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The definition of serenity. Photo by Hannah Richter (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Finalist), Indonesia Semester.

Navigating Sambal in Indonesia

As I write this Yak post, my right hand is burning. No, not metaphorically— I mean my hand feels like it’s being cooked inside with a steady flame. It seems that grabbing large scoops of spicy peppers, known in Indonesia as sambal, with your bare hands will result in the most intense heat hours later in your fingers.

How exactly did I grab enough sambal for my fingers to start burning? I should probably provide some context for my obsession over spicy food. Since I arrived in Indonesia, to a land with unfamiliar sounds, sights, and smells, the only familiar thing I could depend on was the intense spice of the food. As a Korean, I was raised on spicy food from buldak ramen to gochujang to tteokbokki and would often try (and fail) to last longer than my parents. Because of this upbringing and my family’s competitive nature, I became quite the daring soul when it came to discovering the limits of my palate.

Based on all of this information, imagine my excitement when I heard we were entering a restaurant well-regarded for its sambal. While Aneekah (the only member of the group who wanted to join my spice challenge) and I initially entered a nonaggression pact, I quickly decided to break it in order to test the limits for our spice tolerance. We each took bites from the sambal on top of the bean noodles and peanut sauce. As we progressed, Aneekah seemed tempted to stop, but every time I grabbed another scoop of sambal, she felt inspired to follow suit.

The group became mildly concerned for her based on her visible reactions to the spice. However, she ignored all of their protests to stop and tried to continue on. This is when Sani, our onsite program director, entered the fray. Worried for Aneekah, she pulled out the green sambal (the spiciest on the table) and challenged me. Armed with tempe, an array of sambal, and our bare hands, we began a new battle and one that I will probably never forget.

Did I bite off more than I could chew? Yes. Was I outclassed in every way from composure to experience? Definitely. But I felt more at home in that moment than any of the past 9 days since I left my comfort zone of Los Angeles. Spice grounds me. It reminds me of my mother’s cooking and the meals I ate with my family. In the larger context of Indonesia, the importance of spices cannot be understated. It’s a complicated legacy rooted in colonialism as the Dutch wanted the rich spices of Indonesia for their markets. The spices that we take for granted come from this past and it’s a reality that I must confront in the 9 months I spend in Indonesia.

In the end, we ran out of sauce and we called a truce to our battle (pictured above). The spice challenge between Sani and I helped me orient to a new land and discover how much more I could push my limits. As I finish writing this, I’ve realized that the burning of my hand has finally stopped. For me, spice reminds me that life isn’t always so serious and that sometimes biting off more than you can chew can be one of the most memorable experiences that you can make.