Indomie is Indonesia’s largest instant noodle producer and one of the largest in the world. The company has had massive commercial success in both international and domestic markets. As a brand Indomie is caught in two distinct flows: the global and the national. The company is reliant on global supply and distribution networks, without which it would be unable to produce its instant noodles. Simultaneously, Indomie occupies a cultural position as part of an Indonesian soft “gastronationalism.” Drawing on Webb Keane’s work on affordances, I explore how the national and international flows afford specific uses to Indomie with special reference to the brand’s public presentation. Using this method of analysis, I show how Indomie draws from an idea of “Indonesianness” and how other actors have read Indomie as an unconventional symbol of Indonesian nationhood.
Between 2016 and 2020, Indonesians ate upward of twelve billion servings of instant noodles annually. According to the World Instant Noodle Association, this makes Indonesians the second largest consumers of instant noodles globally, behind only China (WINA 2021). Most popular among the various brands of instant noodles filling the shelves of Indonesian supermarkets is Indomie (Kingwell et al. 2019: 20). As well as lining aisles in stores in Indonesia, it is easy to find warung (small food stalls or stores) selling Indomie in stalls decorated in the company’s bright colors. In Indonesia, such stalls are called Warung Indomie, or Warmindo, for short. From these Warmindo, customers can order instant noodles topped with vegetables, eggs, or even corned beef (Rahayu 2017).
Indomie has wound its way into the daily lives of tens of millions of Indonesians. In January 2021, when news broke that Nunuk Nuraini, the creator of Indomie’s most popular instant noodle flavor (mie goreng), had passed away, an outpouring of tributes from Indonesians appeared on Twitter (BBC 2021). Many of the tweets thanked Nuraini for her work and expressed their pride in Indomie being an Indonesian product. Some of those on Twitter connected Indomie and Nuraiani to a national food culture. Another Twitter account Agama Indomie (The Religion of Indomie) has gained over 64,000 followers. In an interview with the Jakarta Post, the founders of the page refer to Indomie as “a faith” and a savior in those moments when you are unsure what to eat (Mikhail 2021).
Likewise, as a brand Indomie has worked hard to associate itself with the national imagery of Indonesia. Everything from its name, its advertisements, to the different flavors the brand offers are caught up in presenting and marketing a sense of “Indonesianness.” Outside of Indonesia, Indomie has found its way into kitchens in West and North Africa to Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand. The company has become a regular feature in the kitchen for many cash-strapped students in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand who need to feed themselves on a low budget. This role as a cheap and popular hunger killer has led to Indomie’s association with a student lifestyle in the two countries. Indomie is not simply an Indonesian brand that has been exported globally, however. It is also deeply reliant upon the global flow of commodities and technologies into Indonesia, especially wheat from Australia. This has resulted in an antagonism between the material and the symbolic aspects of the product.
Like many other instant noodle brands and foods more generally, such as Maggi (Baviskar 2018), Indomie is part of a wider negotiation and dialectic between the global and the local. These two poles, which anthropologists have long conceptualized (Appadurai and Breckenridge 1995; Trouillot 2003; Kearney 2004), interact with one another and become co-constitutive rather than absolutes. As much as food is a powerful expression of locality and culture (Tierney and Ohnuki-Tierney 2012: 1), equally relevant, is the global flow of goods and technologies that enable the mass production of a commodity such as Indomie.
Indomie, of course, is one of many food commodities that have global supply and distribution networks but are symbolically and practically repurposed for different ends depending on who is consuming them and where. Or, in the language of Webb Keane, Indomie affords different symbolic importance to different groups of consumers (Keane 2014a, 2014b, 2016, 2018). By drawing on symbols of Indonesian nationalism, Indomie is able to cultivate a type of soft gastronationalism (DeSoucey 2010). This has involved Indomie working with and repurposing fixed notions of culture and taste in Indonesia. Over time, this has allowed Indomie to become an unconventional symbol of “Indonesianness” through its everyday use and consumption by Indonesians and also to find affordances in a preexisting understanding of Indonesian nationhood itself. A key problematic emerges here: how is it that a commodity that is demonstrably a product of global and regional forces is able to mobilize nationalist imagery so effectively?
