There’s a cultural revolution in the narrative power of food. It’s all about the story, and even Michelin-star chefs are succumbing to the tales of taste, to kitchen myths and the heritage of home cooking. In Indonesia, cultural traditions and cuisine go hand in hand, and the more powerful the fable, the better the flavour.
Enter, dodol. This curiously named toffeesoft, caramel-flavoured, elegantly sweet, small and chewy confection goes back centuries. Some say it was introduced to the region by Malay-Indonesian migrants. Others say the seafaring Portuguese brought it with them during the 16th and 17th centuries. Nevertheless, it can be found in various incarnations from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines to South India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma, and it is one of the oldest indigenous sweets developed in maritime Southeast Asia.
The Betawi people of Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, formerly Batavia, are associated with dodol. This Malay-speaking ethnic group of Sundanese, Arabic, Chinese and Malay influences has its own distinct culture and language. They are known for their traditions in music, art and, of course, food. Dodol appears in Central and East Java as jenang, and it also appears in different guises across Indonesia.
For the Betawi, until recently, its preparation was a community initiative during Lebaran, where men and women gathered to create this iconic candy. It was then shared with family and friends for Eid al-Fitr. Making it was a time-consuming, labour-intensive process that required the help of many hands, and there is nothing better than strengthening ties over a sweet treat. The spirit of mutual cooperation worked wonders on family, friends and neighbours, and that was the intention. Who knows, maybe it tasted better because of this combined effort. The sticky, chewy texture was symbolic of togetherness, to ‘stick like glue’.
Back then the men were in charge of stirring the glossy golden-brown mix for up to 10 hours in huge woks over slow-burning rambutan wood. It was a marathon effort of endurance and strength, and a small error, a minute’s distraction, could lead to an entire failed batch. The perfect finished product had to be firm enough to hold but not too sticky. In the meantime, the women prepared the ingredients and, no doubt, wholesome sustenance for the muscle-toned men. Like most food products nowadays, dodol is mainly factory-made to save time, money and energy.
Chinese dodol or kue keranjang, basket cake, takes its name from the round baskets, rather like small ice cream tubs, in which it is set. The all-important full-moon shape symbolises family reunion and unity for the Chinese, and it is eaten annually to celebrate Imlek, Chinese New Year. The cakes are stacked, mountain-high, as offerings of prosperity for the year ahead, and the higher the pile, the closer to heaven, with the hope of more fortune to follow.
Traditionally the baskets were made of bamboo, but plastic is now often used instead. The same principle of fostering ‘sticky’ closeness and family oneness applies with the idea that such sweetness should also lead to a happy, sweet life. The New Year begins by eating dodol before eating rice, to reap the sweetest benefits. And let’s not forget the fire. The intense flames needed in making dodol were meant to appease the Furnace God, friend of the King of Heaven. And that’s one god we all need to keep happy!
Dodol is a mixture of palm sugar, made from the nectar of the Arenga pinnata palm, along with coconut milk and glutinous rice flour, thus creating the desirable chew. These three ingredients are Indonesia’s cosmic, culinary powerhouse and are also the foundation of Balinese temple cakes. The rice is linked to the age-old agrarian culture of the Betawi, while rice and coconut, in any form, are fundamental to life-cycle rituals in Indonesia. Rice embodies the soul or beating heart of the people.
Meanwhile in Bali, dodol is central to a ceremony called Ngusaba Dodol in Selat village, Karangasem, on the southern slopes of Mt Agung. This ancient ritual is unique to Indonesia, with the dodol actually being jaja uli, a steamed, sweet sticky-rice cake (one of my favourites) that is wrapped in coconut-tree bark in the classic dodol, bolster-like shape. The ceremony is to seek an abundant rice harvest and to offer gratitude to their god, Ida Sang Hyang Widi Wasa. But it is also to wish for just about anything else you might need, from good health to a new house. And the bigger the wish, the bigger the dodol! Some weigh up to 200kg and need to be carried by many men to be blessed at the temple, rather like carrying the bull in a Balinese cremation: yet another way of strengthening community togetherness, even if your dreams don’t come true. In the rest of Bali, dodol are thumb-sized, wrapped in corn husks and bundled together, reflecting the ties that bind.
Nowadays new dodol flavours are bursting onto the scene in a sticky explosion of innovation. Durian, jackfruit, apple, soursop, pineapple, mung beans, yam and matcha dodol can be found on the shelves, with variations on the classic shape too. The tradition of giving and receiving this all-important treasure is still alive and kicking, with a few adaptations in between. The creativity of a dynamic culture will always change with time, but isn’t that the key to longevity? The story of dodol reads like an epic tale of love, life, endurance and the undeniable importance of family, ’til death do us part. United we stand, divided we fall.