How spicy do you like your food? That is a common question when you order authentic Indonesian food in an authentic Indonesian restaurant. Maybe it is equivalent to the question of how you like your eggs or steak cooked in North American/European cuisine.
I like my food mildly spicy. Almost every Indonesian main course has a pepper ingredient in it. We call it sambal. Sambal serves as an important condiment. I know someone who carries his own sambal everywhere he goes.
Other types of spices are also important in Indonesian meals. Some can be found in Asian stores here in the United States (at an expensive price), but some can’t and need to be “creatively” brought into the U.S.
In Indonesian cultures, food is a celebration of life and community. Adding spice is like adding life and passion.
There was a time when I hated spicy food. I simply couldn’t eat it. It burned my tongue. I remember my aunt saying to me, “If you don’t like spicy food, you are not living.” So, I tried to force myself to like it.
When I was in high school, I started to add sambal to my meals. I don’t know how many glasses of water I needed to wash the burning sensation off my tongue. But eventually I developed a tolerance. Now I’m grateful I can enjoy many kinds of spicy foods from other cultures. I recommend it!
The reason I suggest learning to eat spicy food is not because there is any virtue in it but because it illustrates a broader principle — that it is worth learning to appreciate the complexity of different cultures, with all their spice.
Tasting what other cultures offer — whether food or music or styles of worship — keeps us from thinking our own preferences are the only right ones. It helps us avoid prejudice against the ways of others.
In the 1830s, Sylvester Graham — an American Presbyterian minister and dietary reformer — railed against spices, arguing that they were too stimulating. He thought they would overload the nervous system, ruining the vitality and purity of anyone who partook.
Graham’s idea that spices are dangerous seems ridiculous now, but it is an example of the kind of thinking that prevents people from enriching their lives with new experiences.
Jesus said, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (Matthew 15:11).
Our purity as a Christian is not determined by what food we can or may not eat, but our attitude. Rejecting something that is not within our cultural preference might harm our purity of heart.
One of the things North American and Indonesian Anabaptists have in common is our sense of community. We build our lives around the community, and food is an important part of this.
According to Massimo Montanari, a professor of medieval history and history of food, “Food is culture.” Therefore, I would argue that enjoying food from other cultures is like enjoying the culture itself. Rejecting it is like rejecting the culture.
Jesus came to reconcile all cultures so that we can be mutually transformed and enjoy being together.
When we open our church or home to people from other cultures, what food do we put on the table? Do we force our guests to conform to our diet? When we visit other cultures, do we stick with our diet? Or are we willing to try something new?
Obviously, “new and different” does not mean “bad or sinful.” Yet “new and different” can still be hard to accept. Later, we are glad we gave the new thing a chance.
What we find annoying at first might be rewarding someday. We need to flex our adaptability muscle to learn from other cultures.
Adjusting to a new culture is like eating spicy food for the first time. Pain is inevitable, but we develop a tolerance, and then an appreciation, that expands our world.
Rejecting something solely because it is foreign is not good. Learning to enjoy what others have enjoyed is life- changing. Don’t be afraid to spice up your life.