Alumni Programs

It's Chapati and I'll Fry If I Want To!

By Sean Williams, Member of the Evergreen Faculty

During my sabbatical in 2004 I worked on a unique project: to combine food and music in a cookbook so that the “outside world” could come to understand just what it is that ethnomusicologists do. I am an ethnomusicologist, which is someone who studies music in its cultural context. Any music, any place, any time period. We are like anthropologists of music. The field has been around for about 50 years, and about 2000 ethnomusicologists ply their trade around the world. But in addition to studying music, we study everything else: language, religion, politics, dance, law, and food. Especially food. If you’re going to go live in a place for a large portion of your life, studying music and working closely with musicians, you have to like the food.

ethnomusicologists' cookbook cover

I have been very fortunate to live in areas of the world with delicious food and beautiful music, so when my idea of a cookbook began coming into focus, I contacted colleagues from all over the world and asked them to contribute articles. The result is The Ethnomusicologists’ Cookbook: Complete Meals from Around the World. Each of the 47 entries includes a proverb, a recipe set for a complete meal for six people, an article about the relationship between food and music, a list of recommended CDs, and some resources for more study. It’s available through Amazon (the paperback version is inexpensive! don’t buy the hardback version!) and Barnes and Noble, but not at Olympia’s locally-owned bookstores.

What follows is a complete entry from the cookbook, which I developed from my studies in the Sundanese (West Java) portion of Indonesia. You would be amazed at how quickly a meal like this can be put together! To find the two “exotic” ingredients (lemon grass and salam leaves) you just need to visit your local Asian foods market. Remember, this kind of food isn’t exotic at all if it’s what you’ve grown up with. Compare this with standard fare at an Evergreen potluck (chips, dip, chips, dip…) and you’ll see that we could all use a tasty infusion of creativity in our lives. And by the way, after 30 years of being an ethnomusicologist, my parents finally understand what I do.


If you haven’t eaten rice, you haven’t yet eaten.
Menu: Ayam Opor (Chicken in Coconut Milk), Nasi Putih (White Rice), Acar (Pickled Vegetables), Krupuk (Shrimp Crackers), Buah-Buahan (Fresh Fruit). Serve with water and weak black tea or sweetened coffee.
Preparation Time: about 2-1/2 to 3 hours
Cooking Process: Place the sliced tropical fruits on an attractive platter and sprinkle with lemon or lime juice to keep the color looking nice. Start the acar first and chill; fry the krupuk and set aside. Begin the ayam opor, then start the rice 1/2 hour before eating. For a vegan option, substitute 2 packages of tempeh (cubed) for the chicken and omit the krupuk. Serves six people.


Ayam Opor (Chicken in Coconut)

2 lbs. chicken meat (already boned and cut into bite-sized pieces)
2 T vegetable oil
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
2” fresh ginger root
2 stalks lemon grass (look in an Asian food store)
4 candlenuts (or 1/4 c. blanched almonds or macadamia nuts)
2 salam leaves (look in an Asian food store)
1-1/2 t. coriander
1 t. cumin
2” piece of galangal (look in an Asian food store)
4 c. coconut milk (or 3 [14 oz.] cans)
1 t. tamarind paste
2 limes
Prepare all the items to go into the cooking pot before you start cooking. Using a large stainless steel pan, brown the cut-up chicken pieces for a few minutes in 1 T vegetable oil; set aside. Chop 1 onion, slice 2 cloves of garlic, and peel and crush or dice 2" fresh ginger root; mix and set aside. Crush 4 candlenuts (or blanched peeled almonds or macadamia nuts) until they are in very small pieces. Add 1 T vegetable oil to the pan in which you browned the chicken, then heat the oil. Fry 2 salam leaves, 1-1/2 t. coriander, 1 t. cumin, 2” sliced galangal, 1 t. salt, and 1/2 t. black pepper for about a minute. Add the onion/garlic/ginger/nut mix, then fry for a few more minutes until they are tender and the onion is close to being translucent. Add 4 c. coconut milk, 1 t. tamarind paste, 2 lemon grass stalks (bruised or knotted or chopped into 3” lengths) and the chicken pieces; bring to a low boil. Cook, stirring, for about five minutes, then reduce heat to a simmer. Allow to cook, uncovered, for another half hour until the chicken is done and the sauce has reduced. Just before serving, add the juice of 2 limes to the sauce. Serve directly over warm white rice.

