“Remember, my beloved granddaughter,” Sri Owen’s grandmother cautioned her one morning in 1942. “When you grow up, don’t marry a foreigner.”
Owen was seven years old, and her grandmother was referring to someone from an island other than their native one in West Sumatra. But she didn’t listen: Owen would end up marrying a shy, handsome man from the United Kingdom, Roger Owen, twenty years later. She would follow him from Yogyakarta to London, where she found herself far from the vibrancy and comfort of her grandmother’s cooking. Owen became fixated on the possibility of recreating it in the kitchen of her new flat.
She carried this fascination with her throughout her life, and it has amounted to a body of work subtly structured around the losses of her youth, which she spent as a refugee in her own country. Owen has written nine other books since her first, The Home Book of Indonesian Cookery, in 1976. Perhaps the most famous is 1993’s The Rice Book, an expansive and elaborate devotion to the wonders of rice across the world, compressing centuries of the grain’s history into 400 pages. Upon release, the book was nominated for a James Beard Award and won the Andre Simon Memorial Fund Award; seven years ago, the book graced the Observer Food Monthly’s list of the best cookbooks ever written. The citation was a conferral of legitimacy to a generation who grew up not knowing who Owen was.
Owen is now 82, and she lives in Wimbledon in south-west London. She envisions herself as a writer in permanent exile, fulfilling different aims for different constituencies. For the United Kingdom, she has assumed the role of a missionary, stimulating its interest in the foods of Indonesia’s sprawling, diffuse circuit board of islands, each with its own culinary language. Meanwhile, for Indonesia, she has worked hard to reassure her fellow islanders of its food’s splendor.
Cooking became a way of gazing at the past Owen had to leave behind. Referred to as the Grande Dame of Indonesian cookery, she maintains a sterling reputation to those who recognize her name, but not enough do. Owen, whose heart is battered by a quadruple bypass surgery she underwent a decade ago, found herself under remarkable and unforeseen duress over the course of our correspondence. But she soldiered on, treating our exchange as a welcome and necessary ordeal. “It will be nice if somebody would write about me, too,” she told me when I first reached out to her earlier this month, as if concerned no one else would.
Owen arrived in London during a cold January in 1964. It was the first time she left her country, and though she would miss her parents and sisters terribly, she justified this by saying she would find in London a new life that Indonesia couldn’t give her.
She was born the first of six daughters in a middle-class household in Padang Panjang, a tiny hill town in West Sumatra. Both of her parents were teachers. As a child, she found it impossible to leave her grandmother’s side. Indonesia was an overwhelmingly rural country in the 1930s, still under Dutch control, and each family possessed its own small chunk of land where they raised vegetables and chickens, with houses cocooned by papaya and breadfruit trees. Owen would roam across the rice fields and coffee gardens adjacent to the family’s house, accompanying her grandmother to markets nearby to fetch dried fish, salt, tea, and sugar.
Though the family was relatively wealthy in this pre-conflict period, their kitchen, like that of most others on the island, was barren. It lived in a building separate from the living quarters to reduce the risk of fire, and it had no gas, electricity, or running water. Owen’s father, her grandmother’s child, was the family’s cook. So Owen assumed the role of a de-facto sous chef beside him. He cooked with round-bottomed earthenware pots over mounds of bricks on woodfire or charcoal. At mealtime, Owen usually sat cross-legged on low-platform mats, eating with her fingers off plates lined with large banana leaves.
Owen’s childhood was soon ruptured by trauma. As Japanese soldiers made landfall in the country during World War II, the family was forced to abandon their comfortable existence for one of genteel poverty, continually migrating eastwards. The turmoil ended in 1949, when they settled in the Central Javanese town of Magelang. After Owen finished junior high, she traveled 25 miles south for high school in Yogyakarta; she enrolled in the English department at Universitas Gajah Mada, where she would complete both her undergraduate and graduate studies, in 1955.
