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Making Sajur Lodeh

by Julie Lauterbach-Colby

In Indonesia, when a person dies, family members must hold the body in their arms in order to receive instructions from the person's spirit on how to care for the dead. How to rub oils into the skin. How to wrap the body in soft cloth. How to overlap each previous layer with a quarter inch of the next. How to fold and tuck the ends just so under the arms, around the midline, between the two middle toes. To preserve the body. To make it last until the thousandth day.

At death, the person is taken into the home, wrapped and laid in a prominent place while funeral preparations are made. These preparations can take months, sometimes even a year, to complete.

During his lifetime, a man's main task is to build his burial tomb — the space in which he and his wife and unmarried daughters will occupy in death. If a man dies before his tomb is complete, the family will finish the site and the dead body will remain in the house, wrapped in cloth and preserved with oils, until laid in its tomb. On the island of Sumba, tombs are constructed out of huge stones; in the mountainous cliffs of Sulawesi, the tombs are chiseled into the rocks.


I had wanted to do both the shopping and the cooking for the sajur lodeh before my husband returned from work. We had discussed several times over the past month or two the possibility of me teaching myself how to cook some of the Indonesian recipes my Oma used to make when my family visited her in San Jose. Openly, I was enthusiastic with the idea, thinking of it as a type of ownership to the culture I had been adopted into as a child. Inwardly, however, the thought terrified me. When I was ten or eleven I remember asking my Oma to teach me how to make lemper, and she quietly laughed. "Too young," she said, and then she turned to my stepfather and spoke in Dutch.

As I thought about it now, the sight of a little blond white girl taking orders on how to prepare sambel and babi kecap from a 70-year-old woman who still struggled with English may have been disastrous. Or just not done. Because Indonesia and Indonesian culture was never discussed in the family — at least not in a language I could understand — I had no way to know whether or not it was proper for me, being an outsider, to ask. I do not know what my Oma said to my stepfather in Dutch that day, but I do know that neither I nor anyone else in my family brought up the subject again.

Years later, I spent the evening and next morning reading up on Indonesian burials and recipes. I was curious to know how my stepfather's family might have prepared his own burial; how he might have lived and died and been remembered had that culture existed for him.


Once prepared, the tomb in Indonesian burials becomes the resting ground for the dead, the place where their spirits roam the dark passageways and fight with each other, as they fought in life. They come back to the body only to eat and drink what the living provide.


What the living provide:

Jewelry and textiles died with indigo, left over from colonial days, to aid their spirits in the journey.

Tools with sharp edges and bone-carved blowguns for protection; metal-tipped darts with string wrapped around the ends, dipped in poison, dipped with care.

Spoon and bowl for eating; cloth to wrap the utensils when they are not in use.

Food, with names like nasi goreng, sajur lodeh, gado gado and rempeyek katjang.

What the living provide depends upon the dead, and how they were when alive. Their tastes, their likes/dislikes, their need for texture or their comfort in smell. Only when those who survive cease to remember the dead as individuals, and instead remember them as anonymous ancestors, do the needs of the deceased diminish. Do their memories fade. Do their spirits complete their journey.


At 13 I stood over my stepfather and pressed two fingers into his skin, just below the soft curve of his cheek. I took my pointer finger and poked it into the back of his hand, lying quiet by his side. The brown flesh turned a pinkish white and stayed that way for a long time. The skin was cool to the touch and the white spot seemed like the first crack in the ice, right before the frozen pond shatters and the ice sheets collapse into the water. I watched the spot slowly return to match the color of the hand, but the skin tone was not normal. Looking quickly over his arm, neck and face — the exposed areas — I noticed the skin was a lighter shade altogether, splotchy and saggy. Perhaps this is why Indonesian tribes choose to wrap their dead; the tight fabric holds the flesh in place:  first cosmetic facial lift on the way to eternity.


I spent my childhood in the kitchen, experimenting with chocolate chip cookie recipes and simple stir-fry dishes. Over time I forgot about Indonesian food altogether. Even though I grew up smelling my Oma's lumpia and green beans sautéed in black bean paste whenever we visited her in San Jose, and even though my stepfather almost always ate his rice with sambel, I never felt compelled or encouraged to try and preserve the recipes, let alone the culture. By the time I traveled to Holland in high school and my uncle met me for dinner at an Indonesian restaurant on the coast, I felt a twinge of guilt when he lamented, "Indonesian food is becoming obsolete. All the vegetarians and health-conscious people, they all want Thai food." We sat eating bami goreng, a noodle dish that could pass as Pad Thai, and sate ayam, chicken skewers dipped in spicy peanut sauce that my uncle ordered for himself. "Nobody even knows the difference between the two anymore," he said, and bit into the skewered meat.


