Island cooking

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Margaret J. Wiener. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.1.029


Island cooking

Margaret J. WIENER, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Comment on Palmié, Stephan. 2013. The cooking of history: How not to study Afro-Cuban religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

I read this book as an outsider to the ethnography and history that constitute its object of reflection. Nonetheless, fond of messing with inherited categories, and sharing Stephan Palmié’s theoretical proclivities, I am drawn to his project and in awe of his erudition and tracking skills. The text illuminates the processes through which apparently descriptive categories—Afro-, Cuban, Religion, and of course their combination—emerged and stabilized over time. The “Afro-Cuban religion” ethnographers encounter now has a checkered past: once despised as sorcery, a sign of the brutish superstition of enslaved Africans, it became emblematic of Cuban identity, inspired competing versions as it spread to the United States and around the globe, and aspires to the status of a world religion.

The story is filled with unexpected twists and turns. The making of this hyphenated practice, Afro-Cuban Religion, includes, for instance, the changing significance of “Afro,” which involves not only transformations over time but also across space: a prolific boundary object, it travels with Cubans to Miami, spreading up the Eastern Seaboard to encounter distinctly different racial politics; sends pilgrims to West Africa and back again; and makes its own worldwide web online—all the way to the Philippines! As with any prospective world religion, it opens itself to adherents with little in common with its original practitioners, whomever they might be. For this book is a story of origins, and of their constant reworking as its object solidifies. I found the tale of Yoruba ethnogenesis via Christian evangelization in the putative land of origins across the Atlantic particularly compelling. And of course “Cuban” is among the phenomena crafted along the way.

But what, then, does cooking have to do with all of this history?

[536]A lot, it turns out. Fernando Ortiz—who wrote so brilliantly about Cuban history as an interplay between tobacco and sugar, animating these vital crops as characters and in the process inventing the concept of transculturation—found culinary metaphors remarkably good to think, as does Palmié. Palmié draws attention to a much less well-known essay, in which Ortiz describes Cuba as an ajiaco, a stew of legumes, meats, and water, seasoned with aji, a pungent chili pepper. For Ortiz, the stew is perpetually unfinished: new ingredients constantly are thrown into the pot. The stew’s flavor and appearance depend on where in the pot you sample it: at the bottom, where ingredients have bubbled together longest and are more transculturated; or at the top, where the newest and rawest additions are still recognizably distinct. This, Palmié insists, applies to knowledge no less than to identities: “History cooks us all” (2013:101).

And here is another strand of argument: our own professional practices, as anthropologists, are part of, rather than outside (what Donna Haraway [1991] terms a god-trick), the processes we describe. Palmié calls the effects of anthropological discussion, including his own, the ethnographic interface. He highlights the movement of our texts well beyond the narrow circle of colleagues to which they are aimed, to readers with much at stake. Many of us no longer speak only about our interlocutors in our field sites; we also, to varying degrees, speak to them, depending on how well our projects coincide and material forces (including prosaic ones, such as the language and accessibility of what we publish) enable entanglement. What some people write plays a role in the processes through which other people make history in circumstances not of their choosing. Our books may contribute to or hinder such world-making. Contra Jacques Derrida (1976), there is nothing outside the world.

Palmié highlights the cooking of history in transatlantic worlds by developing his own culinary metaphors in the final chapter, to reconsider the processes at play in the Caribbean. He offers two “metahistorical recipes”: one for ackee and saltfish, formerly a Jamaican breakfast staple (until the price of cod became prohibitive); the other for ámála, the quintessential sacrificial food offered to Changó in Afro-Cuban religious practice. The first models creolization, combining a product of New England fisheries, a fruit originating in Africa, and local ingredients and tastes. The second, named in part for a Yoruba porridge, claims African origins, though containing markedly regional elements.

