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Historical Southeast Asian Food

I’ve been listening to a lot of really interesting online talks. Most of the time while just drawing but maybe it’s a good idea to summarize the notes here for future reference.

This is from CSEAS Panel: Indonesian Food and the Early Modern Period.

“In a roundtable discussion on April 26, 2019 hosted by UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Barbara Watson Andaya (University of Hawaii-Manoa), Leonard Andaya University of Hawaii-Manoa), and Peter Lape (University of Washington) discussed their archeological and anthropological work with food in Indonesia in the Early Modern Period.”

Peter Lape is an archaeologist and talks about food in Southeast Asia in the Paleolithic, Neolithic and post Neolithic period.

Paleolithic period

– Found evidence of nutmeg use, 3500 years ago. Nutmeg can be a hallucinogenic so could be taken as a drug. Nutmeg is only found in the Banda islands in Indonesia up to the mid 19th century. 

– Food is generally challenging for archaeologist to research because it breaks down.

– Starches are often hard to find cos they break down so much, the ones that they can get are from scrapping the bottoms of pots.

– The ones that keep best are seeds, pollen, animal bones (Rhino, elephants, tigers, etc) this was when most of the islands of Southeast Asia are still connected to the mainland and big animals are more common. 

– Because hunting are often men’s work and women’s roles are usually foraging for roots/vegetables, stuff that does not keep well. Archaeological findings usually paints an imbalanced picture that undervalues women’s labours. 

– On the eastern islands with no larger animals, lizards bats, giant sized rats are consumed. There is this way of catching bats that is particularly interesting in Indonesia. They fly a kite with a bait, bats would get try to eat the bait and get hooked to it. Basically fishing but in the sky. 

– Canarium nuts are very important food source, for proteins and oils

– Bananas, wild yams, taros are consumed.


– A revolution of food of sorts with the introduction of various domesticated foods

– Domesticated pigs, chickens and dogs are introduced.

– Chickens are likely native to Southeast Asia but brought to Southern China and then reintroduced  to SEA. Taro, asian yam domesticated either in Indonesia or Philipines. Bananas domesticated in New Guinea, one of the foods that was introduced from the east rather than from mainland/china/west.

– Sago starts to be grown all over Southeast Asia. Sago breaks down very easily and is problematic for archaeologists. And you harvest right before it flowers so it’s tastier so that also means no pollen to dig up too. 

Post Neolithic

500-800 years ago

– Many foods that we associate with Southeast Asia now are being introduced during this period, Chillies, tomatoes, cassava introduced from Americas, Peanuts from Africa.

– Rice is a big debate among archaeologists now. Some argue that it was cultivated in Southeast Asia more than 2500 years ago. Aside from ancient rice grains in Borneo, Peter is not able to find any evidence that it was widespread and thinks that the introduction of rice is a relatively recent development.

– Alcohol and drugs is a big deal, although changed with the coming of Islam but even today alcohol in Indonesia is a commonly consumed. 

– Archaeological digs found lots of European imports, beer, and gin. they reckon ships from Europe coming to Southeast Asia are full of beer and gin and loaded with spices on the way back.

Barbara Andaya talks about status of food, women’s role and how it changes with time.

– Foods have status, you are defined by what you eat, a ruler in Eastern Indonesian when drinking dutch beer would put on a dutch wig, because he is changing identity to a European, no longer Muslim

– Underlying that is the idea of gender, of women’s role in food, growing, producing, cooking, etc.

– Foraging for leaves and wild foods, is more predictably productive, while hunting is not. 

– Foraging for food, women would also be familiar with plants and leaves for medication. Records of Europeans depending on these women for medical knowledge.

– In the Khorat plateau, woman are also pot makers, the pots have striations which serve to keep food hot longer or cool them down faster, innovations speculated to be that of women because they are involved both in food and pottery.

– Women as gardeners, any important food crop of the region, pepper, etc began in the herb garden tended by women.

