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Indonesia Strives to Spin Its Culture Into Economic Gold

  • Sara Schonhardt

Women prepare several different types of rendang, a traditional spicy curry, for a rendang tasting on August 4. (VOA - S. Schonhardt)
JAKARTA — Indonesia’s economy has become a bright light amid global economic gloom, with strong growth drawing new attention from international investors. Officials say the country's economic potential, however, is not the only thing worth promoting. An effort is underway to export the country's cultural traditions to new audiences abroad.

Two women wielding giant spatulas continuously stir a brimming wok of shredded beef simmering in curry sauce. They have been at it for nearly eight hours - the typical amount of time required to prepare this famed dish from West Sumatra known as rendang.

On this day they will serve nearly a hundred guests who have come to learn about rendang; how it’s made, its culinary roots and its historical importance.

Indonesia’s economy recently made global news for growth that beat most economists’ expectations. Strong domestic spending in the world’s fourth most populous country has sparked investor interest.

Bountiful cultural treasures

But with all the attention pointed toward the economy, artists, culinary experts and some officials now say not enough attention is being paid to promoting the country’s cultural riches.

Mari Pangestu, the head of the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy, said that needs to change.

“We need to develop creative industries because it has a lot of economic potential, but it’s also important because it has a lot of potential for raising the image of a country,” said Pangestu.

Her ministry has 15 subsectors that focus on building support for creative industries, including films, fashion and culinary traditions. She said food, in particular, can have a powerful impact on showcasing a culture, and can help to generate increased tourism.

To better tout Indonesian cuisine, the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy plans to identify a few iconic Indonesian dishes that are already known internationally and then focus on promoting their history and roots for foreign consumers.

Diners pass around plates of spicy curry during a rendang tasting, an event held to educate people overseas about the popular dish and Indonesian culture, in Jakarta, Indonesia, August 4, 2012. (VOA - S. Schonhardt)
Diners pass around plates of spicy curry during a rendang tasting, an event held to educate people overseas about the popular dish and Indonesian culture, in Jakarta, Indonesia, August 4, 2012. (VOA - S. Schonhardt)
Iconic dish

Rendang curry, a spicy meat dish cooked for hours in coconut milk with ginger, lemongrass, chilies and other spices, is at the heart of those discussions.

William Wongso, a culinary expert who travels around the world extolling the taste sensations of rendang, said the dish is the gateway to popularizing Indonesian cuisine abroad.

“It works in Japan, it works in China, it works in Europe, especially Europe. Because now the world focus is the flavor of Asia… this is in fact likely to draw the rest, just to get attention,” said Wongso.

In addition to food, fashion labels are also working to promote Indonesian heritage by mixing traditional patterns and images with contemporary trends. One of the most notable is “Damn, I love Indonesia,” a line that started in 2008 by screen printing tee-shirts with cultural symbols or pop-art images of political icons like Indonesia’s first president Sukarno.

Spotlighting traditions

Pangestu said those initiatives help deepen people’s pride in Indonesia and can raise the country’s international profile. So can efforts aimed at reclaiming pieces of the country’s heritage that are in danger of fading into obscurity.

In recent years, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization has recognized a handful of cultural traditions in need of safeguarding, including the Saman Dance from Aceh, a bamboo instrument called angklung, and batik, a hand-dyed fabric.

Now the government needs to work harder to craft a message that appeals to a global audience, said Pangestu.

“We have to identify which stories we want to tell and we have to tell it repeatedly, and in a way which can resonate with a lot of people," said Pangestu.

Indonesians often talk about their country’s wealth of natural resources - abundant sea life, majestic mountains and stunning landscapes that have inspired some of Southeast Asia’s richest cultural traditions.

Investing in a nation's unique brand

Investments have gone mostly toward extractive industries, though - like mining - which bring in big money, but drain the country’s resources and harm its environment.

Many efforts to popularize Indonesian culture have been constrained by a lack of political support. And many say the country will need to work much harder before people start associating Indonesia with images of spicy curry, white-sand beaches and brightly colored batik.

Ariana Alisjahbana, who attended the rendang seminar, said Brazil could serve as a model. The South American country immediately evokes images of caipirinha cocktails, samba and fashion vixen Gisele Bundchen, she explained.

“But if you say Indonesia… you don’t have the same connection because I guess there’s not a lot of connections, for cultural things, and I believe it starts from the economy," said Alisjahbana. "But then it will go more, so in the future you will have those references, we just need to work harder in getting those there.”

Alisjahbana, who currently lives in Washington, recently attended a three-day conference in Los Angeles for thousands of Indonesians living overseas. Hosted by the Indonesian Embassy, topics ranged from business development to politics, as well as advice on how to start up Indonesia restaurants abroad.

Now, said Pangestu, Indonesia needs to start telling its story.

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