Do Palmié’s ideas travel? To answer this, I pivot from the Caribbean to the place Columbus thought he was headed: the now archipelagic nation-state of Indonesia, where I, like Danilyn Rutherford, have committed anthropology. Bali, a tiny but famous island, is considerably west of the once sought-after Spice Islands. But it has its own exceedingly dense ethnographic interface (think Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson; the Geertzes; and tourism) that includes the making of “religion,” as well as some mighty fine food. So how has history been cooked in the East Indies?

The colonial/Orientalist metaphor for Indonesian history might be the layer cake. Scholarly excavation uncovered sharply delineated sediments of “religion.” The cake’s base is “animism,” a term bearing the traces of an early ethnographic interface, deriving as it does from Edward B. Tylor’s intervention in speculations about the origin of religion (1871). This stratum is overdetermined: by definition [537]animism must describe indigenous practices, which also must be predictably familiar. Above it lays the first layer of “civilization,” direct from India in the form of two “isms”: Hinduism and Buddhism. The Orientalists, though, conceded some mixing here: what they found appeared more “Hindu-Buddhist” than purely one or the other. Over this, a thick tier of Islam, initially also from India, and decidedly Sufi, until an increasing number of pilgrims returned from Mecca determined to purge Islam of customs bequeathed from earlier pasts. And on top, a European frosting in two flavors (according to Indonesia’s Ministry of Religion): Catholicism and Protestantism. Or, since I have moved beyond colonial scholarship to the nation-state, the frosting might better be identified as pancasila, the five principles that every Indonesian theoretically shares, one of which enjoins recognition of a single almighty Divinity.

The layer cake presents Indonesian history as a series of successions rather than an amalgam of influences. But what made such reconstructions possible were “survivals” of each layer in the ethnographic present. Animists, described by Indonesia’s Ministry of Religion as people who do “not yet” have religion (a problem, since one must choose from the accepted menu of choices at school, where your religion is curricular), are scattered across the archipelago, many in highland interiors. A once regnant Hindu-Buddhism, that left myriad traces in the shape of monumental architecture, language, texts, and performance, now exists mainly on Bali, which in the early nineteenth century offered Orientalists the ravishing spectacle of what Java must have been like before Islam arrived. Islam is ubiquitous in the nationstate with the world’s largest Muslim population. Christians may be found in longcolonized regions such as the Spice Islands, as well as in pockets in regions where the colonial state allowed missionaries, such as among many former “animists.”

Orientalist accounts of precolonial Bali as “Hindu” (emphasized far more than the “Buddhist”) launch that island’s ethnographic interface, and the translation of an immense body of practices into a religion now known as Agama Hindu Dharma. I lack the knowledge and time to pursue that interface with the vigor and rigor it deserves; Palmié sets the bar high. But some features are worth noting.1

The archipelago has been a site of exchanges for millennia, located as it is on sea routes between South and East Asia. The Orientalists who inserted “Hindu” into that interface were agents of the British East India Company, sent out from Calcutta during the Napoleonic era to prevent Java, located between British interests in the subcontinent and in Australia, from falling into the hands of the French, who occupied the Netherlands. Through eyes and expertise honed by emerging scholarship in South Asia (itself involving origin stories about European languages), they found traces of Indian influence riveting. When the Dutch claimed what was now their territory (finally taking over the bankrupt Dutch East India Company’s assets), Dutch scholars pursued those Indian connections by sending Orientalists along on diplomatic and military expeditions to Bali, to collect texts, which, written in a Brahmi script (a writing system with descendants throughout South and Southeast Asia) in a language with myriad Sanskrit loanwords, strengthened those claims. Philologists bustled to compare texts and correct “corruptions” to restore [538]them to their original purity. For texts used in rites, however, another step existed: comparing them to texts from India, to uncover their “authentic source.”

