Indonesian Food Blogger: The Unifying Power Of Cuisine And Social Media

Nov 3, 2017
Originally published on November 3, 2017 6:41 pm

Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world, and its population is young — the median age there is 29, nearly a decade younger than the U.S. or China.

People in the capital city of Jakarta also tweet more than in almost any city in the world. Social media is, in fact, one of the threads that ties this country of more than 17,000 islands together.

One of those social media celebrities is 29-year-old food blogger and Instagram enthusiast Prawnche Ngaditowo, who is known online as "foodventurer."

Ngaditowo is of Chinese descent, but he grew up in the Indonesian city of Medan, where his father was a prawn farmer (hence his name). He moved to Jakarta after high school.

At an outdoor food court, with dozens of hawkers selling dishes from all over the country, Ngaditowo talks with All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro about the foods and social media outlets that help bind this sprawling country together.

Interview highlights contain some web-only extended answers. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On how he developed a passion for food blogging

Dozens of hawkers sell dishes from all over the country at an outdoor food court in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Claire Harbage / NPR

When I moved to Jakarta to get my bachelor's degree, I was introduced to a lot more than what I usually encountered in Medan. We have a lot of towns and cities in Indonesia, so we have a lot of cultural diversity. I have not tried a lot of the food, so why not try it and also share it with the world?

On coming to the food court

The first time I came to this food court was almost 10 years ago. I was happy, because I found this place that's a lot like Medan, where I grew up, so it was kind of nostalgic and fun. There's a feeling that I'm back at home. It's very busy. A lot of loud people. I am loud too actually. There is a lot of food that you can grab and a lot of things to do. You can hear the sound of the cooking.

Left: Raw vegetables ready to be prepared. Right: Nasi Campur, which is roasted chicken, crispy pork belly and roasted pork in sauce.
Claire Harbage / NPR

So, it's kind of like a busy scene where people just decide to eat outside. In Jakarta, we are very busy with our daily lives. Most of the time we can't cook dinner. This is kind of the place where people usually gather and they decide to eat whatever they want. A family of four can decided that a mom is going to eat this, but I prefer this, so I can grab myself another food. So there's a lot of food at once on a table, and then you eat together. Sometimes you share. It's fun, and a bonding time.

On generational influences

If you ask me about my generation and my father's generations, we have very different opinions about things. My dad had no luxury in finding creativity. He just worked to let us live. My dad used to be very skeptical about my food blogging: "Why are you doing this? You are not making money. You are not doing good things." But as time passes, my dad is starting to see what I try to do. He's starting to understand that you can do things on social media. You can share ideas, you can share your work. My photos of food and opinions about food, I can do it all with social media. So he's starting to see the good side. For now, our generation, we have the luxury to do a lot of things. We have the liberty to explore what we want, what we are interested in. That's why social media is our reach to a lot of things.

Top: Giat, one of the cooks at a food stall in Jakarta. Left: Soto Medan, coconut milk-based soup. Right: Es Teler, a fruit cocktail desert.
Claire Harbage / NPR

My parents also taught me to embrace a lot of things, including food. Every time [my mom] would visit a country, she really wanted to practice that cooking and let us taste the food, because we didn't really get to travel a lot. My mom tried to teach us that there are many differences in food, in the particular feel of it. So in that way I was raised to be very open toward differences, and I am proud of it because now I am the type of person who doesn't really care about where you belong, what's your religion, what is your race.

On the diversity of people and cultures in Indonesia

We are all very different. There are a lot of tribes, a lot of ethnicities here. But the foundation of our Indonesia is that we love the differences. We embrace it and we build as one society. So I think that we have certain sparks that make us all unique, and at the same time, we like to work together and appreciate all people.

But there is a resistance to change. A lot of people say, "Oh I just want to hang out with Chinese people," or "I just want to hang out with Sundanese people." So a process like that will, of course, spark some controversy. But it is necessary for us to have experience with that controversy. I still look at it positively. We are trying to embrace each other with our differences, despite some groups being a bit extreme in saying no.

On social media bringing people together

At the beginning, when I started my Instagram account and my food blog, I already had in mind that I wanted to embrace people of all countries. I love the differences in us. I used to dream of studying abroad in America or Australia, which was impossible for me at the time due to my financial situation. So I thought about trying to blend in with people, trying to know their culture, trying to know how they're thinking. Is it the same as me? Is it how I think of my life, my situation, my country?

Engkas Kosasih prepares popiah, a spring-roll like dish from from Medan. They come either deep-fried or steamed.
Claire Harbage / NPR

I think it's going to be very different. So I had already decided to try to open my eyes and embrace the differences in all nations. Now, my followers are from America or India, and I have never been there. But I started engaging with people through Instagram and I started asking for opinions about Indonesia, the food here, have you been here? And some of them will respond to me and say things like, "Wow your country is rich in a lot of things, and your food seems very nice, very delicious. I wish to visit the place someday."

... and the flip-side of social media

I actually experience a lot of positive things [on social media], but I can't deny that a lot of negative things happen, too. I'm trying to be positive all the time, but I'm not blind. I see a lot of unfair things happen. People mistreat and misuse social media to spark something or stir something up in society. If you ask me what can I do about it? I don't really know the answer. It's a double-edged sword for us. You can use something for good, but you can also use it for bad things — and that happens in our society. I just hope people can sit and eat and laugh together.

