Interview: Daisy Orlana

Birthplace: Jakarta, Indonesia

Grew up in: Jakarta, Indonesia; moved to New York City in 2009

Currently living in: New York City, U.S.A.

Age: 28

Find her: Sayang website | Sayang Instagram | Bon Appétit feature

Quick things: Daisy Orlana is a Brooklyn-based designer who runs the Indonesian food pop-up Sayang.

(Photo credit on left: Youngna Park | Photo credit on right: Thomas Schonder)

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Q: What brought you to New York City? Was it a difficult transition? Did you miss home? 

I moved to school here for architecture, and I went to an art school, so it was welcoming and people kind of banded together in their loneliness. Architecture school was a different beast, so it was very busy, and I didn’t have time to process my own thoughts about being here.

I definitely missed the food and the people — I had no Indonesian friends whatsoever. Just in terms of banter, and it was pre-FaceTime, so Skyping was a bit of an ordeal, but it was definitely a huge booster on why I wanted to start Sayang when I was out of school. I didn’t cook growing up, but my family’s always surrounded by food. My dad’s side is from Padang and my mom’s side is from Java, and a lot of our gatherings are around food, talking about food, planning the next meal. So when I was here for college, I started making basic dishes, obviously nothing impressive. Just learning the basics like rice, soto, just things that would comfort me.

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

I’ve always felt Indonesian, but I think moving to the U.S. definitely brought out a lot of questions about that, like how do I maintain my culture and heritage while I’m here? I think language is also a huge thing, because I no longer spoke the language everyday, and that was a huge part for me of being part of a culture back then. If I go home now, my family is like, “Oh my god, you sound so Western.” My Indonesian is so butchered now, they’re like, “You sound like orang bule.”

So, when I got here, a big thing of why I wanted to start Sayang was because I wanted to find my people and food. I felt kind of lonely, in a way, and that was kind of an attempt to seek like-minded creatives, other Indonesians in New York, and it really did give me that opportunity.

Editor’s note: My Sayang pop-up experience
I somehow learned about Sayang through Instagram, and I knew I just had to go to at least one pop-up. So, I rented a car and drove all the way up to Brooklyn from Washington, D.C., on Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. The event ran for most of the afternoon, and the venue was packed. It was well worth the four-hour drive. My heart and my belly were warm and full!  

Q: What sort of lessons did your family instill in you? Growing up, did you feel like you were aware of your Indonesian heritage?

My sister is in education in Indonesia, so is my brother, and my dad is an economist. So, I’ve always grown up talking about history, culture, politics. I think the great thing is that my family felt a sense of pride about being Indonesian. When I’m with them, they’d be so excited to share facts about Indonesian culture and history with me, facts about different cities or different foods. My continued education on the country and culture is more of a continuous conversation with my family. One of the ways I connect is still asking them for advice before events, like what are your favorite Javanese foods? They’re always a part of the conversation for me.

My late mom — she passed away when I was younger — she always went out of her way to be generous and kind to other people. As you know, poverty in Indonesia is pretty significant, so growing up, my mom always made us volunteer. She always had a box of bread and milk and eggs to give away in our car. That kindness, how my family expressed it, was largely through food, because it’s one of the most generous ways of sharing something with someone. Not only just sitting down and sharing a meal, but actually the act of preparing food and giving it to people was always a big thing in our family.

Q: I was watching this video where a chef talks about how the act of feeding others is incredibly intimate because that food becomes a part of someone’s body and life.

Totally! I’ve been reading this book about the origins of Indonesian food — not really a book, but a magazine, it’s quarterly. It talks about how it’s such a thing — like the way we consume jamu is a daily ritual. Food for Indonesians is very much a collective thing and a spiritual thing. A lot of cultures do that, but I think it’s prominent in ours.

Q: What does community look like for you now?

I think in meeting all these other Indonesians, we’ve just been so excited to meet each other. It’s like, we’re that scarce, so finding each other and getting along is a miracle in itself. I’ll never take it for granted. At the last Sayang, we had a couple of Indonesian women help us at the event, and it was really amazing that we got to work through the event and run it, and speak Indonesian to each other in my butchered version. But that was something really special, to be able to work and talk to each other in Indonesian.

I learned a lot through them. The one girl is also from Padang, and her grandmother runs a Padang restaurant there. I’m not a trained chef or anything, so I’m still learning things as I go … if someone makes Indonesian food, they love you, because it’s so laborious to make it from scratch. So, it always blows my mind that Padang restaurants are able to make so many different kinds of food, every day. She was telling me — when you think about it this way, Indonesian food is very zero waste, because you’d cook one thing one day, and the next day, you would repurpose it as something else, like it’s curry, and then it’s a noodle. So each dish just goes through a life of its own, which is fascinating to think about, because really, nothing goes to waste along the way, and it becomes all these different dishes, which I thought was great.