Indomie as an International Commodity
Indomie’s parent company is Indofood Sukses Makmur Tbk, commonly known as Indofood. The company launched in Indonesia in 1971, thirteen years after the invention of instant noodles in Japan in 1958. Indofood in turn is part of the Salim Group conglomerate founded by Sudono Salim (also known as Liem Sioe Liong), formerly the richest man in Indonesia. Liong has since passed control of his business affairs to his son, Anthoni Salim. In 1984, the Indomie brand became attached to the Salim Group, which is also the owner of other prominent instant noodle businesses, such as Supermi and Sarimi. (For a more complete account of how Salim acquired Indomie and the surrounding controversy this caused, see the work of Borsuk and Chng (2014: 293–296)). The connections between the Salim Group and the Indonesian state during the authoritarian New Order period (1996–1998), which have been dealt with in detail elsewhere (Dieleman 2007; Dieleman and Sachs 2008; Borsuk and Chng 2014), can be broadly summarized as a reciprocal relationship between the state and the private business interests of Liong and other high-profile businesspeople. It remains important to point out that part of the prominence of Indomie as an everyday commodity in Indonesia is partly due to its acquisition by the Salim Group, tying it to a business conglomerate with close ties to the Indonesian state during the rule of former authoritarian president Suharto. The Salim conglomerate also controls Bogasari, a flour-milling company that for substantial periods of the New Order period had an effective monopoly on the milling required to produce instant noodles within Indonesia. Despite the transition away from authoritarianism in 1998, Bogasari maintains the highest milling capacity of any of the wheat milling companies in Indonesia (Kingswell et al. 2019: 20).
While the connection to the Indonesian state has been an important element for the Salim conglomerate, Indomie’s supply chains still rely heavily on imports tying it to a global flow of goods. Key among the imported goods that comprise the packets of instant noodles is wheat. Wheat flour comprises 62 percent of a single packet of Indomie’s mie goreng flavor (fried noodles). By tracing the supply chain of wheat, it is possible to show that the materiality and the transnational flow of goods make the production of Indomie products possible.
Since 2001, the Indonesian government has tried to develop domestic wheat agribusinesses; these have had limited success, however, and Indonesia is still overwhelmingly reliant on wheat imports to make up the demand for instant noodles and other wheat-based goods (Baga and Puspita 2013). Australia’s wheat growers have hugely benefited from the success of instant noodles within Indonesia, largely due to their geographic proximity to the archipelago. Instant noodles have become such an important market for the agricultural sector of Australia that the Australian Export Grains Innovation Centre (AEGIC)—an initiative of the Western Australian State government and the Grains Research and Development Corporation—has published reports detailing the strategic importance of instant noodles to Australia’s economy (Kingwell et al. 2019: 21). AEGIC claims that 99.4 percent of urban Indonesians consumed at least three packets of Indomie instant noodles a month (21). It also claims that Indomie is not only the most recognizable instant noodle brand in Indonesia but also the most recognizable Indonesian brand (20). Indomie remains Indonesia’s most chosen brand by consumers in 2020 (Kantar World Panel 2021: 6). While Indomie is not Indonesia’s only instant noodle brand, it is by far the most popular, with competitor Mi Sedaap a distant second in terms of market share (6). The demand for these wheat-based products is so great that it contributed to Indonesia being the second largest importer of wheat in both 2014–2015 and 2015–2016, behind only Egypt (Enghiad et al. 2017: 6).
Alongside the ease of preparation, urbanization, rising incomes, and lifestyle shifts have all contributed to the increased consumption in noodles (Sri Dewi 2016; Oddo et al. 2019). The rise of wheat-based staples parallels the decline of rice consumption across Asia, raising questions about the nature of national foods (Chi 2014). The AEGIC has noted in its reports how declining rice consumption (albeit a slow decline) in Indonesia is linked both to urbanization and also to strong business opportunities for Australian wheat growers (Kingwell et al. 2019: 4).
Indonesia has strong nationalist food security laws that are tied to a wider economic nationalism (Neilson and Wright, 2017: 134). As the rate of wheat imports increased to facilitate Indonesia’s changing dietary patterns, the incomes and market shares of domestic wheat growers decreased. Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyon's (henceforth referred to as SBY) association with Indomie’s logo was thus taken as a sign of not supporting domestic wheat growers. The flow of wheat from Australia to Indonesia speaks to the antagonism of a company with global supply chains that nonetheless promotes a sense of national identity. The importing of wheat as opposed to using only wheat grown in Indonesia temporarily became a national issue during SBY’s 2009 presidential campaign. Some accused SBY of not properly supporting the country’s few wheat farmers due to his association with a brand so heavily involved in agricultural imports (Detik News 2009).