I remembered my uncle's sentiment at the time my husband first suggested I try to make Indonesian food. But since my third year of college when I had tried and failed to make Indonesian rice from a Vegetarian Times recipe, I had also spent a good deal of time in the kitchen forgetting. Forgetting the childhood smells of galangal with lemongrass; forgetting hot, spicy oil crackling on a pan; forgetting the tiered spice cake with paper-thin layers of almond paste my Oma made for special occasions.


During the time funeral arrangements are made in the United States — somewhere between the total bill for the coffin and the purchased plot in the cemetery — relatives and long-lost friends begin to arrive. After my stepfather's death, people flew in from Oregon, Washington, New York, Holland. Neighbors and family friends rallied together and brought one casserole dish after the other. They dropped each by with condolences and a card.

They asked to speak to my mother, but I don't remember my mother at the time. I don't remember where she was or to whom she spoke. All I remember is the countertop full of food:  tuna and cheese casserole with pasta; green bean casserole made with crunchy French onions and creamy mushroom soup; tamale pie casserole with cheddar cheese and a side tub of sour cream.

The best thing about casseroles, I was told by every kind visitor who followed me into the kitchen and saw the countertop flooded with warm-baked dishes, is that "you can always freeze them and thaw them out for the next meal."

The word casserole, or cassole, is a 17th century French word that refers to the deep-dish pot in which meals were cooked. Cassoulet is a slow-cooked meal of white beans, meat and broth found originally in South France. To prepare cassoulet usually takes the better part of a day, and individual recipes remain within the family structure as heirlooms, passed down from one generation to the next. "Immortal" cassoulets — or those that begin with a single dish and extend for a year, even decades — are a common concept within regional households. The United States adopted the term casserole in the 1950s to describe the actual food within the dish and these meals usually take between 25-and 50-minutes from start to finish. In the titles:  "Quick," "Easy," and "Popular." Among smaller cookbooks, recipe titles often point to some form of heritage or family tradition:  "Norma Jean's Tuna Casserole" or "Aunt Susie's Mac 'n Cheese." With names come familiarity, comfort; even nostalgia. But even with the name, I feel the loss of tradition, attention to detail and lack of connection with the meal that comes with replacing whole cream with a can of mushroom soup, fresh string beans from the garden with canned green beans, and day-old bread crumbs with fried onion crisps.

As I set each tin-foil tray or glass baking pan down on the layer of brown paper bags I'd opened to line the counter — we'd long run out of hot pads — I couldn't help but acknowledge the irony:  my stepfather had died of a heart attack and here I was, surrounded by layers of melted cheese, ground beef and fried French onion crisps. I put the sour cream and store-bought guacamole containers into the fridge and waited for the other items to cool off enough to stick in the freezer.

Like the monuments and gravesites on display, if we in the United States use the casserole as the backdrop for the food we prepare during times of funerals and wakes, what does our hurry and rush during the meal's preparation say about our views and various approaches to longer processes like grief and mourning?


The Catholic side of the family held a small, private viewing shortly after my stepfather was taken from the hospital. The body stayed in the funeral home where it was dressed and prepared. I waited in the foyer until the last family members returned, and then walked through the room's double doors into a dimly-lit viewing room. My sister walked with me as we approached the front where the casket was propped open.

He was dressed in his brown leather jacket and a blue shirt. His eyes were closed and baby powder flaked off of his skin, making him look paler than he had in the hospital. My sister and I looked at each other:  "It doesn't even look like him." A day or two later he was cremated:  broken down into a mixture of simple salts — sodium, potassium, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorous. He was buried in a two-by-two foot grave and covered with dirt and brick.


The recipe for sajur lodeh called for one onion, one clove of garlic and two teaspoons of sambel ulek sauce — red pepper sauce — to be placed in a blender and puréed. But cooked first or left raw? Do I dice the onions? Slice them lengthwise? And the garlic? In chunks or whole? I did not have sambel either. Had never bought it, even though each time I stepped inside an Oriental food market and walked down the sauce aisle, I would always look for the one he'd used, the familiar bottle and say, "Hey, I know this."

