The Ever Festive and Philosophical Roti Buaya
As a culturally rich nation, Indonesia has a lot of unique ways of celebrating special or sacred occasions. Indonesians, specifically those of Betawi ethnicity, are no strangers to unique traditions being a part of their special day. Usually found in events of marriage as a symbol of loyalty and a new phase in life, Roti Buaya is often present as a special addition to the holy matrimony. With sizes ranging from only 30 centimeters to as long as one meter, Roti Buaya is quite the show stealer on this perfectly blessed day.
The crocodile-shaped bread is not present only to please the eyes. While it is pretty and colorful, the presence of Roti Buaya in Betawi-style weddings is a manifestation of Betawi people’s belief that crocodiles, the entities that occupy swamps and rivers all across old-time Jakarta (the city in which Betawi people originated from), represent luck, growth, and loyalty.
It is commonly reported that the long history of Jakarta, the Betawi people, and the crocodile species can be traced back to the 18th century, the era in which crocodiles were frequently hunted because of their large quantity all across Jakarta’s swamps and rivers. The colonial government would give prizes to people who could kill crocodiles to reduce the population. However, having spent a lot of time living side-by-side, Jakartans, especially Betawi people, hold a high regard for crocodiles, considering this member of the reptile species as hallow or sacred.
Crocodiles that are unsuitable for each other will become aggressive and continue to fight each other due to their incompatibility. To prevent a deadly escalation from their fights, these unsuitable crocodiles need to be separated from each other. Only a suitable pair of crocodiles will mate for life, which is the perfect symbol of loyalty and commitment for two people who are ready to tie the knot and start a new chapter together. Betawi people consider Roti Buaya a way for one to express their love or devotion, similar to the western tradition of expressing love through flowers.
Despite having four different types of crocodiles occupying the water area of the city, the one type of crocodile depicted in Roti Buaya is believed to be the buaya muara, or saltwater crocodile (crocodylus porosus). Saltwater crocodiles are known to be polygamous in terms of their mating system, especially in captivity, meaning that a single male crocodile mates with a number of female crocodiles. However, just like other species of crocodiles, saltwater crocodiles spend their adult lives in solitary confinement with a strong territorial nature. Although saltwater crocodiles adhere to the multiple paternity marriage system and are not exactly monogamous throughout their lives, they are still deemed the perfect symbol of commitment amongst Betawi people due to their beliefs and orientations that emerge from social activities carried out for hundreds of years.
Roti Buaya is served at the very first stage of Betawi-style wedding processions, which is the day when a prospective groom and his family, or entourage, come to the house of the prospective bride. This stage is also better known as lamaran, which is the proposal stage. Roti Buaya is usually given as a gift to the soon-to-be bride by her soon-to-be groom. It usually comes in pairs, signifying the readiness of two people who are ready to embark on a new journey together and let go of their singlehood. It is also suggested that Roti Buaya represents patience; as seen in crocodiles’ patience in waiting for their prey, this food becomes a reflection of the fact that marriage requires a lot of patience.
According to the DKI Jakarta Provincial Tourism & Cultural Office, Roti Buaya is not to be eaten, either by the couple or the guests, but to be put on display. Legend has it that eating Roti Buaya (which is specifically made to celebrate weddings) will bring bad luck to the household. Therefore, Roti Buaya is often made hard in order to prevent it from being cut into pieces. It is also alleged that the harder the bread, the more abundant the marriage life will become. However, as time goes by, many would argue that putting a huge piece of bread on display promotes a wasteful lifestyle, and for that reason, it is not rare for Roti Buaya to be served soft and cut into pieces during events nowadays, although the festiveness and philosophy the bread brings to the table are still there.
Regardless of the more flexible rules and requirements for Roti Buaya in Betawi-style weddings in present times, it remains one of the most iconic foods and symbols in Indonesia’s culture. The tradition may have evolved over time, but the values possessed by this festive loaf of bread will always be held close to the hearts of Betawi people. Roti Buaya is proof that the values of commitment, loyalty, and partnership can be found in social relationships and beliefs that are built from time to time. It becomes a constant reminder and an icon that portrays the close-knit relationship of Betawi people, a food that captures the essence of Betawi as a community.