Episode 315 | Laksmi Pamuntjak Interview

Today my guest is Laksmi Pamuntjak, author of the new book The Birdwoman’s Palate.

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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.

Laksmi Pamuntjak is an award-winning Indonesian novelist, poet, food writer, and journalist. Her debut novel, Amba: The Question of Red, won Germany’s LiBeraturpreis, was shortlisted for the 2012 Khatulistiwa Literary Award, and in 2015 was one of the Top 8 books of the Frankfurt Book Fair, chosen each year by Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which said that it “perfectly captures the dizzying unsteadiness of a traumatized world poised between normalcy and catastrophe.” The author of two collections of poetry, a regular contributor to the Guardian, Pamuntjak has penned five editions of the bestselling Jakarta Good Food Guide and gave the keynote address in August 2017 at the University of Oxford’s EuroSEAS conference, the largest biannual gathering of Southeast Asian Studies specialists in Europe.

“When history and climate change threaten to overpower us, we need books like Laksmi Pamuntjak’s THE BIRDWOMAN’S PALATE to remind us that it is through love, culture, and sharing the good things nature has to offer that we will find solace and the solutions for moving forward. It is a well-told tale that brings us closer, over time and space, in the hour of need.”

—Sjón, author of The Whispering Muse and Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was

“A beautifully written novel: humane, humble, passionate, and ripe with culinary interactions…a fitting tribute from the author of Indonesia’s first independent good food guide.”—William Wongso, Indonesian culinary guru

“For me, [THE BIRDWOMAN’S PALATE] was a bittersweet road trip—I’m going to resist all the culinary metaphors, because they could get hackneyed, but I could pull them out: redolent, peppery, silky come to mind. Running through the novel’s riot of textures, smells, tastes, is the closeness of disease and death, with lust, self-discovery, and love. As I was reading, I thought of Dutch still lifes, with their artfully perfect fruit, flowers, fish, and meat, reminding us of mortality and decay amidst beauty. THE BIRDWOMAN’S PALATE for me is an incitement to take time, from the endless protocols that mask and organize human frailty, to savor the present.”—Margaret Cohen, author of The Novel and the Sea, Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature, and Civilization at Stanford University, Guggenheim Fellow 2017–2018

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