By: Ilona Salim
When I was in third grade, the highlight of my every day was coming home from school only to be greeted by my grandma cooking up a storm (an unbelievably delicious storm, of course) in the kitchen. I would immediately run to her side, curious about what amazing dish she was cooking that day. One of my ultimate favorites is her homemade Nastar, which are traditional Indonesian pineapple cookies. Whenever she baked these, I, as her trusty 8-year-old grandson would rush to wash my hands and step up to do the best, and arguably the most crucial, step - shaping the cookies. Letting my imagination take over, I would steer away from the traditional spherical shape and create whatever I wanted - that day, it just happened to be turtles!
Since then, I noticed how I was always drawn towards the kitchen, be it by the curiosity of what my grandma was up to that day, the bustling sounds of pots and pans, the tempting smell of food, or the simple nudge to replicate something I saw on a cooking show. This interest quickly manifested itself, and before I knew it, I was teaching myself how to cook.
One of the most pivotal cooking moments of my life was the first time I prepared dinner for my parent’s anniversary. I was only in middle school then, so up to that moment, I have only been cooking simple dishes for myself. To celebrate such a special night, I decided to elevate my usual omelet and fried rice combo to a steamed fish dish dressed in yakiniku sauce. That simple dish brought them so much joy – it was an adrenaline rush I could never forget. Since then, cooking became more than a hobby – it became something I wanted to actively pursue.
Off to college I went. With this newfound passion for food, I took on a Food Science major at the University of California, Davis to usher in new opportunities in my cooking journey. I was so happy to find myself surrounded by fellow Indonesian foodies who loved food as much as, if not more, than I did. We exchanged tips and tricks, learned from each other, and together, we pushed the boundaries of traditional Indonesian food. I also became the fundraising chair for the Indonesian Student Association at Davis. My yakiniku steamed fish for two transformed into curating menus for over a hundred people during our fundraising events.
Fast forward to today – I graduated and am back home in Indonesia, determined to find a way to pursue my love for food. With the pandemic and shelter in place order, people in Indonesia started to create online F&B shops from their very own home kitchen. Energized by the movement, I wanted to seize the opportunity and start growing my food journey. Inspired by the German restaurants I visited in San Francisco, I worked on a pork sausage recipe that I was sure would be a hit. To be completely candid, things didn’t turn out the I way I hoped – the texture wasn’t right, the flavor needed improving, and the sausage itself was just difficult to make. Frustration quickly surged and the pressure of everyone else speeding ahead with their creations left me discouraged.
One morning, while purchasing more pork at the market for sausage trial #32 or so, my eyes wandered and landed on the most beautiful piece of pork belly. It brought me back to memories of cooking up crispy roasted pork belly for my college friends back at Davis. The memory took over and before I knew it, the words “can I also get one pork belly please?” flowed out of my mouth. To my surprise, my mom and sister loved the crispy pork belly! One thing led to another and now, I am happily running my online shop called “Krisna Cooked” where I sell my signature crispy pork belly, along with honey barbeque pork and rice bowl combos.
It’s funny how things turn out the way they do. I would never have imagined standing here in the same kitchen where I used to make turtle-shaped Nastar cookies with my grandma, now running my own food business. Come to think of it, the role that cooking played in my life is constantly changing – it started off as a hobby, transformed into my choice of study, and now hopefully will be a big part of my future. There is one thing that stayed the same though – cooking has and always will be my teacher. It has taught me so many valuable lessons that I couldn’t get anywhere else. I learned that failure is truly a part of the process towards success and that there are numerous ways to get to the same goal. Different people will always have different perspectives – so no dish is perfect for everyone. The most important thing is to keep an open mind and heart while cooking, just like my childhood Nastars, turtle shapes can be just as delicious as its traditional shape! (if not better haha!)