– Rice communities also heavily involve women, studies show that between wheat growing communities and rice growing communities. Women are found to have a much bigger role in society in rice growing societies. 

– All types of rice production heavily involves women, but especially irrigated rice because u need to grow them in nurseries, before you plant the saplings and because the rice goddess is female/child, you need to be gentle and therefore you have women delicately planting this saplings. 

– The finger knife for harvesting rice is a women’s tool.

(MK: Posted on finger knives and the role of women in the process of rice harvesting here)

– If women are not involved, nobody could eat. The significant role of the women is recognized and valued. Daughters are very important, in many parts of SEA, young man would go live with the daughters family.

– Lots of quotes that the more daughters you have, the more worth you have, because in turn you will have that many more sons in law and labour. Complete opposite of China or other societies that values male offspring.

– The coming of Islam meant a huge shift for women.

– Not eating pork became THE identifier of being Muslim. (coming back to what was mentioned earlier of you are what you eat) In Indonesian going east from Makassar, the largest animal is the pig so it’s usually the ritual animal. 

– This is also a big deal for women because they were the ones who looked after the domesticated animals, the pigs and piglets. Women might even breastfeed pigs if necessary. This cultural change suggests a diminishing of the role of women in food production and subsequently in society.

– Coffee came from Yemen in the 16th century, Southeast Asians don’t consume coffee through the roasted beans but by steeping the coffee leaves. 

– Sufis in the Middle East also drank coffee to help keep them awake while chanting their Zikirs and that’s how coffee became a “Muslim” drink for the mystical Islamic community. 

– Opium also introduced. Malacca governor in the mid 18th century remarked that the many Southeast Asians are addicted to opium.

– Opium conjures up imageries of desperate Chinese coolies using it to escape hardship and poverty, however this is not how Southeast Asians used it then. 

– Southeast Asian warriors used opium to raise their courage and bravery. Make them more reckless and more able to withstand pain. (MK: possibly in line with running amok as a fighting strategy?)

Leonard Andaya talks about Sago and the other important staple foods of the region

– The staple food for this region in the early modern period is sago, even Malays eat sago. Even when rice introduced, the elites would be eating rice while commoners eat sago.

(MK: Here’s a post to a video of sago harvesting)

– Fresh sago can be made in dumplings in soups, but if you bake the sago and dry it. You can keep it for a long time. Usually it’s kept in the rafters along with the dried fish.

– Spoke of an experience on long boat ride with nothing to eat so all the passengers get passed dried sago and dried fish which are incredibly hard. So how you eat it is by soaking it in the seawater so it gets soft.

– Sago particularly suited the early modern societies, especially traders because they can carry the dried sago and dried fish for long distances.

– Betel or Betel nut is incredibly significant, even in his research trips, he would be offered betel quid as a guest. And when visiting host families where betel is consumed, it is a good gesture to buy betel as gifts. This points to the importance of Betel in Southeast Asian society even today.

– Different types of fermented fish sauce is very important, because it’s so flavourful you don’ t need much meat.

– Herbs, leaves is significant to SEA diet as well. You just learn to eat all the veges and herbs around you. 

Kuehs, while not associated with Chinese now are likely introduced or the result of Chinese migration. The same Kuihs are often found all over Southeast Asia in urban areas with Chinese migration or Peranakan history. 

MK: This talk was really fun to listen to because it’s food you know, but also the speakers talk about all these basic human wants, like wanting flavour, salt, alcohol, etc and these are not things you think of as stuff that defines history. We likely think about power, empire, borders, but it’s the basic desires of wanting flavour, wanting to be intoxicated or wanting to eat certain stuff that determined so much of our history as well. 

Written by Mun Kao. This post was originally published October 27, 2020 on the A Thousand Thousand Islands Patreon.

Thumbnail image by Brian Evans.

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A Thousand Thousand Islands is no longer available on this website.
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A Thousand Thousand Islands is no longer available on this website.
Thank you for your support.