Back on the subcontinent, British officials, Orientalists, and Christian missionaries, with the increasing involvement of regional intellectuals, had managed to turn the panoply of region-specific practices—rites, devotional practices, “castes,” and texts—into a world religion, dubbed “Hinduism,” a term purportedly derived from a Persian word for a major river and later referring to the people living near it. These processes—designating first as religion, and then as Hindu, Balinese practices aimed at making and maintaining relations with a multitude of more-than-human Powers associated with specific places—took shape through an ethnographic/ colonial interface involving Dutch scholar-officials and Dutch-educated Balinese intellectuals (with an assist from a 1927 visit by Rabindranath Tagore). Meanwhile, neither foreign nor indigenous intellectuals paid much attention to the striking resemblances between the architecture of Balinese temples and dynastic compounds and Chinese pagodas, as well as the costuming in Balinese and Chinese performing arts. Those connections never formed an ethnographic interface.

For both Dutch administrators and Balinese intellectuals, making Balinese religion first required establishing the precise relationship between religion proper (the Indonesian term for which derives from the Sanskrit agama, which originally meant nothing of the sort) and mere custom, adat, an Arabic loanword. This attempt at drawing and maintaining boundaries—conceptual, practical, historical, embedded in terms that index genealogies of influence—continues to bedevil not only Balinese intellectuals but, since the nineteenth century, Muslim authorities as well. Under the Dutch, the distinction had pragmatic effects for the administration of justice, among other things. What kind of agama Balinese had, however, was hardly a settled matter: some called it agama tirtha, the “religion” of holy water, highlighting the significance of transforming ordinary water into a purifying substance used in countless practices; others began to refer to agama Bali, or agama Hindu, or agama Hindu Bali.

What firmly cemented the Hindu were the politics of religion in post-Independence Indonesia. People who did “not yet” identify themselves as followers of one of the faiths the new state officially acknowledged found themselves targeted for conversion and without financial or moral support. A coalition of Balinese began to agitate for recognition as followers of a world religion: Hinduism. Moreover, they argued that it met the criteria of having sacred texts and a single deity, Sanghyang Widhi. In 1958 their petition was granted. As part of the campaign, Balinese began increasing interchanges with Indian intellectuals, and myriad journeys back and forth ensued. Such visits continue, along with debates. Balinese who visit India are sometimes shocked by how different practices are, and a strain of thought extending back to the 1920s advocates putting less emphasis on Indian origins and more on ancestral practices.

Which brings me back to culinary metaphors, which speak to historical processes in a number of ways.

What culinary concoctions are distinctly Indonesian? For those who encounter “Indonesian” food outside of Indonesia, the rijsttafel (literally, “rice table”) may come to mind. A colonial invention, this refers to the sprawling table filled with numerous dishes enjoyed by the Creole families of merchants of the Dutch East [539]India Company and their administrative heirs in the Netherlands Indies government. Now the star attraction at Indonesian restaurants in Dutch cities, at its center is a mountain of rice, mirroring the volcanic mountains that erupted from the sea to form the archipelago. But accompanying the rice is a profusion of multiethnic dishes: satés and sambals, vegetables, and tropical fruits.

You can’t find a “rice table” in independent Indonesia. It is not a national dish. But a much smaller version is served at the street stalls and restaurants that Indonesians frequent: nasi campur or “mixed rice,” a bowl mounded with steamed rice, surrounded by a sampling of side dishes. In Bali, these might include fried tofu, water spinach, and three enticing specimens of Balinese culinary genius: suckling pig (a piece of crackling skin, with a small portion of fatty pork); lawar, chopped up raw vegetal matter (banana tree stems, coconut, jackfruit) mixed with various combinations of spices and sometimes blood; and saté lilit, minced meat mixed with coconut and a spicy paste and then molded onto bamboo sticks and grilled. These specialties are feast foods, crucial to the practice of what is now called the Hindu Dharma religion, though they have nothing to do with India. Moreover, the everyday meal most Balinese used to eat had a similar structure: heaped up rice, with a few tiny salted fish, chili peppers, and some salt.

An additive cuisine, then, not a cuisine of mixtures. Or at least not the blending that stews involve. Like the layer cake, components remain visibly distinct. Fitting for a nation-state whose slogan is “unity in diversity”; and for an island where purifying—separating people, places, and things from their mundane state—is a crucial praxis.