Nasi Putih (White Rice)

3 c. white rice
Bring 6 c. water to a boil. Carefully rinse and add 3 c. white rice; reduce heat to simmer, covered, until rice is tender (about 20 minutes). Remove from heat, fluff with fork, then allow to sit, covered, for another 10 minutes.

Acar (Pickled Vegetable Salad)
4 carrots
3 cucumbers
1/2 head of cabbage
1/2 medium yellow onion
1” fresh ginger root
1 c. rice vinegar
pinch of red chili pepper flakes
1 T sugar
Peel and julienne 3 carrots and 2 cucumbers (seeded). Thinly slice 1/2 cabbage. Thinly slice 1/2 medium yellow onion. Peel and crush 1" fresh ginger root. Mix together. Make the marinade by combining 1 c. rice vinegar, 1 t. salt, 1 pinch red chili pepper flakes, and 1 T sugar. Chill until ready to serve.

Krupuk Udang (Shrimp Crackers)

2 c. vegetable oil for frying
1 package shrimp chips (look in an Asian food store)
Pour enough vegetable oil into a pan for deep frying (1-1/2"). Heat the oil so that it appears wavy below the surface, but not smoking. (Note that some krupuk packages tell you to fry it at what seems to be a surprisingly low temperature: that’s the Celsius measurement.) Test it with a tiny piece of krupuk; if it's hot enough, the krupuk should spin around in the oil and inflate to twice or three times its size. You may need to break the crackers in half prior to placing them in the oil, if the size of your frying pot is narrow. Place one shrimp cracker at a time in the hot oil, using tongs to turn and remove them. Krupuk take about 5-10 seconds at the most, per side, to fry. When cooked (very pale beige, neither brown nor white), place on a plate covered with a paper towel. Assume that you will need at least 30 krupuk for 6 people. Any that you do not eat can be stored in an airtight container for a day or two.

Buah-Buahan (Fresh Fruit)

Arrange an assortment of fresh fruits in season; ideally, bananas should be a centerpiece. If you can find them, mangoes, passion fruit, mangosteens, kiwis, or other strong-tasting fruits are ideal. Serve with sweetened black coffee.

The Concept of Ramé     

In the mountainous Sundanese region of Java, music is rarely performed without the accompaniment of food. From 2000-guest weddings in which the music is the background for a staggering buffet with its rows of stacked glass plates and steam tables to the all-night singing parties with fried bananas and boiled peanuts, food and its accompanying conversation are a must in most musical settings. 

The sought-for quality in all of this joining of food and music is the quality of ramé, which means fun, busy, chaotic, and lively.

In West Java, the buffet is a customary way of getting your food; you never know when friends and neighbors plan to drop in unannounced, so the more food available, the better! The Sundanese frequently speak about what it is that makes something khas sunda or genuinely and deeply Sundanese; the quality of kasundaan (“Sundanese-ness”) can be imparted through the food as well as through the music.

Just as a musical performance is not nearly as enjoyable in the absence of food, food in the absence of music (or at least sound) is considered incomplete. As a result, when live music is unavailable, a radio or television is turned on to accompany the act of eating. Such close ties between food and music make successful rehearsals and performances very difficult during the month of Ramadan; as a result, they are often shifted to the late evening when food and drink can accompany sound, and vice versa.

The sought-for quality in all of this joining of food and music is the quality of ramé, which means fun, busy, chaotic, and lively. Traffic jams, parties, markets, evening strolls downtown, music performances, and meals are all expected to be ramé. The opposite of ramé is sepi – quiet, lonely, and inherently sad. Unlike regions of the world where solitude is a welcome respite from the chaos of everyday life, solitude in Sundanese culture is strange and makes people ill at ease. Far preferable is the noisy, festive meal with music, group participation, lively conversation, and plenty of distraction.
Rice is the staple food of every Sundanese meal, and if one has not eaten rice, one has not eaten at all. Servants (many families employ helpers, not just the upper classes) cook a large container of rice in late morning for the noon meal, then everyone eats leftover rice in the evening and fried rice the next morning, before the cycle starts over again.