She developed a case of Anglophilia in this period, accelerated by her study of Jane Austen. Owen found these stories of expressive, passionate women buried beneath strict social codes to resemble her own life in Indonesia. She often daydreamed about being whisked off to the United Kingdom on scholarship, believing she could find a home there, too.
In 1962, she met her husband-to-be, Roger Owen, a newly-minted Oxford graduate who found himself in Indonesia to spend the next three years as a lecturer in the university’s History department. As she tells it, he was clearly smitten, though he couldn’t muster up the confidence to ask Owen out until a year after meeting her. In spite of an aggressively un-romantic first date film—a documentary about the London Blitz—they were engaged three months later.
The pair had an elegant wedding that stretched over three days in August 1962, with a gamelan orchestra and hundreds of guests, ending at her parents’ home in Magelang. (Her grandmother was no longer alive; any anxiety Owen still had about abiding by her grandmother’s wishes had dissipated.) A few days after, she took an oath of allegiance to Elizabeth II in the British Consulate in Jakarta, receiving her British passport. It came just in time: Her husband’s contract in Indonesia was about to end, and he was being sent back to London.
During her first years in London, Owen found herself battling the garden variety despair that tends to befall those who find themselves far from their family. She wrestled the uneasy feeling that she was more of a tourist than an immigrant in London—so she began to reconstitute her sense of what food meant to her in Indonesia. Owen was keen to cook for herself, seeking the company of her grandmother’s recipes: telur dadar padang, the breakfast omelette with grated coconut that could look as fluffy as a cake, or pangek ikan, braised trout with young fern shoots.
She describes her first decade in London as “sedate,” enlivened chiefly by the birth of two sons in 1966 and 1972. Owen worked for the BBC, first as a secretary in the Swahili Department and then in the Indonesian Service. It was at this point when she found out how little people in England knew about Indonesia, let alone Indonesian food: On the first day of her new job, her boss greeted her with the gleefully incorrect assumption that Indonesia was part of the British commonwealth.
Though Owen took such gaffes in stride, she was silently horrified at the level of ignorance she had to work against. She came, eventually, to see this cultural illiteracy as an opportunity. One of her husband’s friends from university was a literary agent who’d come over for dinner often, and he told Owen that he reckoned she had a book inside her. He persuaded Owen to write a book about Indonesian food, promising to find her a publisher. She drafted a proposal for esteemed publishing house Faber & Faber, leaning on the growing interest in Indonesia as a tourist’s destination and insisting that the market needed an Indonesian cookbook; it was uncharted literary terrain. Faber accepted.
From the start, Owen treated food writing as a way to reach into the past that escaped her and summon it to the present. The Home Book of Indonesian Cookery is a recipe book with the architecture of a memoir. In it, Owen conveys how Indonesia’s foods bear the stamps and scars of its aggressors—the Chinese, the Indian, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Arab—and places herself within this history. The book was released in 1976 to moderate success, its audience tiny but lively. It brought her to the attention of Alan Davidson, the diplomat-turned-food writer who had just finished a tour of Southeast Asia. He was completing some creatively fruitful golden years in food writing, working on books about fisheries in Laos, and he introduced her to luminaries like Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Jill Norman, Claudia Roden, many of whom she would come to count as friends.
Owen still credits Davidson, who died in 2003, with giving her the confidence to pursue writing about cooking with stealth and rigor. When Faber decided not to reprint her first book, arguing its copies didn’t sell quickly enough to justify a full-blown reissue, Davidson offered to publish it instead under his new publishing venture, Prospect Books, in 1980 under the name Indonesian Food and Cookery. It was the house’s first title.
Owen retired from the BBC in 1983, after which she committed her time to becoming a full-time food writer. This came with the occasional dalliance: In the summer of 1984, she and her husband began London’s first Indonesian food store and delicatessen, Mustika Rasa, or “the crown of taste,” in the ground floor of their flat. The undertaking was an experiment no one had attempted before or after them, and business was sluggish. The store closed after three years.
