Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Culture, Cooking, and Cuisine

Nek Sofia preparing pumpkin on a balok. Pumpkin is grown on Home Island and features in cakes, breads, or eaten with rice and meat during meals.

Culture and Cooking

Studying food and culture is typically extremely informative of how a society works. I am not sure why this is the case. Among the many reasons, one must be that, with few exceptions (infuses etc.), we need to eat.

We need to eat, but eat what ? In theory, we could survive from eating raw materials (grubs, raw vegetables etc.). However, humans generally like to take matter (such as dead or live animals, insects, fish, reptiles, and vegetables) and transform it into "food" or "cuisine".

I grew up with the idea that hunter-gatherers, on the edge of survival, would eat anything they could possibly get their hands on. But this is not the case. As I recall, several Western Desert Aboriginal Australian, whom I was fortunate to work with over several days, were very particular, for example, about what kinds of animal can be eaten, what parts (e.g. tail or not), and how the animal is prepared (e.g. cooked with skin on or off). They were also disgusted when I ate my beef steak rare.

What can count as food or cuisine? Acceptable vegetable and non-vegetable matter that is cooked. Often, cooking involves the application of heat. Matter transformed by heat typically takes an esteemed place at the table. Thus the roast (turkey at an Australian Christmas or an American Thanksgiving) was next to the 'man of the house' at the 'head' of the table c.1950s. The butter and salad are down the other 'end'. This reflects the importance of transformation of matter through the application of heat.

Cooking place = hearth

In many societies, a special area are set aside in the house for the purpose of transforming matter into food. We could call such areas "cooking places". But they are so important that some anthropologists use a special term. "Hearth" is an antiquated and odd-sounding word, being pronounced like "heart" but with a "th" at the end. It usually means just "fireplace". Anthropologists, however, specifically use the word "hearth" to refer to  a cooking place--what we might call a "kitchen" in the English tradition. However, on Home Island the "kitchen" inside, at the front part of the house isn't much used for cooking. 

Kitchens without Stoves

All houses have an area designated by the architects as a "kitchen". You can see this in the plan I placed in my Blog "Built Places, Social Spaces". Below is an image of one such "kitchen" at the front part of Nek Sofia's house.  This is a beautiful room and the morning mood is great. For breakfast we eat at the table, toast bread (toaster) and make tea/coffee (kettle). Food is kept in the fridge. However, you can notice there is gap between the benches, in the far wall, underneath the fan. This is where the stove was to be placed, according to the design.

The "kitchen" has a kettle, toaster, fridge, coffee machine and so on.

Stoves out the back

Actually, Cocos women (who almost always do the cooking) prefer to cook out the back of the house. Actually, the term used is "outside" (di luar). In many Home Island houses, you can find there a gas stove, an electric stove and a wood-fire stove, in different areas at the back. For example, Nek Sofia has a gas stove and an electric stove out the back. A pipe connects the gas stove to a large bottle of.LPG located on the other side of the wall.

Nek Sofia's electric stove, in a 'closed' cooking area out the back.
Nek Sofia's gas stove in an open area at the back.
The gas bottles which connect to the stove on the other side of the wall.

However, nothing beats wood fire for cooking. A variety of woods can be used. Keriting wood is the best but hard to source--you have to go to another island to chop it down. Nyamplong can be found on Home Island, so it's easier to source. These woods are stored in a wood shed at the very back.

Wood shed piled with keriting and nyamplong wood

Wood fire is used in different ways. For example, you can wrap fish in banana leaf and bake it. You can also use it to heat a wok (waja). Even deep fried food heated on a wood fire is thought to taste better. 

Various wood stoves and waja (woks)

Wood fires are generally located under a roof in a well-ventilated, open area. This, presumably, allows the smoke to disperse.

Nek Sofia's sister-in-law, Nek Callum, cooking
serondeng in another well-ventilated kitchen.

Notwithstanding, the local doctor has banned many of the older women from using wood fires. After a lifetime of inhaling the smoke, their lungs are chronically damaged. So many speak with weak, raspy voices. 