So, the way you cook and prep the food, it does require a community if you want to cook a lot. There’s so much love and prep that goes into it. It’s a bunch of people in the kitchen cooking and talking together, and that’s how the food gets made.

I remember when I told my family I made everything from scratch, they were like, “What???” But I think that’s what I’ve been enjoying as well, getting in touch with my roots through cooking, cooking these very old dishes in a somewhat traditional way. I think it’s very cool to be in touch with your ancestors like that.

Javanese liwetan. (Photo credit: Jeremy Cohen)

Q: Tell me more about your interest in architecture and how you got into that. How does it influence your work with Sayang?

My late mother was actually an architect, and that’s always how I was interested in it, since I was young, because I would go with her to look at materials, go on construction sites, and it’s always been a really fascinating thing for me. But I think the big difference is I’ve never been interested in doing large buildings. I really prefer doing intimate spaces; what I do a lot of is hospitality, like restaurant and bar spaces. I worked on hotels as well. But I really love creating a space where people can interact immediately. It’s more than interior design. It’s really considering the interior shell of a space and everything that comes with it.

I think that definitely influences Sayang, in a way, which is a more playful version of what a site can be, but it definitely helps me when it comes to space planning or even pulling inspiration for certain things. I think my design background really helps with that.

I’ve always felt more and more that my life is moving closer to food, which is why I wanted to get into restaurant design, and I started Sayang now, so I really do think they all inform each other.

Q: What are some of your favorite dishes to cook?

You can’t ask me that! It’s so hard! The cooking is not the end goal; it’s what you want to eat. But I think … I love beef rendang and bubur ayam. Bubur ayam is a thing I wish I could just buy here in New York; it’s like you’re really sleepy and craving it, but you don’t want to go through the whole thing of cooking it. But that, to me, starting your morning with a warm, somewhat brothy porridge — there’s nothing that can replace that for me. And jamu as well.

Q: What are some dishes you want to learn to make?

I think for me I just want to learn more varied dishes. I’m obviously more familiar with Padang and Javanese food because of my family, but Indonesia’s so rich in culture and food, and each island really does have its own cuisine. A part of Sayang, I don’t want people to come and expect they’ll just eat nasi goreng or mie goreng. I want them to know that our culture is rich in other foods. I want to almost educate people in that way. So I don’t really have a particular dish, but I want to be more familiar with dishes outside of Sumatra, Java, and Bali.

And, to have more knowledge about the spices. They are such a big part of our history. But having a better understanding of the origins and the particular use of each spice, I think that’s something really special.

Q: What does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?

I think, to me, heritage means community. When you look at the culture, it very much means gathering; it’s really not an isolated culture. Spending time with friends, family, neighbors; there’s arisan. Indonesian culture … all of that really reflects togetherness. I feel like that’s something I feel when I travel around the country to places I hadn’t been before.

When I went home recently, I wanted to do a lot of food research, and it was kind of sad to see the international cookbooks that are around aren’t really written by Indonesians; they’re written by Westerners, and that really bummed me out. It bums me out because it’s hard to find Indonesian cookbooks in New York, and they’re usually written by British, Dutch, or Americans.

Growing up, religion was definitely a huge part of my extended family. My immediate family is pretty liberal, and I was raised to decide on my own path. My siblings are religious and practicing (Muslims), but it’s never been imposed on me. I didn’t really know how to deal with it; only when I moved to the U.S. did I begin to think, like no, it’s OK, we all have our own things. It was only when I moved to the U.S. that I tried pork and, now, I’m still eating pork.

But, little things like that, I think, New York has helped me find my place in terms of translating what being Indonesian means to me. I can still be non-religious and that doesn’t make me any less Indonesian.

Q: What are some goals you have, for yourself or for Sayang? What are we manifesting for 2020?

We want to do more collaborations. I would love to collaborate with other Indonesian musicians and artists for an event and not just have it be about the food but the culture as a whole.

And, something about the cooking being laborious — I would love to begin developing recipes that are more accessible. It might not be the original, but recipes that are accessible to Indonesians and non-Indonesians and feel more approachable. Being in a different country, in a different climate, it’s true immigrant cooking; you’re really adjusting to what you can find locally, so I think starting to share that knowledge of what I’ve discovered so far, like, it’s OK if you can’t find this, just use that, or something like that. Making Indonesian cooking less intimidating.