As I mentioned in my cookbooks, I grew up with people whose happiness was centered around food. I learned at a very young age that food connects people. When I cook and savor certain comfort foods, it sometimes triggers memories of dear family members, some of whom are no longer with us. I instantly recall a specific time and place when certain dishes were cooked or shared and when they involved those family members. The food I grew up with is closely associated with love and joy.
Just the other day, while I was cooking, I found myself thinking about some of my favorite people, which inspired me to write this article. One person I often think of is my dear Tante Nessy. ‘Tante’ is Dutch for ‘aunt.’ She was my father’s oldest sister, born with the name Agnes Yolante Marie Keasberry. Her second husband was Oom Koen, full name Raden Fajakoen Saleh. The word ‘Oom’ is Dutch for Uncle and “Raden” is an Indonesian noble title. Tante Nessy met Oom Koen at Camp Barongan, a Bersiap concentration camp in Djokja, during the period 1945/1946. Oom Koen served as a Captain and Camp Manager in the Indonesian army and was part of the non-violent faction of the Republic of Indonesia. His primary role was to protect the men, women, and children from Indonesian extremists during the tumultuous Bersiap period, characterized by violence, chaos, and anarchy. For more info on Bersiap, click here.
My Tante Nessy wrote a letter to her mother, during that same period, in which she also mentioned her newfound love. However, that letter never reached its destination. Miraculously, the letter was preserved in a postal archive and later handed over to the Dutch government. Recently, during research conducted by ‘het Indisch Herinneringscentrum,’ click here, the letter was retrieved and is now featured as part of an exhibit at the Sophiahof Museum in The Hague. This exhibit, titled ‘Ons Land, Dekolonisatie, Generaties, Verhalen,’ opened in 2022. You can read more about it here. And here.
When Oma and her children moved to the Netherlands, Tante Nessy remained in Indonesia as Oom Koen had asked her hand in marriage. She was Catholic and he was Muslim. Tante Nessy served as the president of an ice cream factory and worked as a radio newscaster for ‘Radio Nederland Wereldomroep’ in Indonesia, for the Dutch people who still lived in Indonesia. In 1963, my Oma had to undergo eye surgery related to cataracts. All family members were called in to see her before the operation, just in case Oma would lose her sight. After the operation, Oma asked her daughter to stay and help her mother in the restaurant. And Oom Koen agreed to please his wife. So, they relocated from Indonesia to Amsterdam with their two children, Annette and Tjandra. Tante Nessy and Oom Koen, along with their two kids, also lived in the same building as my Oma’s restaurant, just one flight of stairs up from where I lived, on the second floor. My family was close, and I considered my Aunt and Uncle my ‘second parents’ because of the strong bond between our families. In fact, they were present in the delivery room when they supported my mother during my birth. They were always present during the first years of my life, providing guidance.
I remember Tante Nessy was an amazing cook. I sometimes make her Soep Jawa (soup with vegetables and some protein, served over rice), simple, yet delicious. She spent hours in her home kitchen, baking the labor-intensive spekkoek (thousand-layer spice cake). I loved her bak pao (fluffy steamed pork buns). Since I was around 5 years old, during the weekends she would call me from her floor to come up and she would make me Brinta pap with a scoop of brown sugar (Dutch instant wheat porridge) for breakfast. And at Easter time I got to hunt for chocolate eggs hidden throughout her living room, an annual tradition.
Both Tante Nessy and Oom Koen worked in the restaurant for many years. While working with a family in a restaurant business owned and managed by a grandmother seems ideal from the outside, in reality, it was often very challenging. Oma reigned with an iron fist and expected all her children to help her out. Even if they had a day job and had their own families. “This was nothing but fair, as I helped them come to the Netherlands to start a new future”, she once said. Unfortunately, family members were not always aligned in their goals and there were many conflicts that caused much stress and frustration. I recall my aunt and uncle both starting their working day with a glass of coffee with a clove of garlic on the side. This was good for the blood pressure and the immune system, they said.
When Oma decided to reveal her secret Indonesian recipes and publish them in a book, she asked Tante Nessy to help out in the starting phase by documenting some of her mother’s recipes. Unfortunately, Tante Nessy fell ill and had to stop. The publisher was at his wit’s end and asked my mother to take over. It proved to be a lot of work—editing, correcting, and converting the notes from ‘a little of this and a little of that.’ Eventually, the book was published in 1976
Sadly, Tante Nessy and Oom Koen passed away much too early, both due to a heart condition. Tante Nessy and Oom Koen were warm-hearted, generous, inspiring, and spiritual people. I am grateful they were in my life. They had many friends who loved them dearly. They are greatly missed. But they live on in our hearts!