While Indonesia continues to import vast amounts of wheat—true of much, if not all, of Southeast Asia—rice remains the most popular staple, as nearly every Indonesian consumes rice (Arifin et al. 2018). As incomes have risen, reliance on rice has tended to decrease, although in Indonesia this has not happened as quickly as in other Asian economies. Between 1996 and 2011, rice consumption in Indonesia declined by 4.4 percent annually (Saliem et al. 2019: 95). Compared to Thailand, China, and India, Indonesia is yet to see a large diversification in diet measured by percentage of calories from sources other than staples (Kingwell et al. 2019: 33). While rice remains the dominant staple in Indonesia, wheat-based instant noodles are consumed at very high rates and are becoming an important part of the nation’s diet.
Domestically at least, Indomie presents itself as Indonesian—from its name to its flavor choices—and has become a core part of many Indonesian’s diets. However, it is also a product of both regional and global discourses, technologies, and histories. Part of what distinguishes Indomie as a commodity with both local connections and material elements that flow globally is the product’s indigeneity to Indonesia. Complementing this is the company adapting existing Indonesian dishes and flavors for their products. This marks Indomie as different from SPAM’s consumption in the Philippines, for example. In that instance, Filipinos have worked a global commodity into a local food culture, a clear example of glocalization (Matejowsky 2007). In one sense, SPAM’s use in the Philippines is highly comparable to Indomie in that it is a globally circulating food commodity that can take on different social and symbolic meanings depending on where and by whom it is consumed. As Matejowsky (2007: 26–27) shows, the comedic rendering of SPAM through American and British popular culture does not extend to other parts of the world but produces new sets of meaning. As a commodity, Indomie differs in one key sense from SPAM and other foods studied by anthropologists as examples of glocalization. While Indomie circulates globally and takes on new local meanings in Indonesia, it is not a product of another nation being repurposed to fit local needs or taste requirements. Instead, while it draws on globally flowing technologies and ingredients, the marketing of the product stresses it as distinctly Indonesian and mimics existing dishes common to Indonesians. Indomie cleverly uses existing notions of “Indonesianness” or overt references to the Indonesian nation in order to construct itself as part of the national identity rather than being an example of an international product repurposed by local consumers.
As discussed above, the base ingredient of Indomie’s noodles is wheat, a product imported primarily from overseas. Likewise, the technological innovation of instant noodles is a 1958 Japanese invention that has since found huge popularity across the globe (Zhang and Ma 2016: 212). The Indonesian name for noodles is also a regional product. Large parts of Asia share a similar term for wheat noodles. The Chinese term for wheat noodles is “miàn”—often written as “mien” or “mein,” with differences across regional dialects—whereas Malaysia and Singapore, like Indonesia, typically use the Hokkien “mee/mi” or “min nan” to describe noodles (Shelke 2016).
What Indomie Affords
Indomie is a part of everyday life for many Indonesians, particularly urban Indonesians. Products celebrating the noodles have found willing markets. The popularity of the noodles among young people has led to the incorporation of the brand’s logo onto types of clothing, such as hoodies and shirts. Nike has even collaborated on a limited range of Air Force One sneakers with the Indomie logo (Fachriansyah 2019). Despite its transnational business practices, Indomie has also become tied up with a national culture and its symbols. Indomie, then, offers multiple symbolic meanings to different consumers. This linking of consumption to demonstrate political or national belonging, what Castelló and Mihelj (2018: 565) have termed consumer nationalism, has been studied in depth by anthropologists. The tracing of how these symbolic affordances are drawn by different actors in different places is part of a wider anthropological endeavor to understand the plasticity of meaning that exists within commodities.
Previously, theorists of the sociality of commodities have made similar arguments regarding how commodities can take on alternative social meanings depending on their locations and consumers. Appadurai, in his essay “The Social Life of Things,” argues that it is by focusing not only on the function of exchange but also the thing being exchanged that we are able to tease out the link between exchange and value (Appadurai 1986: 3). Appadurai is also helpful in noting the importance of how commodities are ascribed different types of value as they move through different trajectories (5). Mintz’s Sweetness and Power (1985), which demonstrates how social meanings attached to a commodity can change across time and space, is perhaps the best analysis of the duality of the material and the social in a single food commodity. He uses sugar to show how a plantation crop tied to lavish aristocratic consumption shifts to a staple of the industrial proletariat. Similarly, Tsing’s (2015) work on matsutake mushrooms demonstrates that the matsutake mushroom can provide alternative social meanings depending on where and who is involved in the supply chain. A Southeast Asian migrant picker of the matsutake in Oregon, for instance, may have a very different relationship with the very same mushroom than an executive in Japan. Each of these examples describes the malleability of a commodity’s social meaning. Mintz’s tracking of sugar and Tsing’s tracking of the matsutake mushroom both point to how sociality infers meaning upon the material, be that across time in Mintz’s analysis or across geography and culture in Tsing’s case. The malleability of social meaning is of course also present in instant noodles.
