27 July 2019
At every gathering of Berlin friends or even colleagues my partner had been telling that I was good at making nasi goreng. The Indonesian version of fried rice. Nasi means rice and goreng fried in the bahasa, which means the language of Indonesia. So after eating some self cooked meals at different tables, self cooked by the host, it became more and more of an issue not to cook nasi goreng for them in return, something tainted with un-thankfulness. Or even a meanness in not wanting to share a hidden delight. A secret form of aggression, a discrimination.
I myself never vaunted any extraordinary ability to prepare fried rice nor did I think it to be more than a simple and satisfactory way of reusing leftover rice. Yet my partner has a penchant for rice over bread, not being a Mediterranean, so I had many times fulfilled the task of doing something with the leftovers. From the simple bumbu (“basic spices”) like onions and red pepper had grown a range of extras like garlic and trassi, and more exotic ones like ginger. The small pieces of beef had been extended to include the non-Islamic pork, beloved by Chinese, and the few classic shrimps had started to include other seafood. In Indonesia usually a simple fried egg is added afterwards, but sometimes strips of omelet are draped over the rice while serving. I had added spices to the omelet, like curry powder, which made it more Indian. And the simple cucumber slices of Java had grown into a salad, bathed in a sauce of lemon and honey, Javanese sugar (gula java) and sesame oil. Notwithstanding these additions, the result would be an evenly brown and harmonious dish.
This dish I would be able to cook in Berlin. The right ingredients were available. Compared with Holland, Berlin hardly has a colonial history, and certainly not with Indonesia. But Vietnam is well represented by the planned influx of labor under the former communist economic system. The children of these migrants have created food-stores, or restaurants. Just like the Chinese in their unobtrusive way before them. Along Kantstraße there is a Chinese supermarket serving all colors of Asia. And also a pleasant Chinese eatery called Good Friends. So within a mile from Bleibtreu 7 we could acquire anything for the south east Asian palate. And the kitchen.
I finally succumbed to pressure to cook for an old friend, the British composer Kaffe Matthews. I had got to know her in Myanmar and now she had settled in Berlin to escape post-Brexit Britain. Her vast apartment was in a derelict building, where there was more than enough space for her plants and her electronics. She was inviting friends from the experimental music scene, who would in the Berlin fashion contribute in natura to the food and the drinks. So I toiled away at home, made a nice packet for the food and the extras and we set out for Wedding, where cultures meet.
I had not foreseen the fact that all the guests were vegetarians and my food would not be kosher to Veganists and even haram. We left it in her fridge. But were compensated the next day by a telephone call, admitting that the delicious stuff had proven irresistible to her and her friends.
Now a Rubicon had been crossed into party-land. Next occasion for nasi arose when we threw a thank you party at home. How could I refuse to cook for those that had cooked for me? The generous soul of KS had not only foreseen a nasi goreng by me, but a rich Thai green curry by himself. The preparation sent us shopping for half a day. Afterwards only two hours were left to work in the kitchen. And as the curry had double the number of ingredients and more complicated modes of preparation, curry got precedence over fried rice, Thailand over Indonesia. I would have to wait.
Now as any cook will know good cooking needs time. A good cook is calm, because of a personal meditative mind, long years experience and timely preparation. It is possible to clean and cut vegetables or meat while cooking, but it is better to prepare everything beforehand. It saves time and keeps you calm and concentrated on timing. I was not calm.
So basically it would have been wise to drop the nasi. Calmness was out of the question. Thailand and Indonesia would have to battle for Lebensraum, for chopping board and wok. It moreover became clear soon that our guests would arrive in bohemian manner, both too early and too late and never on time. With the various intentions: delivering prepared food or bottles and leaving for a while, or sitting down and chatting full speed immediately.
Meanwhile I was still in my Asian cook outfit, in bare feet and black pants and a white sweatshirt. People would pass through the kitchen going to the bathroom. Any pretention to the status of host had to be forgotten.
Now the Berlin way with foodstuffs seems to be abundance. Each delivery could have been halved, including ours. Delicious cakes had been baked, salads prepared, and our Asiatic treats swam away on the floods of Europe.