‘When we first fell in love, we didn’t talk much, we cooked for each other. It was the reason we understood each other so well. Not talking, but making each other feel love by making and eating a dish.”
Mas van Putten and Carl Lemette write it in the foreword of Jiwa, an Asian cookbook with soul. Jiwa means ‘soul’ in Malay, and that is what Van Putten and Lemette, owners of the Amsterdam restaurant De Vrouw met de Baard, want to convey through their dishes.
Carl Lemette (58) is the son of a Moluccan mother and a ‘Belgian Indo’. Mas van Putten (61) is the child of a Javanese Indo and a Dutch father. They met eleven years ago, fell in love and so their culinary life began.
It’s an energetic bunch. They finish each other’s sentences and also regularly answer for each other. The idea for the book arose during corona, says Van Putten: “It was a tough time. We heard so many stories from people who didn’t see relatives, there was so much division and polarization. We wanted to counter that by looking for a connection with the dishes and stories in our cookbook.”
To do this, they draw on their cultural background and have given each chapter a theme. That’s the title of the first chapter Ale rasa beta rasa, a Moluccan saying that means ‘what you feel, I feel too’. Another chapter is called Pulang, which represents a longing for home. Lemette: “For the first generation, home is the Moluccas or an island in Indonesia, but for us ‘pulang’ is the beaches of The Hague or the emptiness of Zeeland. People from the community are as proud of the Dutch plains as they are of their Indian roots.”
In the stories and recipes in Jiwa their parents and relatives play an important role. Carl Lemette has his father’s ‘cooking skills’, he says. As a child he already helped in the warung that his father had in Bergen op Zoom. His mother went down the Pasar Malams in the 1970s. “I always went along and then I slept under the stall or with Moluccan families. She had tape, fermented rice, which she made into a drink. She served that under the table with rum, because that was not allowed openly. She also made rose syrup with rum called rose scent and moonshine. Her stall was the center of the pasar.”
In the book they also talk about the death of their mothers and the trauma that their parents carried with them and about which they told little. Mas van Putten found after the death of her mother, she writes Jiwa, “downstairs in the barn freezers with food and a collection of the best biscuits from all over the Netherlands.” Then she realized that those cookies tell a story of hunger and survival: “Her sternness served the purpose of preparing me for life as she knew and taught it; a remnant of three hundred years of divide-and-conquer regime of a colonial system.”
Van Putten explains: “There was so much sadness. Families were torn apart by the war, some were in the Japanese camps, many people had to leave the country after Indonesia’s independence and arrived here. But it was not talked about. My mother was so afraid of losing everything again that she was very strict in my upbringing. But the food brought us together. We used to want our parents to talk, but now we know that food can tell you more than mouths can talk. And if you eat our dishes, you automatically eat our history.”
“Then you literally eat us,” adds Lemette. Van Putten again: “If I want to show you my love with food because I don’t have the words, that’s fine too. Or with dancing. My aunts and mother were left in an orphanage without being orphans, while the rest of the family left for the Netherlands. We really don’t have to ask my aunt what that period was like, we don’t talk about that. But when she hears music, her feet don’t stop. She is 84 and we sing ‘Brandend Zand’ together. That pleasure, that is what we want to pass on.”
They do this with the spirit of their parents with them. For example, they give Van Putten’s great-grandmother’s recipe for braising, served in a modern way on a taco – “a little bit of meat is also sustainable”. She made that dish based on scents from the past.
“Our parents take over our hands when cooking,” says Lemette. And what is authentic, that is for them to decide. Van Putten: “It’s all about the experience of the individual, it’s about freedom. For us, cooking is a metaphor for life.”
The writing of Jiwa has also given them more insight into their own, multicultural identity and the value of that background. Lemette: “In the culinary world, French cuisine is the basis. I used to be guided by that too, but we are moving away from it more and more. In our culture, for example, the maggi cube is indispensable, which is unthinkable in French cuisine. But we no longer allow ourselves to be told what is good or bad.”
But how do you preserve those roots, traditions and soul when, like the Indisch community, you are absorbed in Dutch society? According to Lemette, they do little more than what their parents did: “They had to survive with the things they had, potatoes, pork, seasonal vegetables. They made delicious Indian dishes from it and that is what I do.” According to him, you have to adapt to the times and pass them on, because if you don’t, they will be lost along with the stories. Van Putten agrees: “Tradition is the backbone, but it should not become a prison.”
They call their style ‘funky’, inspired by their Indo-European roots and ‘everything that grows and blooms around us’. You can see that in the colorful collection of recipes in the book, such as ‘deviled eggs from Carl’, Indonesian baking balls from Amsterdam, fish with imperial mandarin sauce and spiced mudpie with rawit candy. Van Putten: “Food is about people. You have a generation that sticks to the origins and looks for authenticity so that knowledge is not lost, and we deal with it in a contemporary way. One cannot do without the other.”
In addition to food, music is important to the two, because music also has no boundaries. That is what they want to convey in their restaurant and also with this book that contains a special playlist: do not dwell on what has been lost, but pay tribute to what is there and what it brings.
Van Putten tells how they recently visited an uncle and aunt who are 83 and were dancing. “Everyone who attended was considered family. If there’s one thing I can hope for, it’s that fun opens your mind to listening and learning.”
According to Lemette, that is another message: the dishes are also about connecting generations. “Those old people will soon be gone and then it will be us who dance on our 84th birthday.”
A version of this article also appeared in the December 9, 2022 newspaper