But I didn't know this, this recipe. Could not begin to guess its vague instructions. The onions had already made me cry, and I could not imagine putting them into a blender raw, a million tiny molecules to leak into the pores and eyeballs.


In some Indonesian tribes, once a year during harvest time the bodies are taken out of the tombs. I imagine for this day the families prepare a special meal in remembrance of the dead and eat together in the presence of the wrapped body. After dinner the body is unwrapped; the flesh is washed, the bones are washed, and the body is dressed in fresh cloth and placed back into the tomb. These tribes believe that when the bones can no longer be washed, when they have all but dissolved into the woven fabric, that year marks the beginning of the person's passage from memory. Food is no longer brought to the tomb; meals are no longer prepared in remembrance. This year is known, within many families, as the thousandth day.


As the years passed, I did not wonder so much if we had done things the way my stepfather would have wanted. I don't think he would have minded the open casket for his mother's sake, even though I knew my mother hated it; I don't think having the funeral service in the chapel where he met my mother would have bothered him; I don't think he even would have cared that my brother and I eventually ate every one of those frozen casseroles. Rather, I wonder at the timing, and the way in which we chose to remember him — for who he was and for who he wasn't. After more than a decade I wonder if he would like the chance to return and wrap up loose ends, to make amends. I wonder if he is tired of the journeying, if he would instead like to pass over, to move from the eternally named and marked, Willem Matthias Lauterbach, to some anonymous ancestor, free to lie down and rest in a place of choosing. I wondered how to tell him — to tell myself — that the time had come to reckon with his death, to finally unwrap and wash those layers of memories until they dissolved.


I took up my knife and began to dice the onion. I thought of Richard Selzer's essay, "The Knife," and how the surgeon must render himself completely confident, completely in control, as he begins his work:  "One holds the knife," he writes, "as one holds the bow of a cello or a tulip — by the stem. Not palmed nor gripped nor grasped, but lightly, with the tips of the fingers. The knife is not for pressing. It is for drawing across the field of skin." I angled the knife at 35 degrees and watched as the thin layers of onion opened. Selzer continues:  "Even now, after so many times, I still marvel at [the knife's] power — cold, gleaming, silent. More, I am still struck with a kind of dread that it is I in whose hand the blade travels, that my hand is its vehicle, that yet again this terrible steel-bellied thing and I have conspired for a most unnatural purpose, the laying open of the body of a human being." Or, I thought, now sliding the onion pieces onto the blade, how strange to be reopening the series of memories that inhabit the body — by preparing a last meal to eat with the deceased, whose memory lays bare on the table, however invisible to the eye.


Some Indonesian tribal funerals take up to a year to prepare. One can calculate and know the length of time to the exact hour:  from the day of the death to the placement of the wrapped body in the tomb. A simple line of order, a simple mathematic equation, describes and records the time.

My stepfather was raised Catholic in a majority Muslim population in Jakarta. His mother married twice, both times to Dutch navy officers. The family immigrated to Holland when my stepfather was three, and then to America when he turned 12. He learned English, completed high school and two years of college. Lived through two marriages and five children, three biological, two adopted. At 49, he died in San Andreas, California, in a hospital that smelled of fruit cups and toilet bowl cleaner.


What the living provide:

I measured out the brown rice from a Mason jar into a cup. After my stepfather had his first heart attack when I was in second grade, my mother reappraised our family's diet:  brown rice instead of white. Wholegrain bread. Only lean meats, grilled or slow-cooked in a crockpot with chopped carrots, onions, and potatoes. Low sodium, less sweets. She tried to give up dairy, for our sakes and for my stepfather's warnings:  "Too many hormones," but couldn't:  grilled cheese, baked potatoes with butter and Cheddar, omelets with spinach and Monterey Jack. Not surprising, I learned, after becoming vegan in college:  cheese, especially for women, is more addictive than chocolate. The addiction has to do with our ancestors:  how we learned to provide for our bodies during harsh winters; how we learned to store fat throughout the cold months; how we sometimes subsisted on little more than bone marrow and intuition. Before my stepfather died, dairy was, for my mother, her survival instinct within the strict confines of food. After his death, she didn't eat at all. Not until my grandmother came into the house and demanded she take care of her body. "You have to go on living," she said. Now, when she cooks for herself, she adds butter, cheese, sour cream and survives.

