Interview: Pat Tanumihardja

Birthplace: Jakarta, Indonesia

Grew up in: Singapore; Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.

Currently living in: Northern Virginia, U.S.A.

Age: 45

Find her: Website | Pickles and Tea | Instagram | Twitter

Quick things: Born in Indonesia and raised in Singapore, Pat Tanumihardja has been a food and lifestyle writer for over a decade. Her cookbooks include “Farm to Table Asian Secrets and “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook.” Her next cookbook about cooking Asian-style dishes in the Instant Pot is due out in spring 2020. Pat lives in Springfield, Virginia, with her husband and son. 

(Photo courtesy of Pat/Photo credit: Sarah Culver)

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Q: How did you become interested in food?

My mom’s always been an excellent cook, and we’ve always had good food to eat. When I was a little girl, my mom had bought me a masak-masak set, so I would pretend cook, but then sometimes, I’d sit in the kitchen and watch my mom. I was exposed to cooking at a young age, and as soon as I was ready, my mom would make me gulung lumpia or tusuk satay. I was introduced to cooking that way, but I never really consciously wanted to learn how to cook.

I never cooked, per se, until I went to college and I missed all the food that my mom used to make for us. I had long-distance phone calls with her about how she made her dishes. They never turned out like hers did, but at least I got to learn how the dishes were made.

I guess in the back of my mind, I’d always played with the idea of writing a cookbook but never thought it could be a reality. The opportunity fell into my lap. I was interested about writing about food and culture and history, and how those things interconnect. At the time, I was writing for a local newspaper in Seattle, and I was nudging the editor to give me more food stories to cover. She randomly assigned me an interview with a publisher at a local boutique publishing house called Sasquatch Books. So I was interviewing him, and we started talking about cooking and food. He’s also Asian-American, so he told me how he’d always wanted to do this book about Asian grandmothers and their stories and recipes. And I got totally excited and said, “I’d totally write that book for you.” So that’s how my first book came about. I always felt food was a way to bring people together and unite people.

Q: What did your family think when you were writing your first cookbook?

So, I have to go back. One of the main reasons I wanted to go to the U.S. for school was because I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My parents, typically, wanted me to become a doctor, lawyer, banker, something professional to make me lots of money. But I didn’t want to do any of those things. In Singapore, if you go to a local university, you have to pick your major at the beginning and you’re not allowed to switch tracks.

When I came to the U.S., I ended up doing communications…and then I ended up doing freelance writing because I was moving around a lot, with my husband. My parents were very concerned for me, because they didn’t consider it a real job. I’d be working from home, and this is when I was in Seattle, and my dad would drop by and was like, “Why are you home?” So they never saw writing as a feasible profession or as a “real job.” But when the book was published and they could see something tangible, they were really proud of me.

When the book first came out, my family was running an Indonesian restaurant in Seattle, and my mom proudly had my book on display, and she would sell it to everyone who would walk in the door. So, they changed their minds after a while.

Q: How did you start thinking of yourself as someone of Indonesian heritage?

That’s a very difficult question. When I was a kid, I never really thought about it much. Before I started school, I spoke Indonesian fluently; my parents only spoke to me in Indonesian. But once I started school, I always spoke English and, somehow, my parents also transitioned to just talking to us in English. Maybe my mom would say something in Indonesian, but we would respond in English.

As I got a little bit older, when I was approaching my teens, I kind of didn’t like being Indonesian. I was beginning to notice that there were things that were different about me, as someone who is Chinese-Indonesian. My parents threw parties every few months and invited a lot of Indonesians over, and my mom wanted me to be friends with more Indonesians, but I felt like I didn’t fit in. My dad said that we were not Chinese, we were Indonesian, but that wasn’t true. But when I talked to him when I was much older, he said yeah, we’re mostly Chinese, and my grandfather was from China.

So when I went to college in the U.S., I met other Indonesians and I began to explore the idea of being Indonesian. But I think I still felt more comfortable being around other Singaporeans, as opposed to other Indonesians. My older brother actually went the total opposite way, and he started hanging around with Indonesians a whole lot more, and his Indonesian became more fluent, and he married an Indonesian who grew up in Indonesia. Whereas I didn’t. My younger sister ended up marrying a Singaporean. And I ended up marrying an American.

When I had a son, I began to feel like I wanted to get more in touch with my Indonesian heritage, even though I don’t speak Indonesian all that well. I can order food, communicate with my relatives, but even then, I never felt comfortable teaching my son Indonesian. But I realized that it was important for him to know a part of where he came from. I tried to introduce him to foods, I talked to him about how I grew up and what it was like. When I was growing up, we used to go back once or twice a year, more often when my grandmother was still alive. I have this conflict, because I’m Indonesian and Chinese, I don’t know what I’m more of, and because I grew up in Singapore, it’s a loaded question when people ask me where I’m from.

Q: What has the process been like, passing on what you know to your son? Is he also active in the kitchen?

He is! Well, it depends on his mood. He actually enjoys cooking. There are days when he’ll come up to me and say, “Mommy, I want to make dumplings,” or, “Mommy, I want to make cookies,” or, “Mommy, can you make me bakmi?” So he’s involved in the kitchen. I’ve started giving him free reign to make eggs. He eats whatever we eat. I make no exceptions for him. So he enjoys a whole range of Indonesian food. Some of his favorite foods are lumpia, bakmi, and he likes curries.

It’s funny to say this as a writer, but I don’t consider myself much of an oral storyteller. I do try, when I’m making a dish my mom has made, I try to tell him the story of it and little anecdotes of what it was like growing up in Singapore. I try, but I feel like I’m not doing enough. But I guess trying is better than nothing.

Q: What does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?

On a basic level, it’s the very core of who I am. But, at the same time, I don’t feel very connected to it. Beyond the fact that I know the food, and I cook it, and there were aspects of Indonesian culture that my parents shared. We did a trip across Java, from Jakarta all the way to Bali. My dad grew up in Bandung, and my mom grew up in Bekasi. I was 16, 17, and they really wanted to show that to us. So, it’s somewhere inside me, and I would like to get to know it better.

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