Afterward, her husband retired too, and Owen resolved more intently to bring Indonesian cookery to the British masses through writing. She published ten books over the course of four decades. Her second cookbook was 1988’s Indonesian and Thai Cookery. Owen’s publisher urged her to swap the order of the two countries in the title to account for Thai food’s more established stature in the United Kingdom at that point, much to Owen’s consternation; she became resolute in her refusal to compromise, and her publisher complied. When the book was released in the United States nine years later, it was called Thai and Indonesian Cookery without her consent.
In spite of her prolific nature, Owen expresses faint displeasure at the way her own legacy has shaken out. She owes everything to the countries that gave her a home, and they owe her more than they may realize: “I would indeed like to see myself as Western ambassador for Indonesian food, though I would have loved it if my own people or the government in Indonesia considered acknowledging me as such an ambassador.” In Indonesia, she finds herself hardly known or talked about. Even after she received a Lifetime Achievement Award for her services to Indonesian food at the inaugural Ubud Food Festival in Bali in 2015, little seemed to change.
When it comes to the United Kingdom, Owen was hopeful that the mention of The Rice Book in the Observer would lead to a late resurgence in popularity of her work. But after a brief spike in the paperback price of the book, the rights reverted to Owen, and the book fell out of print again. It is her wish that the book be released in the coming years in hardcover or Kindle, but neither has happened.
One morning earlier this month, while rummaging through her kitchen and deciding what to make for breakfast, Owen found a small papaya. It was ripening nicely. She decided to make a dish modeled after the rice porridge her grandmother would make in Padang Panjang. Owen’s variation would be a bowl of Swiss Alpen, rather than rice, with papaya and bananas, topped with ladles of warm coconut milk dotted with salt.
But something in the final product wasn’t quite right. It tasted quite different from what her late grandmother made. Her grandmother usually served freshly-picked papaya and banana, ripened on trees in her garden, atop of her own homemade rice porridge. She would cloak it with milk she squeezed from freshly-grated coconut, mixing it with a splash of water.
The breakfast, in retrospect, brought forth a tension that has existed throughout Owen’s career. Certain ingredients would always be out of reach for her. When she first went shopping for groceries in London five decades ago, she couldn’t find what she needed to cook what she desired, like an artist without her materials. So Owen and her husband had to go to various cities in Holland—Amsterdam, Den Haag, Rotterdam—to buy Indonesian ingredients. This was often time-consuming, so she gained a knack for substitutions: bitter gourds instead of papaya flowers, black cabbage in place of cassava leaves.
“Nowadays, of course, I can get everything, almost everything that I will need for my Indonesian cooking,” Owen tells me. By the next decade, a few Chinese and Indian shops in SoHo began selling powdered canisters of turmeric, ginger, and chili she needed to make certain pastes like her grandmother’s. It was only when a wave of Thai restaurants opened in early 1970s, she remembers, that more and more cooking ingredients from Southeast Asia were imported to the region.
In her last book, 2008’s Sri Owen’s Indonesian Food, Owen proclaimed London to be the greatest city of the world for public eating, and she still holds this position. To her mind, it is a city that has reinvented itself and its food ten times over again, exhibiting an extraordinary talent for survival. The London she sees now is filled with Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Nepalese, Tibetan, and Burmese restaurants. The Chinese and Indian restaurants that were already there when she arrived in the city have improved vastly in quality.
But she has no favorite Indonesian restaurants in the city. When I ask her what they are, she comes up dry, instead responding with a simple declaration: “I find I can cook better than any of the average eating places.”
Owen wishes it were the case that Londoners’ perception of Indonesian food would have progressed significantly since she first arrived in the city, but it hasn’t. There is still unfinished business. “Only people who have gone to Indonesia beyond Bali, to Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Sulawesi, along with smaller islands, like Sumba, Sumbawa, Lombok, can understand Indonesian food deeply,” she charges. She names places she has traveled—in her lifetime, and in her writing.
Jenny Mörtsell is a Swedish illustrator who divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and Stockholm, Sweden.
See more of Food52’s Guide to London here.