In “The Noodle Narratives,” Errington et al. have discussed how instant noodles have become a part of the “life cycle” of middle-class Americans who associate the products with their time living on small budgets during college (Errington et al. 2012: 77). Using data from an NPR call-in show, they argue that for many Americans in the middle classes instant noodle consumption is something that accompanies students through the initial phases of leaving home and living in dormitories. The association of instant noodles with a college lifestyle creates a sense of shared nostalgia among those who participated in the call-in or identified with the callers. As they gain more secure and steady incomes, these same groups tend to decrease how often they consume instant noodles. We can compare this to another example from the same book where those in American prisons who consume instant noodles as a way of supplementing the food served at meals come to attach a sense of “transitory freedom” to them (85). For prisoners this often involves finding creative ways of reworking instant noodles into new recipes. The same basic foodstuff here becomes attached to markedly different social meanings and uses. In the language of Webb Keane (2014a), instant noodles afford multiple symbolic and social uses to different actors.
The concept of affordances, which has its origins in the work of psychologist James J. Gibson (1966, 1979), is especially useful in explaining the markedly different social meanings to be found in instant noodles. Gibson was interested in the interaction between perception and the possibility of varying actions, or, how the same object might give different uses depending on who was perceiving the object. The concept’s most famous application to anthropology is in the works of Webb Keane (2014a, 2018). Keane applied the idea of affordances beyond material objects and explored how it is possible to draw symbolic and ethical affordances from objects. In his discussion of Gibson’s account of affordances Keane uses the example of a chair (2014a: 6–7). A chair is designed to be sat on. However, it can be equally useful as a step ladder or footrest. The chair affords multiple uses to an actor depending on what they need (a place to sit or something to stand on). The object, then, can afford multiple action possibilities to different actors depending on their intentions. In Keane’s explanation of affordances, he stresses the multitudes of potentials possessed not only by objects but also by “anything that people can experience” (Keane 2014a: 7). Keane stresses the “mere potentiality” an object offers and argues that affordances are properties of an object vis-à-vis human activity.
One example he explores concerns the values and symbolic functions that can be drawn from a believer’s association with religious relics that a nonbeliever is simply unable to see (Keane 2014b). Keane uses the example of a Bolshevik commissar and an Orthodox bishop’s disagreement on relics from a historical exchange in Robert Greene’s (2010) work on Orthodox Russia. In the exchange, the atheist commissar is dismissive of the very notion of relics and their use, whereas believers are able to extract spiritual meaning from these relics. The social situatedness of the actors and the relics allows for different affordances to be drawn from them. As Keane writes,
The material properties of the icons and all that surrounds them, including the places in which they are to be found and the actions people perform toward and with them, serve as affordances for further actions and reflections on them. They are invitations and provocations (Keane 2014b: 317).
Steven Black (2017), for example, has analyzed how ethical-communicative affordances can be drawn from the use of audio-video recorders based on evidence from his fieldwork with a Zulu gospel choir comprised of HIV-positive members in South Africa. For Black, the recording devices acted not only as a tool for data collection but also as a communicative resource and a way to position himself as a researcher with his participants. Keane’s work considers affordances to be more than simply action possibilities, and instead draws attention to the social and symbolic affordances that can be drawn from objects.
My use of affordance is not necessarily in the ethical sense found in Keane’s work. I am not suggesting that consuming Indomie is performed out of a sense of moral duty to aid the national project of Indonesia—although food preferences can and often do get caught up in the realization of ethical projects. Food prohibitions are, of course, commonplace in multiple cultures. Likewise, food preferences can contribute to purposefully distinguishing one group from another. Cesaro (2000), for example, has shown from his fieldwork how his Uyghur informants would use food preferences as a way of differentiating themselves from the majority Han Chinese, whom they regularly did not trust to prepare their food for them in ways that are consistent with Islamic norms. In this sense, food can afford actors a way of distinguishing themselves and their group from others.
