Indonesia has over 17 thousand islands and is known as the largest archipelago in the world. With so much diversity among its islands, the cuisine of Indonesia is rich but still little understood. All this variety still unexplored instigated the curiosity of a young American chef Crystal Chiu. After working at the renowned Room4Dessert restaurant in Ubud, Crystal decided to embark on a series of trips to explore Indonesian food culture.

We are very happy to have met Crystal during our trip to Indonesia. Crystal is a charming person and super enthusiastic about food culture. Now we are proud to share with you some of her insights!

About the Project

Why did you create this project?

As a chef, it is important for me to connect with food beyond the kitchen, and I recognized, while living in Indonesia, that regional ingredients and cuisine are woefully unrecognized and neglected. I wanted Asli Food Project to fill that gap, as well as boost my own personal understanding of the relationships between food and people.

What are your main goals? How can the project benefit Indonesia?

Once Asli Food Project launched and I conducted my first research trip, it was clear my personal goals would be upstaged by the goals I set for the project. Over the years, many Indonesians have admitted to me that they do not know much about their own country, whether from lack of interest, money, or time. That kind of apathy can derail much-needed progress here. I would like Asli Food Project to help change that in its own way. What I experience through the project — the people I meet, the food I eat, the stories I collect — needs to be shared. These vignettes of Indonesian life, from Sumatra to Papua, can do their part to inspire empathy within a nation.

What I love about food is that learning about it does not necessarily require a shared spoken language. As long as you have all five senses — sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste — you can explore endlessly in any country.


What are the most valuable and interesting findings that you had so far?

At a professional level, aside from searching for obscure fruits and vegetables, I am also keen on discovering how the same ingredient is used in different ways across the country. A good example is a kluwak nut. Kluwak is the seed that comes from the Pangi tree. When fresh, its flesh is white and poisonous. In Java and Bali, the nut is fermented underground until the poison leeches out and the flesh turns black — the most commonly-known method. But in Sulawesi, I discovered that Torajans also used kluwak, but in an alternative way. Instead of fermenting, they would crack the fresh nut in half and leave it to dry in the sun until black, then grind it into a powder. The resulting flavor, in my opinion, was more concentrated and deeper. These are lessons I take back with me into the kitchen — there is never just one way to work with an ingredient.

What are the main challenges to explore native food?

Naturally, language is the biggest challenge. Despite learning Bahasa Indonesia — the national language — this country is comprised of hundreds of ethnic groups on over 17,000 islands, and this equals a staggering amount of local dialects that my ears cannot understand. But what I love about food is that learning about it does not necessarily require a shared spoken language. As long as you have all five senses — sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste — you can explore endlessly in any country.

How is the perception from local people about your project?

Surprise, shock, excitement, and pride — in that order. Everyone I meet cannot believe I chose to be there and learn from them — an American chef in their corner of the world. By the time I leave, they are proud to have been the ones to teach me about their culture and cuisine, and that Asli Food Project will be the one to share it with the rest of the world.

Do you feel that tourists are becoming more interested in understanding about local food?

In Indonesia, I know that tourists have intentions to enjoy good, local cuisine, but they have also come to expect Indonesian food to be dishes like nasi goreng, mie goreng, and sate. And while those dishes are Indonesian, they are certainly not the only ones. This has created a dilemma where visitors do not know what to ask for because they do not know what exists. Do not assume the food listed on the menu in front of you is truly local. Dig deeper, because if you do not ask for it, you will never be able to try the hundreds of delicious Indonesian cuisines that exist across the country.

Wherever you travel, seek out local food, which simply means interacting with locals at their level. Go to markets, visit street vendors, get invited into homes, and start talking about food. Trust me, it’s the best conversation starter and easiest way to make friends on the road.


For how long do you plan to run the project?

To be effective, this project needs to live on for infinity! But in truth, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of destinations for this project to travel to. And I also take into account that ingredients and cuisine are in constant flux due to environmental changes, migrating populations, and modernization, so there is abundant content for Asli Food Project to explore for many lifetimes over.

