Picture credits: cookmeindonesian.com
During the Dutch colonial era, Indonesian commoners had few options for satisfying their hunger. Most had difficulties procuring ingredients to create simple dishes. However, one plant did grow under difficult conditions: tamarinds and chili peppers.
There are hundreds of versions of Sayur Asem, coming from cities around Indonesia. Each city has its own unique way of cooking and eating Sayur Asem. For example, North Sumatra’s Sayur Asem has a more red and cloudy broth in comparison to Betawi’s clearer soup. Aceh also has its own version of Sayur Asem, called Sayur Asam Sunti, which uses bilimbi and sweet potatoes. People in South Kalimantan also add iridescent shark heads into their sayur asem soup.
Nowadays, Sayur Asem has become a staple dish in many household, one that might not strike any significance or meaning to us. But back in the day, Sayur Asem was the food of the people. It highlighted their struggles—how a simple necessity like eating had to involve creativity in utilizing all they had. Imagine this: our ancestors used to be forced to create a fulfilling dish with just some vegetables and water. This dish represented a time when freedom was a privilege and every passing day required survival skills.
Sayur Asem's history perfectly captures what it means to be Indonesian. The random mix of vegetables in the dish somehow led to a symphony in taste. just like how the diversity in our ethnic groups have created something beautiful and uniquely us: Indonesians.