As I’ve written before, my weight has been a constant topic of concern in Indonesia. Upon arrival, I was constantly called fat, a compliment in local culture. After adapting to climate and food patterns over the past year, plus the more active lifestyle of a high school teacher in a rural village, subtract the drinking habits of my previous 23-year-old self: I sit here today, thirty pounds lighter than this time last year.
I notice the difference in my body, of course, and have had to replace my favorite pair of jeans with a far too expensive Indonesian pair, but other than that, I still don’t find it to be anyone’s business or cause for concern. However, my daily routine now consists of finding mysterious plates of snacks in my room, placed there by my well-meaning Ibu, and being told by every woman who sees me that I need to be eating more.
*Rolls eyes, shrugs shoulders, exhales deeply*
The women of my community genuinely believe that this loss of weight is a sign of depression. That I’m unhappy here. My Ibu is literally offended by my weight loss. I try to explain to them constantly that I am indeed happy here. This weight loss isn’t intentional or due to depression: it’s due to the fact that I came to this country a size large American who had been eating Supersize Me portions for over twenty years.
I was not a plus-sized woman, nor was I unhealthy. I exercised in America the same amount as I do here, but sweat a great deal less thanks to the cooler climate of Chicago. I indulged in fast food and sweets, same as I do now when given the chance. The difference is with the Indonesian diet when compared to my American diet — and the difference is obvious (if not hysterical).
For a visual aide in my attempts to compare these diets to my local friends and family (and now you), I asked my younger sister, Chloe, to send me a photo of her dinner every night for a week. This was just a random week in March; nothing special, no high-level activity causing our family to eat out more than usual, just average. In addition, I took photos of my dinners in Panawangan made by my Ibu every night for the same week. Again, nothing special, just average.
*Note: although they seem to be in the photos, the plates are not the same sizes.
The first thing I noticed was my mom likes to cook pasta — like, a lot. We had a good laugh over that.
The second, was the portion sizes. Living in Indonesia a year, and eating the quantities of an average Indonesian, I had almost forgotten the old American “eyes are bigger than your stomach rule.” I was genuinely taken aback by the amount of food my 14-year-old sister had on her plate each night.
*This is not to shame her in anyway as she’s a gorgeous, fit, hysterical, unicorn made of glitter and rainbows and can do no wrong.*
The portions this average American was eating every night would easily be expected to feed my entire Indonesian family of six (in addition to rice of course.) I am not exaggerating when I say that the piece of chicken on my sister’s plate the very first night was larger than literally the entire plate of chicken that is rarely found on our kitchen table in Panawangan.
That’s a normal American portion size. That’s what I grew up eating and was used to eating upon moving to America. I guarantee attempting to eat those same quantities now would end disastrously for me.
It’s a shame my mom didn’t cook steak during the week of this quasi-experiment. I would love to show the villagers of my community the size of an American steak.
Spoiler alert: it would probably be able to feed my entire Indonesian family for both lunch and dinner.
The final thing I noticed is related to portion sizes: food groups. There is an Indonesian saying that if you haven’t eaten rice, you haven’t eaten, and that is obvious throughout the day as you watch an average Indonesian constantly snack and never seem to become full, and then obvious again when you look at a plate of food at mealtimes.
The largest portion of your plate is rice. I have seen my 11-year-old host brother put away what I guestimate to be about two cups of rice in one sitting nearly every night for the past year. It’s the average amount for an Indonesian during all meals of the day.
Why? Rice is cheap and plentiful. Protein and vegetables are more expensive and, in villages like mine, harder to come by. Rice is filling and plentiful.
On average, my family members will have at least two cups of rice with a slice of a fried egg, tofu, or tempeh. That’s dinner. That’s lunch. That’s breakfast.
That’s why I’ve lost weight.
I do not necessarily follow that exact diet. I would have died by now, or possibly gone insane. But generally, my dinner is comprised of rice; egg, tofu, or tempeh; and vegetables. My Ibu knows I love vegetables and my body is always grateful that she prepares them especially for me.
Occasionally, we have chicken or fish at the table, but this is rare. It’s also almost always in such small portions that I would hardly count it as the days’ required amount of protein for a healthy diet.
The eating habits are just so extremely different, that it’s no wonder the Western body changes upon living in Indonesia for an extended period of time. I am simply eating less here and eating a different combination of nutrients.
That’s not to say the Indonesian diet is bad or inferior to the American diet. Admittedly, I have eaten far too much Taco Bell and dairy products throughout my life. The fact that my family ate pasta three nights in a row proves that neither diet is better than the other (no offense mom, love you, keep on keepin’ on, you are just as good as Giada!)
The diet I am exposed to in Indonesia is also due in large part to my geographic location: small, isolated, mountain town 16km from the nearest market, yet surrounded by small tokos selling junk food, that my family loves, at all hours of the day.
My point is just to provide insight into the Indonesian diet and offer an explanation of why bules may grow thinner in Indonesia.
But, again, not that it’s any of your business.