I’ve been thinking a bit about food and illness. Here in Indonesia, sanitation standards are far below that of what we’d find in the U.S. There are a lot of things I need to avoid, but there are some rules I’ve learned can be broken.
For example, I know not to eat at a warung, or a street eatery, on the spot. Sometimes these warungs have a small stool, or table for you to eat. Their dishes are cleaned with the same bucket of water that all the other customer’s dishes were washed with and soap is probably not present. They might be putting other things in that bucket too like cigarette butts, food discards, and who knows what else. I can take the food to go generally, and as long as it is hot enough to kill whatever has been growing on the bare hands of my vendor. Then I will chow down.
In other cases though, I’ve broken a cardinal rule from my homeland: consuming room temperature meat. Refrigeration is very expensive here in Indonesia because it is so hot. In my family in law’s house, I constantly ate food and meat that had been sitting out since sunrise. It was a precarious situation where refusing food would have been impolite. Plus everyone always offered food when we arrived to their home. My husband suspects this is because a lot of his family members wanted to watch me react to Indonesian food. I also was just at a complete loss on how to cook or shop yet and had little control over what I got to choose to put in my body. Yes, I got sick- that is inevitable. But I can’t say that it was the fried egg or beef stew every time. Even in the most stylish of restaurants it can still be possible. My co-worker told me he has gotten food poisoning three times from his favorite upscale expat bar if he is to be believed. I think the trick is to not eat the raw veggies! I’m looking at you celery stick.
After a while I realized there are so many people not heating up meat, and not getting sick. Why is this? One of my favorite places to eat in Jakarta is a cheap Padang style restaurant. Weirdly enough, Padang style food originates from West Sumatra but everyone in this restaurant was Javanese. Reminds me of the time I walked into a taco stand to find the whole place run by a Chinese family in Park Slope. Padang is usually a meat dish served with rice, a dollop of chili, and some curry broth. The meat can be a piece of chicken, a scope of thick rendang beef, or a number of any other things. The display in the window I had assumed was just that, a display. But it turns out the whole set of dishes were where they pulled our choices from and onto our plate.
I twisted my mouth looking down at my room temperature chicken and the pile of rice covered in broth. I decided to take the risk. I was sitting in a dirty restaurant where the floor was covered in cigarette ash and ants were crawling to and fro with the delivery of goods. Every time I take a bite of my food, the voice of my friend’s parents from Brooklyn who were professional chefs are yelling in dismay. I hear her mother’s voice most frequently, when she once told me how people go home feeling sick from parties thinking they’ve had too much to drink, when really it’s the cold cuts meat platter that had been sitting out too long. Her knowing nods float around my head as I enjoy my lunch and prepare for the possible gastrointestinal horrors ahead.
To my surprise, I didn’t get sick and since then have been back. I had a gut feeling that the answer was in the spice. A study by scientists in Cornell back in 1998 confirms my feelings. It seems as if coating the foods we eat with spicy goods keeps bacteria from getting their groove on too hard. But this is like saying condoms prevent pregnancy; it’s not a %100 sure method and eventually you might fall into a trap. When I’m feeling less cautious or I know my body isn’t really up to snuff, I keep to my code and buy from places that cook their food fresh or reheat their ingredients. Luckily another favorite spot has included a place that serves grilled fish right off the bone. While it is cooked ahead of time, they do a bit of extra grilling when you order. You can see our enthusiasm in the before and after picture below.
While I have managed to “unlock the achievement of eating at the warung” as Rio likes to put it, I still sometimes have my doubts. I eat to visions of my friends who have studied biology and nursing putting their hands up to their forehead and go off about the reproductive rate of bacteria on the surface of my food. I see my mother staring at me, looking down to my plate and raising her eyebrows in that way that only mothers can. It’s the same look she would give me after insisting for the 3,984,723,984 time that I wear shoes to check the mail so I don’t get bitten by fire ants in our Floridian lawn. I shrug at her in my mind and bite in. It tastes good. I don’t get sick… this time.