Book Review: The Birdwoman’s Palate by LAKSMI PAMUNTJAK

  • Published: 01/02/2018
  • 364 pages
  • Format: Kindle
  • Rating: Star_rating_3_of_5

In this exhilarating culinary novel, a woman’s road trip through Indonesia becomes a discovery of friendship, self, and other rare delicacies.

Aruna is an epidemiologist dedicated to food and avian politics. One is heaven, the other earth. The two passions blend in unexpected ways when Aruna is asked to research a handful of isolated bird flu cases reported across Indonesia. While it’s put a crimp in her aunt’s West Java farm, and made her own confit de canard highly questionable, the investigation does provide an irresistible opportunity.

It’s the perfect excuse to get away from corrupt and corrosive Jakarta and explore the spices of the far-flung regions of the islands with her three friends: a celebrity chef, a globe-trotting “foodist,” and her coworker Farish.

From Medan to Surabaya, Palembang to Pontianak, Aruna and her friends have their fill of local cuisine. With every delicious dish, she discovers there’s so much more to food, politics, and friendship. Now, this liberating new perspective on her country—and on her life—will push her to pursue the things she’s only dreamed of doing. 

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I’ve picked this book as one of my Kindle First in January, partially because I’m doing Reading Challenge at The Fiction Cafe Book club and the first one was to read a book with a food item on the cover. I’ve had few book contestants for this challenge but as soon as I saw this cover, I knew I had to buy it. It just so colourful and pretty, yes I do judge book by it’s cover. However now I will judge it also by its content.

The Birdwoman’s Palate is novel about two main topics – food and avian flu. Two very unlikely topics and following a story of two colleagues Aruna and Farish traveling across Indonesia to research suspected cases of avian flu being transferred to humans. Joining them on this journey, but for different reason are Aruna’s friends Bono and Nadezda, all joined by friendship and their love for food.

Food obsessed friends have lists of different dishes and places they have heard or read of and trying to taste all amazing foods of Indonesia in different parts. Meanwhile Aruna and Farish are visiting hospitals and talking with patients to bring a report back to Jakarta.

However surreal these two subjects sound, there is underlying story of corruption, jealousy and even love. Story and characters evolve in nice manner and you learn more about Indonesia, lives people lead in different parts, Sharia law enforced in some parts as well as mix of religion and customs in the others.

Each chapter starts with Aruna’s dream. All different, some extremely random (just what dreams are) but some really interesting with deep message. I also enjoyed some references and connections between people and food, especially Aruna and Nadezda being compared to Popcorn and Champagne, it was so fitting and brilliant and added to explaining characters better in its special way.

I usually enjoy books about traveling, love books with food and different dishes but I really struggled to connect with this book. Food references were too deep and as I’ve never traveled to Asia, I found all names of the dishes blending into one. It was really really full of food, which made me hungry at times, but mostly just pages and pages of dishes, which sounded good, but contained so many ingredients and so much information, it became tiring.

Subject of avian flu sounded also very interesting but it became a bit boring later and I focused more on characters and their relationship, rather than anything more.

All in all it was ok read, I’ve enjoyed some parts and struggled with others, however for a food lover, especially well traveled, it could have a different feel and be more enjoyable so if you are one of them, I can recommend it. There were definitely parts that any of us can learn from but for me it wasn’t enough to truly enjoy it.


LAKSMI PAMUNTJAK

117057Laksmi Pamuntjak is a bilingual Indonesian novelist, poet, food writer, journalist and co-founder of Aksara Bookstore. She works as an art and food consultant and writes for numerous local and international publications including opinion articles for the Guardian. 

She is the author of two collections of poetry (one of which, Ellipsis, appeared in the 2005 Herald UK Books of the Year pages); a treatise on the relationship between man and violence based on the Iliad; a collection of short stories based on paintings; five editions of the best-selling and award-winning Jakarta Good Food Guide; two translations of the works of Indonesian poet and essayist Goenawan Mohamad; and two best-selling novels. 

You can follow Laksmi’s journey on her website and Facebook.

The Birdwoman’s Palate can be purchased here.

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