By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
She had to face cultural differences at an early age. Now, she celebrates the differences and similarities in Asian cultures in her latest nonfiction work.
Born in Jakarta, Indonesia, Pat Tanumihardja, 36, says she always felt different than her Asian peers while growing up even though she didn’t look any different from them.
Tanumihardja, her older brother, Mars, and her parents moved to a housing estate in Serangoon Gardens, Singapore, when she was just a few months old.
“My brother and I would ride our bikes through this little village and play with the chickens that ran around,” she recalled. “So, I think we had the best of both worlds, living in the city and also being able to experience some rural life as well.”
Her parents’ strict rules prevented her from staying overnight at her Eurasian — some were part British and some were part Portuguese — friends’ homes. “It was one of the biggest things that my friends did. They always had sleepovers,” she said.
However, Tanumihardja does not regret her upbringing.
“I believe that the more cultures you’re exposed to, the wider your horizons are and the more open minded you get,” she said.
Tanumihardja is Northwest Asian Weekly’s former food writer. She has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association. Her articles — about food, travel, arts, and culture — have been published in 20 other publications as well as the website TravelLady.com.
How did her career in writing begin? In her late teens, she realized something important about her mother, Juliana, who runs Julia’s Indonesian Kitchen in Seattle. “She was really connecting me to my Indonesian culture by cooking these dishes because if she didn’t cook any of these Indonesian dishes for us, we would have absolutely no inkling of what Indonesian cuisine is like,” Tanumihardja said.
“We all know how culturally intertwined food and culture are,” she added. “And, when you eat, there are just so many emotions that are associated with eating and food.”
One tradition, she says, involves who gets their food first. “When we have guests over for dinner, before any of us children can start eating, we always have to invite the other adults at the table to eat first,” she explained. “We were never allowed to just start picking up food.”
When she turned 19, she left Singapore to attend college in the United States. During the summer of her junior year while visiting in Singapore, an editor asked if she would write for The Food Paper. “It was only then that the seed was planted in my head that, maybe, writing is kind of fun,” she said.
Even though “being a writer was not one of my career goals,” she says she enjoyed writing as a child. At age 19, she considered becoming a ballerina, a banker, or having a career in law.
In 1996, Tanumihardja majored in communications at the University of Washington, specializing in advertising. She later received her master’s in arts administration from Boston University in 2000.
She worked in public relations and marketing for several nonprofit organizations including the Henry Art Gallery and the National Museum of Singapore.
The turning point, she claims, occurred after she got married. “He (husband Omar) is in the Navy, and right after we got married, he whisked me off to rural England.” Unable to find a job in the art field, she began writing articles on travel while living in Dartmouth.
In 2004, her husband’s tour concluded, and they moved to Seattle where she accepted an offer to write for the Northwest Asian Weekly. Throughout her four years with the newspaper, she said she felt “very connected” writing about “everyday people,” and she discovered her passion for writing about food.
She interviewed Gary Luke, publisher of Sasquatch Books, for a story. The interview proved to be what she calls “serendipitous.”
At that time, he had just been promoted from editorial director to publisher and mentioned that he wanted to publish a cookbook about Asian grandmothers and their stories.
Tanumihardja told Luke, “Oh my gosh, that’s something I would totally love to write for you.” This month, she is making public appearances for her first book, “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook: Home Cooking from Asian American Kitchens.” In the book, she profiles 10 Asian grandmothers who are the keepers “of cultural and culinary tradition.”
She now writes for Allrecipes.com and plans on writing her second book about her own Indonesian culture and cuisine within the next three years.
“Food shapes us as a society, and in my case, food together with the values my parents instilled in me, shaped who I am,” she said. ♦
Pat Tanumihardja will be at a Cooking Demo and Book Signing at the University District Farmers’ Market on Oct. 17 at 10:00 a.m. For more information about her Asian Chicken Delights Cooking Class at the Nisei Veterans Clubhouse on Oct. 20 at 6:30 p.m., visit Nuculinary.com.
James Tabafunda can be reached at email@example.com.