So, what is the next step? Do you plan to roll out the project to other countries?

I believe preserving the life and use of traditional ingredients and food is a community effort. Therefore, in Bali and Indonesia, I take advantage of the collaborative spirit that thrives here to continually educate others on how Asli Food Project’s work can impact their lives or livelihood. It may mean taking steps to advise agricultural social enterprises on native plant species I’ve seen while traveling that would be more sustainable options for smallholder farmers to cultivate or consult with local restaurants and chefs that wish to support local farmers and suppliers I meet while on the road.

Wouldn’t it be amazing to have an Asli Food Project ft. Brazil, Kenya, or Mongolia? If that happened, it would be evidence of the growing international support for local ingredients and food. And the best way to facilitate that is to continue sharing my progress, in order to inspire people around the world to believe that Asli Food Project belongs in their country.

How can people support the project?

Follow it! Whether it be through Youtube for videos, Instagram for photos, or the website for recipes and feature stories of the people I meet and places I go, there’s something for everyone.

Also, embody what the project encourages. Wherever you travel, seek out local food, which simply means interacting with locals at their level. Go to markets, visit street vendors, get invited into homes, and start talking about food. Trust me, it’s the best conversation starter and easiest way to make friends on the road.

About Crystal

You told us that you recently changed your career from communication to gastronomy, why did you decide to work with food?

It was fate stepping in when I was laid off from my job in communications because it forced me to evaluate my future when I was too passive to do it before. While I was searching for my next job, I recognized how curious I was about all things food-related. Not just how to cook food, but also the science behind it, the ingredients behind it, and the people behind it. Everything about the topic captured my attention like nothing else. That was when I decided that if I’m so preoccupied with it, then I should be working on it.

What does food mean to you?

Food is a gateway for me to explore the many curiosities I have in life—chemistry, art, business, social issues, geography, anthropology—and on and on. That’s why I see working in the food industry as more than just a job where I simply make food and serve it. It allows me opportunities — if one can recognize them — to continually engage my brain, and I am thankful that food is the lense I get to use to view the world.

Why Indonesia? Do you have any other connection with the country?

In a way, it was by chance. I moved to Bali specifically to work at a restaurant called Room4Dessert Ubud to expand my pastry-making skills. However, after my first year, I craved to learn more about and find local ingredients from Indonesia that I couldn’t get in the restaurant, and that is how I began to develop the idea for Asli Food Project.

For your research, most of the time you are travelling solo and exploring places off the beaten track. How do you feel about? Did you have any concerns in the beginning?

I am absolutely anxious before the start of each trip — it doesn’t matter how many of them I’ve done. A bit of doubt creeps in, and I worry, “Will people be nice to me? Will people help me? What if I get sick? What if I get lost?” I can imagine a thousand scenarios of what could go wrong. But the best way to counter my anxiety is to take care of each situation as it arises if it arises. With this kind of travel, it takes too much energy to worry about what could happen. Deal with it when it does. In the meantime, I live in the moment and explore like I set out to.

What about your goals? Do you have any personal goals to achieve by running this project?

Because my personal and professional goals run on the same track these days, there is a particular objective I would like to accomplish through Asli Food Project. I have always been an advocate of cooks and chefs learning about food beyond what they see in the kitchen. While we have an absolute responsibility to serve our guests’ delicious food, we have a greater responsibility to educate ourselves about the ingredients and produce we use. The only way to do that is to remove the apron and strap on a backpack for a weekend, week, or month, and find out where we exist in this food system and how we can influence it. Asli Food Project has become a physical extension of that for me, and now I want to use it to encourage people in the food industry to explore their role outside the kitchen. It is the only way we can become a generation of informed and conscious chefs, and, ultimately, stewards of a healthy food system that will impact millions of minds and stomachs.

Chef Crystal Chiu founder of Asli Food Project explored the food culture of Indonesia

How to reach Crystal

All photos © Crystal Chiu

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