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Fast(ing) food: post COVID iftar meals across Indonesia


The fast breaking meal, known as iftar in Arabic. Always looked different in Indonesia compared to the rest of the Muslim world. This year these sundown meals are certain to change again. The rising cost of staple foods will see far more people breaking the fast with a snack or meal from street vendors. Rather than preparing and eating a meal in the home.

This change will create new winners and losers during the holy month. The winners clearly being those street sellers able to make up for profits that were lost during the worst of the pandemic. The losers are less clear but, unfortunately, far greater. The limited supply and high cost of food staples will limit the purchasing power of citizens. That is, food available and affordable to consumers will be narrowed down at a time when they need that power. Power to purchase the foods which are fundamental to the practice and celebration of Ramadan for Indonesia’s majority Muslim population.

Food affordability index: Code red for Ramadan

In their new book, ‘The Paradox of Agrarian Change,’ John F. McCarthy, Andrew McWilliam and Gerben Nooteboom research Indonesia’s enduring and confusing food insecurity. Specifically, they research why Indonesia’s economic growth and its relatively quick bounce back from pandemic. Induced recession has not coincided with an expected reduction in food poverty levels. ‘Nutritional insecurity’ they write, ‘remains high – especially in rural areas. This is a pre-pandemic reality which has persisted due to Indonesia’s poor performance on two of three food security indicators: food availability and nutritional quality. Usually tempered by a good rating on the food affordability indicator. The recent spike in food prices presents unfavourable conditions for this year’s Ramadan.

Statistics Indonesia estimates that food and beverage prices have risen by over 7% each month in 2023. Heading into the holy month, Jakarta’s ‘Patra Market’ reported that its tomatoes were up by at least 40% and rice by 22%, with other staples in other markets experiencing similar price hikes. Like other economies across the globe, Indonesia’s food supply chains are suffering from the confluence of COVID shocks, the Ukrainian conflict and climate-change related events. These global events have contributed to a global experience of inflation – a situation which is restricting Ramadan celebrations everywhere. Unlike other places however, this restricting effect will look different in Indonesia.

Preparing the Indonesian iftar meal with 2023 prices

In every other month of the year, it is not unusual for Indonesian Muslims, like other Indonesians, to choose to eat out. This choice is economical –eating out almost always costs the same or less than cooking at home for every meal. It is also now a cultural choice. Instant service and eating on the street fits in with busy Indonesian schedules and is now almost inseparable from the modern Indonesian life. During the holy month, this norm changes. It is a time to eat in, rather than always eating out, and the cooking process is a slow all day. Sometimes all week, rather than an instant service. Unlike elsewhere, Ramadan distinctly disrupts the eating patterns of the Indonesian community and such a change almost always creates some challenges.  

This year it will be a different, arguably harder, battle. Due to the rising cost of staple foods. The 2023 iftar meal might not look that different to the everyday meal. For many, especially those in lower socioeconomic classes, the ingredients for family meals are becoming more expensive. Making iftar at home less and less affordable. This means there has been an increase in the amount of people eating snacks and takjil from the street to break their fast without also, or instead of, preparing a meal in the house. Of course, some are rightfully rejoicing – this kind of business after the lockdown years is something to be thankful for. But there is a bigger, longer cost to iftar happening on the street.

The real cost of expensive food staples

What is lost with this shift is a time in the Indonesian year where food is consumed in a localised, slow way. A time to cook, revere and keep alive food traditions. If people are unable to purchase the ingredients for a dish that comes form the village and/or family cookbook, that recipe and its small history is at risk of being lost. The significance of this cannot be understated. It contributes to a process of narrowing the food regime and its food choices for the everyday Indonesian. Any case, this narrowing effect is damaging – it limits the diversity of crops to farm and goods to consume. In doing so, it limits the opportunities available for livelihoods and the overall nutritional quality of food available for consumers. In Indonesia however, one of the most ethnically and geographically diverse places on earth, the loss of food diversity is particularly alarming.

 The extreme diversity of the archipelago, geographically and ethnically, demands that food available be equally as diverse. People need different foods so their bodies can survive in different climates and so they can continue the dietary heritage of their different ancestors. For example, in Java, rice has been consumed for centuries and has supported the Javanese people. It is the food that helps this community survive on their wet, mountainous and volcanic island.

Baca juga: Icip-Icip Rasa Nasi Nusantara: Cerita Nasi Nusantara

In contrast, differences in land and history of eastern Indonesia did not prepare these people to consume rice. Before industrial rice farming arrived in eastern Indonesia, the diet of many peoples was based on corn and sorghum. These foods were foods that could and should sustain people on dry land. For many, Ramadan is  a time to cook from and for their birthplace. If they are unable to do this, not only do these communities miss out on revering their unique histories but they also miss out on the foods that best sustain them in their everyday lives.

The National Food Agency (BPN) is handling the crisis by running a cheap staple movement or ‘Ramadan food aid’ programme. Once a month for 3 months. Staples such as rice, meats and eggs will be distributed to low socio-economic families. And those in identified ‘stunting prone’ areas. Whilst this type of aid might overcome the worst effects of soaring food prices, that is, hunger and malnutrition, keeping food traditions local and alive will take more effort.  Suggestively, Ramadan should be a time to document important food patterns and traditions. Collection of such data at this particular time would be a critical resource for planning against possible food shortages in following Ramadans. It would also be a strategic way to document Indonesia’s diverse food traditions so as to keep them alive.

written by: Abigail McCaill

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