting the various herbal infusions and Tea-drinking rituals of different Indonesian cultures.
Manusia was invited to interview some of the speakers of Southeast Asia’s leading culinary event, the Ubud Food Festival where we had a short interview with Santhi. A kindred spirit with evident passion and enthusiasm, she reflected on her approach to writing, lessons from her father, and suggested ways on how we can better develop intimacy with our food.
Can you describe your love for writing, and your love for food? How are they related and how are they different to you?
The way I see it is, people say a lot of things, but people forget a lot as well. As a matter of fact, I feel that the things I do can’t be completely understood until I’ve reflected upon them and have written them down. In writing these words down, I know they can last forever. When I’m gone, people can still read about what I’ve learnt and done. “Verba volant scripta manent”, which, in Latin means, “Spoken words fly away, written words remain.” It’s a quote I keep in mind.
I love Indonesian food in all its variants, but it’s more important for me to be aware that behind every dish is a story of how it came to be. Sayur Asem, Rawon, there are stories of how they arose in certain places. For example, what are the journeys of the spices that arrived in certain areas in Indonesia?
There are so many layers to uncover for each dish in terms of taste, but the same can be said about their stories, and that goes right down to the farmers who grow the food.
Each ingredient, as well as the markets they are sold in, have their own identity, and I find that beautiful. That being said, if you want to get a feel for the scope and essence of a place, go to their traditional markets. You can notice the abundance of chilies in Padang, and the enormous amount of fresh fish in Ambon.
“Each ingredient and the markets that they are sold in have their own identity, and I find that beautiful.”
You’ve mentioned that it took almost 4 years to write Leaf It to Tea. How do you approach your process for writing and how did it feel?
I start with a lot of reading, where I tend to look for references. I also do a lot of interviews for the same reason. I wrote this book, first of all, because tea is so well known everywhere here, and I wanted to know how different places and traditions in Indonesia consumed tea.
The thing I realized was that travelling and writing for this book really required my full commitment to it. It’s a lot of hours sitting and writing, which can be hard to concentrate on when you’re on the road.
But at the times where I want to enjoy travelling, I make a habit of writing notes as I go and keeping them in my bag. That’s the important part of writing actually – the process of looking back and putting the pieces together from my notes. When getting an idea, it’s easy to say “Oh I can remember to write that later on,” but its never the case! Our brains have a limit to what they can remember.
“That’s the important part of writing actually – the process of looking back and putting the pieces together from my notes.”
What’s one important thing you’ve learned from growing your own food in Bumi Herbal that you didn’t expect?
First off, Indonesia is one of the world’s Megadiversity countries – we’re only behind Brazil in terms of biodiversity. I saw the huge potential of this archipelago. 17,000 islands, 34 provinces, home for 1,300 tribes, with 250 million people.
Each part of Indonesia has different traditions and unique ingredients for food, and I felt that if I didn’t do my part in cultivating our country’s herbs and spices in my garden, there’s a chance that they’ll be gone over time.
That being said, what ultimately grew in me throughout the whole process of creating Bumi Herbal Dago was a sense of responsibility. I saw that the best way to learn was to dive straight into it, and of course, there was a lot of trial and error involved.
“If I didn’t do my part in cultivating our country’s herbs and spices in my garden, there’s a chance that they’ll be gone over time.”
How can we develop our intimacy and relationship with the food we eat?
One of my life principles is to share my knowledge about food, and I feel successful whenever I am allowed to do that. At ACMI (Aku Cinta Makanan Indonesia), we have a potluck program that we do once every two months that is centered around a theme, such as the “process of cassava” or “tempe”, where the participants bring their own dishes made from scratch and share their processes.
It’s the small things like that, done within a community that can inspire those who come to appreciate their food better, especially those who aren’t cooks themselves.
The sharing of knowledge and process also blows away the perception that cooking isn’t as complicated you think it is.
Who do you look up to and why?
My father. He taught me how important it is to be consistent, patient and to keep working. He taught me that hard work can always out-do intelligence. I always read to improve myself as well, and I think in an era of social media, we need to put down the screens and pick up the books more often.
“Hard work can always out-do intelligence.”
What can local schools do to educate the youth of Indonesia about food?
As far as I know, there aren’t any official programs about it. But I figure they should start introducing the awareness of food through simple but clever ways. For example, younger students can be challenged in competitions to draw or color in Indonesian dishes instead of the typical natural scenery that we’re told to draw. These things are a fun introduction to food and a gateway to further learning.
The knowledge of food also starts from the home, and parents have a role in it too. I think that families should make an effort now and then to cook with their children, especially nowadays when food can be easily ordered.
If you would like to know more about Santhi Serad, visit:
If you would like to get in touch Santhi Serad, you can email her at:
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