Nek Sofia cutting the fins off
a fish on the balok
Frequently used in the preparation of food is the balok (log). It is made of kayu nyomplang. This is shaped like a three-legged stool with log cutting on top. Nek Sofia uses it to scale and gut the fish, cut up vegetables, etc.. It is located at the edge of the concrete, next to a hose, beside the garden. That way scraps wash off into the garden. This means that the nutrients from the meat [and vegetables] that are cut there make their way into the soil.
Nek Sofia gutting a fish on the balok
Nek Hanah with two kinds of balok. The log and the table placed on chair legs made by Nek Jamilah and which Nek Hanah calls "balok berkaki"

Table with hole

Most cooking areas have a table with a hole. You can see them in my blog "Spirals of Community Life". Here PJ/Nek Hannah is gutting and filleting silveries (ikan putih). The guts, spine and head, and skin are deposited in the tall white bucket and then fed to the fish at the jetty later. Parts of the 'rib cage', being too hard to bone, but still holding lots of flesh, are passed into the hole and drop into the shorter white bucket underneath the tables. This flesh will be turned into a kind of floss made out of fish flesh, coconut meat and chili. It's called serondeng and it's a Cocos Malay favourite.

Nek Sofia sitting a table with a hole and a bucket underneath

The process of separating is much assisted by the table with a hole. 


Fishing is a crucial part of life for Cocos Malays. Extra fish are frozen in the large freezers located out the back of most houses. The fish is used in daily cooking. Fish are also preserved by salting and drying.

Large freezers, filled with fish mostly.

Frozen fish inside freezer.

Rice cooker

This unassuming device is also crucial. I have written about mode of adaptation in "Making Things Grow" and the significance of fishing  in "Teach a Man to Fish". Yet rice, an imported product that can not, in practice, be grown on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands takes pride of place, literally, in the Cocos Malay diet. It is considered impolite to have the pile of rice sitting on the side your plate furthest from you. Rather, as I was reminded on one occassion, it must be closest to you. 

Nek Sofia's rice cooker (white) and her rice

In contrast to other parts of Southeast Asia I have visited, many Cocos Malays use basmati rice, a kind of long grain rice popular in South Asia. OSo there you have it--with a large outdoor area out the back replete with at least one wood-fired stove; a wood pile; a freezer full of fish; a balok; and a rice cooker, you are ready to cook, Cocos style. Looking at cooking places on Home Island with an anthropological lens, what features stick out?

Gender and cooking

Cooking is mainly for females and the hearth is a feminine area. I'm not sure how to the two are causally related. In Australia, the BBQ area tends to located out the back of a house, outside, and is thought to be a place for males to cook, as I described in a Sydney Morning Herald article. Among Cocos Malays, cooking with fire in the back area remains the province of women.

Out the back, in the center

When I first arrived on Home Island, I felt sorry for the women; cooking way out the back, or so it seemed to me. I was told that it is much easier to cook outside where it is cooler. But as I have observed in "Built Spaces, Social Places"  the back is the center of household life. It is also an area in which much cooking, eating and socializing occurs.

So the cooking place reflects aspects of gender, social space, and kinship among the Cocos Malays of Home Island. As is usually the case with different aspects of culture, it's hard to assess which is the cause of the other--is the back the center of household life because cooking and eating occurs there? Or does cooking and eating occur out the back because the back is the center of household life? We anthropologists tend to evade such questions by saying "they both cause each other" or some such.

Anthropologists tend to view culture as a set of human created arrangements that seem natural to us. One of the characteristics which recommend fieldwork to us, is that we tend to go to situations which are unfamiliar to us. The experience hopefully makes us reflect on our own ideas of what is natural. It also makes us question the ideas of what is natural among the people we study. Thus, my ideas of what is natural in cooking conflict with Cocos Malay ideas. This allows better insight, hopefully, into both cultures and humans in general.

Thank you to our host family Nek Sofia perempuan and laki laki for having us stay with them these last few weeks and experiencing their 'hearth', hospitality and wonderful cooking.

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