Last spring a friend showed me how to make Iranian style rice with potatoes: the potatoes cook in oil at the bottom of the pan and when you turn the whole lot out onto a plate they are crispy and delicious. This is a version of a way of cooking rice called tahdig, where the rice at the bottom of the pan gets brown and crispy, slightly burnt, really. Making the variation with potatoes was quite nerve-racking – how much liquid, how long to leave it, the impossibility of putting it all back in the pan and starting again – but not as daunting as the description given in an article in The Wall Street Journal that my friend sent me. ‘There’s a wow factor,’ people are quoted as saying, and ‘Iranian cooks hone their tahdig skills over a lifetime.’ ‘For Iranian cooking you really need to be focussed, in tune and present’, and ‘It brings all the good memories back – of home, of growing up, of a country that no longer exists as it once did.’
It hadn’t occurred to me with the potato version, but when I read in the article about dinner guests doing battle for the tahdig I suddenly heard Rudy’s voice saying the word ‘crack’, about the burnt bit at the bottom of the rice pan in Indonesia. Children fought about that too. I looked it up: it is actually spelled kerak, and with it I remembered a number of Indonesian words he used that I never hear any more. All families have their own idiolects, and individuals as well, within families. I had English phrases and sayings, some inherited from my parents, which Rudy didn’t use (except for one, the word ‘bonk’, which my mother said when putting things down; he picked it up and was later startled to hear his first wife using it too), and he had his Indonesian vocabulary.
The word tampat was one; he used it for a comfortable place to lie, also for the cats, and when he got ill used it for the bedstead (a family word wrongly applied to the Dutch bedstee, actually a box bed) to which he withdrew. Senang was another, meaning feeling well, comfortable. These words may be in use in Dutch, but I have never heard anyone use them in English. Two others, which he did try to make us use, were pisang for banana and manga for mango. He would correct friends, and people on television, when they referred to a mango instead of manga. And as well as all the names for dishes and ingredients that I can make him say in my mind (lemper, djoeroek poeroet, laboe, sayoer lodeh, complete with old colonial spelling) there was also kerak.
Children fought over the kerak, when they were allowed to eat rice, which in Rudy’s case was mostly when eating with the servants. In the Dutch East Indies the Dutch preferred European food, which must have made Indonesian food and its names even more exotic, words spoken by the baboe (nanny), and connected with early childhood in that lost paradise. To me it reminds of the delight of eating the crusty bits from the side of the baking dish, but I can do that any time. This kerak was something from the distant past, something from ‘a country that no longer exists as it once did.’