Yet there is more mingling in Indonesian and Balinese gastronomy than meets the eye. Again, following Palmié’s lead, many of the staples of a Balinese kitchen come from elsewhere. That “elsewhere” includes not only the subcontinent (turmeric, black pepper) and the Middle Kingdom (ginger), but also Africa (tamarind, possibly via India) and the New World (the now essential chili pepper).

And just when this cuisine appears to be all about the aggregation of clearly distinct elements, two other culinary methods demand acknowledgment: pounding and fermenting. Balinese cooking is literally rhizomatic. The basis of almost all dishes is a spicy aromatic paste, consisting of equal measures of a pile of rhizomes (turmeric, ginger, and lesser and greater galangal), pounded together in a mortar and pestle with other flavorful raw ingredients (e.g., garlic, shallots, chili peppers). Indonesian history may also be termed rhizomatic, a history of movements across the sea, cresting on beaches and traveling inland. If in Cuba history is stewed, in Bali it is pounded.

But not only pounded. In the West Indies, people and practices from afar were thrown into a New World pot to simmer and blend. In the East Indies, they were metabolized through millennia of trade: in cloth, porcelain, swallow nests, texts, rites, and ideas. Or rather fermented, another important process in Indonesian cuisine; it yields, for instance, shrimp paste, a staple of Southeast Asian gastronomy, and tempeh, the fermented soy cakes now readily available in my neighborhood markets.

And what of the cooking of ethnographers? I am struck that the orishas have never sought Palmié’s initiation (at least not yet.) They are strikingly indifferent to race or country of origins, having turned plenty of white folks into their agents. [540]Following the orishas has nothing to do with inheritance, either in the form of genes or customs.

Bali’s gods don’t select followers; inheritance is nearly everything. You are born with obligations to the dead and to various Powers, and misfortune ensues if you forget these (even if only through misfortune do you discover you should have been paying respects to a Power hitherto unknown). Still, after I experienced one minor health issue after another during my first months in Bali, the head of my household noted that if I was going to go around talking about powerful dead people and more-than-human forces, I could use some protection. He advised me to undergo a rite to establish a relationship with the goddess Saraswati, patroness of writing, the arts, and knowledge. A dutiful participant-observer, I did. This had consequences I had not fully appreciated though: rules to follow from there on out. This relation was for life, not just for work. The family also invited me to participate when they rebuilt the shrine to their ancestors and visiting Powers. My descendants now have a place in Bali, where they may ask for my aid after my death. While I did not “convert,” a new set of rites devised to deal with in-marrying non-Balinese, most commonly Indonesian or foreign women (in Indonesia, the woman follows the man in matters of religion), I had been assimilated. Or perhaps fermented: steeped in an earthy mix of microbes and culture, baked by the tropical sun, transformed in unanticipated ways, even as these words may (or may not) add something to the further cooking of history.


Derrida, Jacques. 1976. Of grammatology. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Haraway, Donna J. 1991. “Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective.” In Simians, cyborgs, and women: The reinvention of nature, 183–202. New York: Routledge.

Palmié, Stephan. 2013. The cooking of history: How not to study Afro-Cuban religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Picard, Michel. 2012. “What’s in a name? An enquiry about the interpretation of Agama Hindu as ‘Hinduism.’” Jurnal Kajian Bali 2 (2): 113–40.

Picard, Michel, and Rémy Madinier, eds. 2011. The politics of religion in Indonesia: Syncretism, orthodoxy, and religious contention in Java and Bali. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Tylor, Edward B. 1871. Primitive culture: Researches into the development of mythology, religion, art and custom. London: John Murray.


Margaret J. Wiener
Department of Anthropology
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
CB#3115, Alumni Bldg
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3115


1. While what follows comes partly from my own sporadic research, it is deeply informed by work by colleagues (especially Picard [2012] and Picard and Madinier [2011]).