20 Oct 2022

Embracing Kale: A Quest to Recreate Home Food in My London Kitchen

Indonesian leafy greens substitute in a London kitchen.

Nandra Anissa
Kelly Rahardja
Cassava Leaf
Daun Leaf Me
Daun Singkong
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My husband and I are constantly reminding each other the importance of eating leafy vegetables as part of our daily diet.

​​”Don’t forget to eat your greens!” is a sentence often uttered in my household in London, UK. However, being in a multicultural household sometimes means we clash over how to eat our leafy greens. Usually, various kinds of salads come to the rescue. That means lettuce, spinach, rocket, and watercress are staples in our grocery list.

While I love salads, it just wasn’t a staple in my Indonesian family’s kitchen. My first recollection of salads was the salad bar at Pizza Hut with a ridiculously creamy and somewhat artificial tasting thousand island dressing. Otherwise, it’s the imported caesar and ranch dressing found in higher-end supermarkets. It wasn’t until my parents discovered Jamie Oliver’s cooking shows that we grew a newfound love over the simplicity of an olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing. It was a far cry from the creamy bottled dressings.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with bottled salad dressing. It’s easy, convenient, and tasty. But I was also glad to gain some variety when it comes to salads. Today, I love to discover salad recipes from all over the world. For example, recently I bought a cookbook from one of my favourite food bloggers of Turkish Cypriot heritage, so her tomatoey bulgur salad with a generous sprinkling of parsley is high on my must-try salads list.Despite how refreshing a good salad can be, I still yearn for the kind of leafy greens cooked as the soupy or stir-fried dishes I grew up with. Especially now that I live far from home. For the biggest part of my youth, a warm pot of sayur bening or bobor of spinach was a staple. When eating out in Sundanese restaurants, a plate of stir-fried kangkung, cooked with a lot of garlic and chilies often complements our order of ikan gurame goreng. A pile of boiled daun singkong will always accompany the various gulai on my Nasi Padang portion. “It’s called balance,” I constantly tell myself, “Also a great palate cleanser.”

When eating out in London, the closest leafy green stir-fry dish I’m familiar with is stir-fried kangkung (often called morning glory on the menu), which is popular across Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai restaurants. However, when I crave the more homey dishes made with more bitter leaves such as sauteed papaya leaves or gulai daun singkong I have to figure out how to make them myself.

It has been quite a bumpy ride, though. Let’s take the example of gulai daun singkong. It took a lot of research, scouring blogs and YouTube videos to eventually feel comfortable and confident enough to recreate them in my small London kitchen.The first hurdle is obviously sourcing the cassava leaves. It’s almost non-existent, and for the longest time I had to stow away my homesickness because of this.

There has got to be an alternative, I thought to myself. Aren’t there any similar bitter leaves that would make a decent substitute?

Enter: Kale.

I’ve been casting aside this somewhat fad ingredient because I don’t understand why it has become a key “clean-eating” ingredient sold on a premium price point. “What’s wrong with spinach?” I would scoff while perusing the menu of a high-end smoothie bar.

When I eventually got over my feelings for kale, I found myself asking, will substituting kale for daun singkong in my gulai make the dish less authentic? If I’m introducing this to my non-Indonesian friends, am I representing my heritage in a ‘true’ way?

The answer to those questions is obvious: why wouldn’t it be?

To be clear, my gulai kale revelation isn’t anything new. I discovered Sri Owen’s Indonesian Foods cookbook, where she recommends using cavolo nero in place of daun singkong. I also found a few other gulai kale recipes from food bloggers across the Indonesian diaspora. So clearly, this isn’t a matter of authenticity. In my humble opinion, authenticity be damned. I believe this balancing act of curing our homesickness whilst trying to recreate our favorite dishes in the most ‘authentic’ way is an ‘authentic’ diaspora experience. It marks our ability to survive, adapt, and embrace ingredients local to our adopted home.

For me personally, this moment of adaptability opens the door to being creative with my cooking. And my radical acceptance towards kale. I’m sorry for dismissing you all these years. I’ve now learned to set aside any remaining questions on authenticity. If anything a warm bowl of gulai kale authentically represents the woman I have grown to be. When I pour a warm portion into a bowl for my friends at a dinner party, I can explain the dish as a profile of who I am. A mix of my home country’s heritage, and my adaptability in incorporating the local ingredients of my chosen home.

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