A Sundanese meal comprises a considerable plateful of white rice; several cups or enough to fill a wide shallow bowl an inch or two in depth. Small cut-up pieces of meat, tempeh, and raw vegetables are placed on top of the rice, followed by a large krupuk or cracker made from rice flour and shrimp. Most people eat with their right hand, or with a large spoon held in the right hand and a fork held in the left. The only purpose of the fork is to push the food onto the spoon. It is polite to leave a little food on the plate, and to turn the fork and spoon over in an x on the plate, face down upon finishing.
In addition to rice, Sundanese people enjoy a rich variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, exceptionally good tea, and a number of savory dishes. They are well known among other Indonesian ethnic groups for their marked preference for raw vegetables. Local culinary favorites include water buffalo jerky, deep fried tempeh, spicy carp steamed in banana leaf, baked freshwater fish, and hot ginger-coconut or ginger-coffee drinks served late at night. Beef, goat, and chicken meat (including various innards) are common at the dinner table.

At all hours of the day and night you can hear local food hawkers walking up and down the street with their three-wheeled pushcarts (kaki lima – "five legs"). Each seller has a particular noisemaker associated with the type of food being sold, and Sundanese people and foreigners alike keep one ear cocked for the sound of one’s favorite treat: bakso (meatball soup), rujak (spicy unripe mango salad), and my personal favorite, sekoteng (hot sweet ginger soup). The cacophony of “food sound” that fills the ears mixes with the call to prayer multiplied by the dozens of mosque loudspeakers within earshot, the honking of trucks and cars, and lively, ramé conversation.
I learned to cook during my time in the Sundanese region of Java by watching closely, eating well, and asking questions. Sundanese people jokingly judge outsiders by their preferences for certain foods and types of music, based on a continuum of "more Sundanese" or "less Sundanese." For example, the more searingly spicy food a foreigner can handle, the more approval (and uproarious teasing) one wins. Food is often used to elicit humorous and erotic comparisons either to body parts or bodily functions, particularly in terms of shape, size, smell, taste, and the reaction of one’s body to the food. It is considered wildly inappropriate, for example, for women to openly consume either pineapple or young coconut (because their inherent "juiciness" is supposed to have a corresponding effect on women’s bodies).

The foreigner who enjoys local "folk" traditions and foods (music played on bamboo instruments, for example) garners mixed reactions, at least partly because of local mixed feelings about class issues surrounding rural traditions. I had several teachers, including the well-known singer Euis Komariah, who spoke often about food and cooking even as she taught me to sing and to become more effectively Sundanese.

The woman I employed as my helper and the keeper-of-my-reputation, Tikah, fiercely guarded the kitchen from my husband who, like all men, was generally forbidden from entering the kitchen. The kitchen is considered the central "soul" of the home and – for many (devoutly Muslim) Sundanese – the sacred home of the (Hindu) rice goddess, Dewi Sri. The domains of women and men are clearly laid out: women work within the interior domain of the home (including the food and cooking activities), while men work in the exterior domain of the outer portions of the home and the outside world. This gender division plays out on the performance stage as well, in which women often serve as “hosts” for the male performing "guests." I was often told – by both men and women – that only when someone knows how to enjoy and appreciate the food (and the methods by which it is prepared) can that person understand the music... and, by extension, Sundanese culture.

Recommended listening:
  • Euis Komariah and Yus Wiradiredja, 1989 The Sound of Sunda. Globestyle CDORB 060. Collection of Sundanese popular songs using extended gamelan degung.
  • Jugala Orchestra, 1989 Jaipongan Java. A lively blend of singing, dance drumming, and fiery gamelan saléndro playing.
  • Imas Permas and Asep Kosasih, 1993 Tembang Sunda: Sundanese Classical Songs. Nimbus NI 5378. Elite music for voice, 18 string zither, and bamboo flute.
For More Information:

  • Spiller, Henry. 2004. Gamelan: The Traditional Sounds of Indonesia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO Inc.
  • Weintraub, Andrew. 2004. Power Plays: Wayang Golek Puppet Theater of West Java. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
  • Williams, Sean. 2001. The Sound of the Ancestral Ship: Highland Music of West Java. New York, London: Oxford University Press.