“What we eat defines who we are,” Abah often said. “The essence of food will grow into body, mingle with belly, and harmonize with mind.” Unfortunately, good meal sometimes needs good money. Our family inherited a small field from my grandpa, but nothing more. It was a healthy soil stretched from the end road of the neighbor village down to the river. The yields never failed us, but nobody wanted to pay a high price for the rice, so he sold it anywhere as long as he got money for us to eat. Sometimes we got nothing to eat, though, except with the rice he planted and some vegetables, topped with salt or soya sauce.
I was inseparable from food my whole life. In the morning, I had to get water from the nearest well. Some of the water was for drink, some for boiling the food. Then I had to help Umi to cook for breakfast and lunch. Before the sun reached the top of our head, my job was to bring the lunch in a stacked lunchbox to the field where Abah worked. Before sunset, after I played, I initiated myself to gather some fruits or freshwater snails to get additional foods for dinner.
I did the chores to get food so I could have the energy to get food again the next day. It was a never-ending cycle. Still, living in the chain of food, I hadn’t been able to define who I am.
Today I skipped a lunch. The grey lines on the cloud told a story of upcoming rain. If I didn’t go earlier, I would come to Abah with soaking wet. I left our rattan-and-bamboo house in haste, the place was about one mile from our house.
Soft soil tickled my bare feet as I walked. Sometimes grass or puddle got in the way. If there were things in life I didn’t regret, walking was one of them. When I moved my muddy feet, I could enjoy the serenity and think. Nature was like my mother making her chilli grind and gado-gado, you had to feel the elements mixed to taste a perfect taste. Now green leaves, fresh wind, earthy odor, and water sound mixed through my body.
Nature could make my mind wandered around. This time it brought me to the past. I passed an open ground covered with palm trees that used to be the ‘basecamp’ where my friends and I played. The basecamp would be moved to the yard of the elementary school near the main street as by the next week they would be enrolled there. I didn’t.
Little by little the drops of water damped the ground.
Then I thought what Abah always said. About food that shapes who we are. Was it true? Because if it was, then it would be unfair as people with a lot of money and food could be anything.
The rain started faster than I thought.
If what he said was true, could possibly be any food that made me be able to get into the school like the others?
I was walking on the small, long patch of soil between the rice fields and a slope near the water. The ground was all wet.
Then my feet slipped, and I fell.
In the middle of the field, there was a small shelter made from woods for the farmers to take a rest. Abah used to eat lunch here some of his friends, so Umi added extra portions for those who didn’t bring food. However, there’s only Abah in a haze solitude.
“The food is safe,” I showed him the lunchbox covered with plastic. There were small wounds from the fall, invisible because of mud, but I was fine.
“You could get a fever,” he looked at my wet and muddy body. “Have you eaten?”
He didn’t need the answer, then gestured a hand to a space beside him. I washed my hands and feet then squeezed the clothes while it was still clinging to my body. No need to take other sick precautions. For me, eating is a shield from fever and coldness.
“Let us look what my little girl brings,” said Abah as he reached for the food.
The lunch box was not really a box, but a stacked of five red, round plates with tall sides. The plate of the upper side was filled with a set of raw vegetables that we called lalapan. Our mix today consisted of sliced cucumber, lettuce, bean, and carrot. Lalapan is a must companion in our every meal.
Chilli grinds—or what we called Sambal, flooded the second plate. Seemed like lava of spices, its aroma tempted our stomachs.
In the third plate was fried anchovy in the portion of four, maybe five. Its strong salty taste matched with the bittersweet of lalapan to create a balanced deliciousness.
Two meals were put in one place on the fourth plate. Tofu and tempe—fermented soybean cake. Both were high-protein foods, so my parents encouraged me to always eat them because we couldn’t afford meat. The food were still warm even though it was in the middle of the rain.
The last plate was full with rice. It’s the heaviest food Abah could provide for the family. Rice was the source of energy; we had to eat rice a lot, day and night.
I took papaya leaves for two people and wiped it with tissues, then distributed the food above. We prayed with two hands rised above the chest before we dig in. We were allowed to talk when we eat, but for the first minutes, we said nothing.
“This tastes good. We have to be grateful for what we get,” finally Abah spoke, even though the words were still in correlation with the prayer.
“Alhamdulillah,” I answered. It means Praise the Lord.
Silence again. The sound of raindrops became the music background of our lunch. Our mouth were full with the combination of salty, bitter, spicy, sour. Even the rice tasted slightly sweet. After I swallowed, I braced myself to say what I thought on the way here.
“Abah, is there any food around here that can make me go into school?”
“Ah, that again. The school stuff,” Abah replied. “You mourn for your condition a minute after you pray? Not good.”
The taste of the food shifted as though my mouth was poured by the pepper of his words. It was less enjoyable now.
“Have I told you about the meaning behind lalapan?” Abah pointed to the greens in front of him. “Eating lalab is a tradition of our Sundanese ancestors. However, it is just a complimentary food. Do you understand what I am saying?”
I silenced myself in confusion.
“We are like those lalapan, just the complimentary in this life,” said Abah. “It is who we are.”
Not only displeasing, the food suddenly felt so bitter. His words didn’t sound right, didn’t make any sense. Why are we praying and working hard just to be a living side dish?
“I know you detest it. I don’t like it as well. But everyone has a role in this world. The school, the city is for them, the village is for ours. That is why they eat those expensive foods for their brains.”
I found my voice again. “I have brain, too. I can—“You will be a good girl. Helping your family, marry Sarmat when the time comes, and cook for him and your children. Like your Umi did.”
My appetite had gone. I didn’t really understand about marriage, but talking about it this way made me chilled. Not to mention that boy Abah talked about used to be called the Stupid Sarmat.
“I don’t think I want that.”
Abah lifted up his head, stared right to me.
“I don’t think I want that,” I repeat. “If that’s the way, I will stop eating lalapan. I just want to go to school, Abah.”
He was about to blurt out his reprimand, but then he kept his flame into a cold anger. I took my chance.
“I heard a word called ‘scholarship.’ Its magic can get me to school without paying. And… and… Pak Usman said he wants to help any child to go to school. You know he’s rich, Abah,” I tried as hard as I could to explain. “I can read and do math, too.”
Abah stiffened. For a moment no one said anything. I covered my unfinished meal and assembled the stacked lunchbox.
“You do not understand, my little girl. Life out there is full of bitter and sour,” Abah spoke again, but his eyes gone sad. “When I was your age, I was… I wished….”
But I had been decided. “I will go to Pak Usman.”
“Just promise me. Don’t eat haram foods. It is forbidden.”
“I promise. Wish me luck, Abah.”
I kissed the back of his hand, and left.
The house of our village headman was not too far from here. I ran between the fields as the rain had stopped. The thought of the future haunted me, but just like food, I had to taste every taste to be complete. I wished the tastes would help me to find the definition of me.
Food is the part of us. It grows into body, mingles with belly, and harmonizes with mind. Food could define who we are, but in more magical ways that even Abah might not understand.
Pak Usman stood in the porch of his house. He lifted his hand to his eyebrows and squinted to see who was coming.
“Pak Usman! Pak Usman!” My body filled with the surge of excitement, every step made me closer, more visible.
Then he called my name.
Aziz Amirudin was born in Bogor, Indonesia on September 1995. He is a graduate of University of Indonesia majoring English Literature. One of his published works is the short story Garis Putih (White Lines) in Kata Mitos Anthology (2013). Aziz can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]