As foreigners who live in New York City, Indonesians Fujio Emura, 26, and Daisy Orlana, 28, find comfort in the familiarity of their motherland’s cuisine. Emura, a photographer who mostly shoots portraits and fashion spreads, first met Orlana two years ago, at one of Sayang’s Indonesian food pop-ups that Orlana founded and sporadically holds in Brooklyn. By day, Orlana designs the interiors of bars and hotels. By night, she rummages through Chinatown’s specialty stores, scouring for spices, and then cooks up a storm in her apartment’s kitchen.
“Daisy often talks about how laborious cooking Indonesian food is and how much time it takes,” says Emura through a Zoom call earlier last month. The pair was quick to forge a friendship, bonding over their shared cultural background. Through her passion project, Sayang, Orlana got to meet many fellow creatively inclined Indonesians, like Emura, who she wouldn’t have met otherwise. The newfound sense of community was an accidental outcome that she finds as a pleasant surprise.
For “Fish and Lime”, Orlana brought up the idea to tie the fish’s tail by lemongrass, inspired by her recent travel to Sumba, an island in Indonesia. “It’s a minimal yet elegant take on the traditional,” says Emura.
For “Kecap, Sambal and Turmeric Water”, Emura had an idea to photograph the condiments that Indonesians pair with their daily meals. He explains, “I I came to a conclusion that the best way to do this was by abstracting and creating a painterly look out of them.”
“It was definitely not intentional. When I first started Sayang, it was just to share the food,” says Orlana, who is a self-taught home cook. “But the process itself became more healing than the actual outcome. We were able to talk through our unique shared Indonesian experiences, sharing what it means to be Indonesian and living here in the States. Conversations surrounding that is more important to me now.” In New York, authentic Indonesian food is hard to come by. “There’s only a handful of places,” says Orlana. “You can find it, but it’s not as accessible as any other Asian cuisines with larger populations of immigrants that have come to New York, like Vietnamese, Korean or Thai food.”
Ever since the blow of the pandemic, the scheduling of Sayang’s pop-ups — in which a typically large group of 40-something patrons are encouraged to eat with their hands the gritty Indonesian way — has been halted. Orlana suddenly found time in her hands, and after conversations with Emura, a creative collaboration between the pair ensued.
For “Tempeh”, stacking the fermented soy beans that have been totemic to Indonesian cuisine for centuries to mimic the shape of a house allude to their ubiquity in Indonesian households. “Tempeh is a vital ingredient to our daily life, whether fried as snacks or sautéed with kecap manis [sweet soy sauce],” shares Emura. “The ingredient is loved throughout the country.”
For “Durian”, the unique shape of the regional fruit is meant to be highlighted. “The durian is often overlooked for the sharp exterior and strong smell that some may say is repugnant,” says Emura. “But it is the sweetness of the meat that brings me back a tender memory of my mother and I: After doing her groceries, she would send me to buy some durian ice cream from the store behind a mosque nearby. My dad was certainly not a fan of the smell, so he would hide in his room until we finished eating. But what accompanied the sweetness of this fruit, was the joy and laughter that brought my mother and I together, on our dining table.”
The result is “Fujio Sayang”, a series of seven images, photographed by Emura, that poignantly places quotidian ingredients of staple Indonesian dishes centre stage. The quiet placidity of the photographs was, says Emura, influenced by a mix of Irving Penn’s still life images in the ’60s to the ’80s, and also several paintings of Javanese women that Emura encountered during a pre-pandemic summer trip to Yogyakarta, a city in Central Java that’s still steeped in ancient traditions. “In some ways, I wanted these images to have the same sensibility as those paintings: humble and powerful,” says Emura, “I wanted to make people realise we exist.”
Determined to avoid hackneyed tropes that might pigeonhole Indonesian culture (“Incorporating batik and rattan baskets, for example, would have been too expected,” Emura remarks), the duo’s sole focus bore into the cuisine’s raw elements. Behind the selection of ingredients, questions were posed: What are some commonly used ingredients that are often overlooked? Which dish felt the closest to heart? Was there anything back home that felt very rarely presented?
For “Palm Sugar”, Emura harnesses another personal memory: “I remember seeing palm sugar so closely whenever my mother makes the most delicious peanut sauce using her mortar and pestle. I recently tried making it myself — but realised I had forgotten to include the palm sugar to create that rich sweetness in the peanut sauce I remember I loved.”
For “Cloves, Turmeric and Rice”, Orlana and Emura investigated the spices and grain that anchor Indonesian food’s rich flavours. “We made mountains of them from left to right, with rice as an ingredient that’s used the most,” says Emura.
“I’m hoping that these images can portray a sense of that and make people appreciate cooking, or just Indonesian dishes,” says Emura. “Or maybe it’s even simpler than that,” Orlana adds. “Oftentimes, our culture is misrepresented or not even featured. And when it does, it’s almost always perceived through a Western lens. I think we felt a lot of pride in being able to share this and just being able to put it out there.”
“Of course, we're not saying that these ingredients are unique to Indonesia. Other Southeast Asian ingredients also use palm sugar and lemon grass, for example,” Orlana continues. “But we hope that seeing the collection of images together, as a whole, tell the story of our food a little bit more.”
The “Fujio Sayang” series of photographs were sold as prints with proceeds donated to The Okra Project (a U.S.-based collective supporting black trans communities by providing healthy, home-cooked meals) and to Bentara Papua (an Indonesian NGO empowering indigenous peoples through food and preservation efforts).
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