While the rice cooked, I had to leave the main website to find a recipe for kecap manis, a sweet-soy sauce that accompanies sajur lodeh but is not provided in the recipe. Kecap manis is as follows:  ¾ cup sugar; 1 cup Tamari; 2 tablespoons water; 1 tablespoon sliced lemon grass; 1 clove garlic, minced; 1 star anise. I had dried lemon grass, powdered garlic and anise seeds.


The meal took over two hours to prepare, and I wanted to envision the layers of cloth unwrapping as I went, even when I had to stop and retrace certain steps, or rush to the stove to turn down a burner or remove a pan from a flame I'd left on high. I found myself leaving the recipe altogether and stirring and mixing and pulsating by instinct:  what I know about hot pepper seeds expanding and popping in hot oil; how one can lightly separate rice as it absorbs water to make the grain fluffier in the end; how one can allow the mind to wander; how the preparation of food provides both communion with and distance from the land of the dead.

We finally sat down to eat, and I explained to my husband what I had read about Indonesian burial rituals. How these rituals are scattered throughout a region consisting of more than 17,000 islands over 3,000 miles. We talked about burial preparation, provision and time. I said, "They need to hold the person to keep the link between the living and dead alive." What's more I thought, they wonder how people who bury their dead immediately can deal with the pain and loss of death when they can no longer see and hold their departed family members and friends.

We ate in silence for most of the meal. I wanted to tell my husband about how these different cultures view and interact within time:  how I can no longer think of grief and mourning as a linear set of steps, as some might follow a modern-day recipe:  instead, perhaps grief is more circuitous, more spontaneous, more alive to interpretation. While the two of us scooped up mouthfuls of the thick coconut stew, I thought of what the living provide for the dead:  those objects reflective of the buried loved one, a funeral, a commemorative meal every now and again or a brief moment of remembrance during family gatherings or holidays. Likewise, those who survive, those who go on living, must also reckon with what that act of living provides. I thought my family's link:  the funeral procession and burial that took place within a week. The decade-long silence that followed to deal with the pain and loss. The long meal after so long to deal with some of that. I wanted to turn several times and ask how my husband liked the food, but I just sat there, saying nothing. In truth, I cannot remember if my Oma ever cooked with coconut milk. In my attempt to reenact a traditional — or what I imagined to be traditional — yearly burial ritual, it was quite possible I had chosen a completely foreign dish, one neither my Oma nor stepfather would remember.

What the living provides is the steady remembrance of impossible connections:  silences, which accompany every space between moments alive with action and noise. The silence that follows death and seems to permeate and manifest itself in what follows. Pain, grief, ritual, food; the silence that grafts its hollow echo into each relationship and interaction of daily living — my mother's quiet silence during the neighbors' visits, my own inability to perform any ritual to commemorate what, in my mind, the living is supposed to provide:  the smells, the measurements and the tactile memories that encourage the dead to move on.



Julie Lauterbach-Colby is a recent graduate of the University of Arizona's MFA program in nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Script, Metaphor, A Student’s Guide to First-Year Writing (UA Press), Back Room Live, and The Dictionary Project.

Articles in this Issue

Introduction, by the Editors
Monkey Head Soup, by Charles Lindsay
Barbarians at the Hotel Bar, by Edward Chupack
Desert Survival, by Craig Childs
A La Recherché du Cheese Perdu, by Brenda Peterson
Heaven on the Half Shell, by Andrew Beahrs
A Hog Butchering, by Thorpe Moeckel
Lamb Shanks Roasted in Paper, by One Ring Zero
Lemon Meringue Pie, by Alan Huffman
Making Sajur Lodeh, by Julie Lauterbach-Colby
Lost Meals, by Phil Buehler
It's Seaweed Weather!, by Wendy Noritake
The Ingot, by Edward Hardy
My All-American Bacchanal's Deep-Fried Remains, by Nick Kolakowski
The Last Supper, by Susan Buttenwieser
The Spoils Room, by T. D.
A Taste for Tonka, by Ramin Ganeshram
Recipe Cards, by Ted Weinstein