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Indonesia is the world's fourth-largest country. And its population is young. The median age is in the late 20s. In the U.S. and China it's in the late 30s. So in some ways, you could say that young Indonesians are the future of the world. This week, we've been looking at the threads that tie this country together. And for young Indonesians, one of those threads is social media. In Jakarta, I met a 29-year-old food blogger and Instagrammer (ph) at an outdoor food court with dozens of hawkers selling dishes from all over the country. My first question was about his name, which it turns out is also food-related.

PRAWNCHE NGADITOWO: Actually, it's prawn and che. Prawnche.

SHAPIRO: Is that a common Indonesian name?

NGADITOWO: No. My dad, he was doing business in the prawn industries. And I was named (laughter) - I was named after the industry.

SHAPIRO: Wow. Your father was, like, a shrimp farmer, a prawn farmer...


SHAPIRO: ...And so he named you Prawnche?

NGADITOWO: Yes. I was just grateful that it's not Shrimpche, right?

SHAPIRO: Shrimpche.


SHAPIRO: Prawnche Ngaditowo grew up in a city called Medan. His family is of Chinese descent. In 2006, he moved a thousand miles away from his family to the capital city, Jakarta. That's where he began to explore the variety Indonesia has to offer through its food. By day, he works in advertising.

NGADITOWO: At the weekend usually I explore food. I also get to eat a lot. And I write about it.

SHAPIRO: You don't look like a person who eats a lot.

NGADITOWO: I eat a lot. Believe me.

SHAPIRO: So in the stuff that you write about on your blog and on your Instagram account you are talking about what it means to be Indonesian and all these different foods from all over. But also, by writing in English, you're doing something a little broader even than just Indonesia.

NGADITOWO: Yes. I thought, why not, you know, use English to introduce all our food? And people can read about it and, you know, maybe decide to visit Indonesia somehow. Do you ever try fish meatballs?


NGADITOWO: Yeah, this just kind of like that, but just drier. No soup, just peanut sauce. You should try one. Yes.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, it smells leafy from the banana leaf, and also from the grill there's a little smokiness.


SHAPIRO: It's shaped almost like a Tootsie Roll.

NGADITOWO: Oh, yeah. You can say that, too.

SHAPIRO: Indonesia is a country where half the population is below the age of 30. And so I wonder how you view your future.

NGADITOWO: If you ask me about my generation and my father's generation, my dad has no luxury in finding creativity. I mean, he just worked just to let us live.

SHAPIRO: When you say your father just worked to pay the bills, are you saying that your parents' generation would never understand spending all of your time and energy photographing food for an Instagram account?

NGADITOWO: Yes. My dad used to be very skeptical about it. Why are you doing this? You are not making money. You are not doing good things. But as time passes by, my dad's starting to see what I do - what I try to do, actually. And now he's starting to see the good side.

SHAPIRO: Is there one food in particular here that reminds you of your childhood?

NGADITOWO: Oh, of course. The one - soto medan...

SHAPIRO: What is soto medan?

NGADITOWO: It's coconut milk-based, so it's kind of thick with a lot of coriander and a lot of stuff like that. And it feels - especially right now it's raining, right? - so it's really good for this moment.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, seems like a really good time to eat this.


SHAPIRO: Should we try some?

NGADITOWO: Yes, we should.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

NGADITOWO: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: This looks amazing.


SHAPIRO: Is soto medan something you can make at home, or is it too complicated?

NGADITOWO: My mom is very good at it. I think that actually my mom made better (laughter), so...

SHAPIRO: Everyone thinks their mom makes it better.

NGADITOWO: Yeah. Yeah. Of course, right? I mean - (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Prawnche.


SHAPIRO: I know that sometimes in Indonesia people of Chinese descent are treated as...


SHAPIRO: ...Second-class citizens, treated unfairly.

NGADITOWO: Yes. Yes. Being a minority here, yeah, it's kind of like a stereotype thing. They thought that, oh, you Chinese? You stingy. Oh, you Chinese? You just want all the money. And that happen.

SHAPIRO: Social media has obviously been a very powerful tool for you to build bridges and connections...


SHAPIRO: ...Across differences.


SHAPIRO: And social media is also being used as a tool to exploit the differences that are inherent in diversity.


SHAPIRO: Is that something that you've seen, too?

NGADITOWO: Yes, obviously, because I use social media, like, a lot. And then I actually experience a lot of positive things, too. But, yeah, I can't deny it. A lot negative things happen from that, too.

SHAPIRO: So to be able to come to a food court like this and sit at a table with food from Java and Sumatra and eastern Indonesia and western Indonesia, like, this is the dream.

NGADITOWO: Yes. Yes. This is the dream. I just hope people can do that all the time, you know, sit together and eat a lot and laugh together. I just hope that happen.

SHAPIRO: All right, let's eat.

That's food blogger and Instagrammer Prawnche Ngaditowo. You can find him online with the handle foodventurer.