President Barack Obama will have a lot on his plate during his upcoming visit to Indonesia. But many Indonesians seem more interested in what will be on his dinner plate with approximately 60 thousand voting on an online poll on the American Embassy's Facebook page. Their top choice is a meatball soup called bakso, a lowbrow street snack that some foodies would rather keep off the presidential menu.
Obama spent three years of his childhood in Jakarta. He has often reminisced about the food he enjoyed here as a kid, including bakso, the dense gray meatball sold in soup from hundreds of thousands of food carts all over the country. ï¿½In an interview earlier this year with a local TV station, Obama not only reminisced about bakso ï¿½ but he went on to imitate the sounds of the street vendors. ï¿½I like street food. And I like the street vendors,ï¿½ he had said. ï¿½I still remember the sounds of people as they walk by ï¿½satay!ï¿½ Right? You know? Ya, ï¿½Satay!, Bakso! Bakso! .The uh ï¿½ I miss that.ï¿½
Outside an elementary school in central Jakarta that Obama attended as a boy, a vendor ladles soup and golf ball-sized bakso meat balls. 12-year old Shenia imitates the president's impression of a street vendor. She and her classmates have been preparing in case Obama decides to visit his old school.
ï¿½I'd be so proud to have Obama come back to this school and eat bakso,ï¿½ she said. ï¿½I really want to meet the president of America. I haven't even met Indonesia's president. If I met Obama I would be shocked.ï¿½
Obama's comments have also kicked the food industry into high gear. Tri Setyo Budiman, the chairman of the Indonesian Meatball Soup Association, is on a personal mission to make sure Obama gets served a proper bowl of bakso. ï¿½This is my kitchen, ok?ï¿½ he said.
In his roadside restaurant, Tri shows me how the meat is prepared in a grinder, mixed with garlic, pepper and MSG, and shaped into round lumps by hand. ï¿½Shall I try it? Ok?ï¿½ I said. ï¿½Yeah. It tastes chewey and, uh, kind of gamey. Mm hmm.ï¿½
Tri says if Obama ate a bowl of bakso, he would be sending a positive message to poor and working class Indonesians. ï¿½He would be saying ï¿½ this is my food. That would create an extraordinary image,ï¿½ he said. ï¿½That bakso makes him remember his childhood. He would be saying that this is the food of the people, and that would resonate with Indonesians.ï¿½
But some Indonesian food experts are less than thrilled by that prospect. Meatball soup is fast food, the cultural equivalent of hot dogs. And culinary TV show host Bondan Winarno says similar dishes can be found all over Asia. ï¿½Because it's not a tradition,ï¿½ Winarno said. ï¿½It is adopted from other subcultures. I'm not against that because I like fusion food, but to represent Indonesia, mie bakso is definitely not the culinary type.ï¿½
Bondan hopes Obama will choose more distinctive foods to help promote Indonesia, like the spicy Sumatran beef called rendang, or Kerak Telor, a traditional rice and duck egg omelet made on the streets of Jakarta. The food debate prompted the US embassy here to set up a Facebook page where people can vote on the presidential menu. The choices include bakso. More than 50,000 people have weighed in.
Tristram Perry, a public diplomacy officer with the US embassy in Jakarta, says it's hard to pick a dish to represent Indonesia because there are hundreds of cuisines from the country's six-thousand inhabited islands. ï¿½I mean if you go to Aceh or Sumatra or Bali or different parts of Java or Nusa Tenggara or Manado, I mean Indonesia's a big diverse country with lots of different cultures and there is no one food so it reflects the character of the country in its diversity.ï¿½
So will Obama offend residents of, say, Sulawesi Island, if he chooses a dish from Sumatra instead? Everyone interviewed for this story said no. Even Tri, the chairman of the bakso association, remains steadfastly upbeat when asked how he will react if Obama doesn't eat meatball soup.
ï¿½The most important thing is that I maintain an outlook like Barack Obama: Yes we can. Yes we can,ï¿½ he said.