Deepening Friendships Over Sweet Corn (by Lydia Nolt)

There are only a few kaki lima, or street food stands, near the campus of Universitas Nusa Cendana (UNDANA) where I am located for my service assignment, and outside my neighborhood along the busy coastal road the little mobile stalls only open in the evening. However, on my 20 minute commute by motorbike there are many stands that are already selling food through the afternoon. You can find anything from bakso (meatballs and noodle soup), salome goreng (small meatballs with peanut sauce), jagung bose (corn and peanut porridge), bubur kacang merah (red bean porridge), martabak manis (thick sweet pancake with chocolate and cheese), my favorite rujak (fruit salad with spicy brown sugar peanut sauce) and so many more. I have learned that when many people were worried about job insecurity and the loss of income at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, some turned to street vending as an extra source of income, though there has always been a thriving street food culture. The evening street food scene has increased since the beginning of Ramadan on April 1st, with Muslim markets setting up after the sun has gone down. The first street food I tried was jagung bakar, or mature sweet corn roasted over charcoal. My coworker in the International Relations Office and close family friend Ka Dewi was excited for me to try her favorite traditional food that she said would never fail to cheer her up after a long day at the office. After working hours ended at 4:00, I hoisted myself up behind her on her motorbike and we took off to find the street with the best jagung bakar. We soon pulled off to the side of a busy divided main road, Ka Dewi leaned the bike on its kickstand and hung our helmets on the mirrors, and we set our bags down on a rickety picnic table. We ordered two ears of corn from the woman fanning the coals of her grill and she got to work slowly turning each cob so they were cooked evenly on all sides. While we waited Ka Dewi and I talked about many things — in English and through google translate — about the governor the street was named after, traditional music, how my family eats sweet corn in the summer, the pandemic, and the culture of exercise as we watched groups of runners jog past among the traffic. When the corn was finished, Ka Dewi showed me how to brush margarine and scoop basil chili sambal over the ear of corn before taking the first bite. She explained that the margarine is a special soft sweet margarine that the vendors make in their homes from scratch and you cannot find in stores. It is delicious. I explained that back in my home we enjoy eating sweet corn with butter and salt. While we ate we continued to talk about our hometowns, the foods we enjoy, and the ways our experiences as young people are similar and different. After the cobs were clean, we bought two more ears of corn to take back to my Mama along with small containers of the condiments. We paid the woman and hopped back on the bike and sped home. Ka Dewi and I have since shared several snacks after work, and we have grown closer every time. I think relationships bloom over food, from sharing something personal or nostalgic with a person to talking and sharing stories while you eat, street food can be a place of connection and love. Ka Dewi and I have many differences, though we share many of the same dreams and values, plus we both love to eat. Though jagung bakar is different from how I usually eat sweet corn in the summer, it’s fun to know that there are people eating something very similar on the other side of the world.