Instead of making claims about how ethical affordances function, in the case of Indomie it is a question of exploring how instant noodles afford different symbolic and social meanings to different actors. This in turn allows for very global and very national or local elements to adhere concurrently within a single commodity. Instant noodles more broadly make similar affordances. Errington et al. (2012, 2013) have shown that instant noodles routinely act as an anti-friction device in places such as Papua New Guinea where they smooth the friction of globalization and allow for those at “the bottom of pyramid” to become aspiring consumers. In addition to the different possibilities that instant noodles afford in their material dimension or taste dimensions, Indomie draws affordances from symbols and discourses associated with Indonesia. Consequently, Indomie’s association with a sense of “Indonesianness” also affords new action possibilities to other actors who seek to draw from the brand’s symbolic situatedness in the world.
This lens thoroughly explains the creative reinventions of symbols from very humble material origins, but only partially explains the passion, market share, and commercial ubiquity of this brand within Indonesia. It also helps explain how the brand has become synonymous with the dietary habits of many students in Aotearoa/New Zealand and Australia who see the product as something of a staple of university life, although in this instance the squeeze of economic realities outweighs any cultural affordances that have arisen. The Indomie website (Indomie) acknowledges this, detailing how the product was first brought to Australia by international students in the 1990s who helped popularize the noodles. This movement of goods to and from Indonesia has set up an interesting flow of material and cultural goods that is thoroughly international.
Indomie’s Soft Gastronationalism
For Indomie, the concept of the nation affords them the opportunity to associate their product with a broader commitment and sense of belonging to the nation of Indonesia. Indomie aims to insert its product into an array of symbols associated with the idea of Indonesia. At the same time, Indomie, in its international reach, has worked hard to associate itself with a range of ethical practices, preaching corporate social responsibility through its claim to use environmentally sustainable palm oil, certifying its products as halal, and marketing itself at community and charity events.
The connection of food items with notions of identity and belonging has long been an important part of anthropological engagements with food. Baviskar (2018) has argued that India's poor and “low”-caste populations often consume Maggi noodles to associate themselves with fetishized commodities and, by extension, the modern, affluent world. Baviskar argues that Maggi’s popularity becomes a form of “consumer citizenship” caught in a range of social relations specific to India. Similarly, Caldwell (2002: 297–298) shows how food consumption came to be caught in the shifting of consumer cultures in Moscow before and after the collapse of the USSR. Caldwell argues that by choosing foods that are distinctively Russian during the post-transition period, Muscovites were aiming to participate in a sense of unified Russian cohesiveness. Indomie and its association with Indonesia is, then, far from unique and is part of an international trend of forming an everyday sense of nationhood through consumption (Fox and Miller-Idriss 2008; Ichijo 2020).
Likewise, Schwarz (2018) drawing on her fieldwork in Galiwin’ku in the Northern Territories, has developed the idea of gastro-moralities where food is central to expressions of care. Drawing on Sidney Mintz’s famous works on sugar (Mintz 1985, 1997) Schwarz argues that foods have the ability to mediate relations between the self and others and in her terms impose a “‘trans-material morality’ in that it exists as a material expression of a morality that is emotively and ontologically experienced” (Schwarz 2018: 20). This trans-material morality performs a function similar to the affordances described above and to Keane’s (2016) work on ethics, as he repeatedly stresses the importance of interaction for understanding morality.
How relationships among food, nation, and morality come to be produced and reproduced is explored in DeSoucey’s (2010: 433) work on gastronationalism. DeSoucey writes that certain foods considered immoral to consume—foie gras is the example she gives—can become acceptable when food cultures are linked to a larger national project. DeSoucey develops a concept of gastronationalism to “delineat[e] how foods constitute cultural and material resources that affect and respond to political agendas” (433). Gastronationalism, then, articulates the dialectic created when the homogenizing effects of globalization encounter new forms of identity politics.
The way in which nationalism works with regards to Indomie is certainly different from foie gras. It is more difficult to confer a sense of tradition and notions of passion onto food that is specifically designed for quick consumption and to minimize labor in preparation. Indomie Saudi Arabia has released videos on its YouTube channel that detail the production process. The video shows how within one of their factories huge quantities of wheat dough move through various stages before being packaged along with air sealed packets of sambal and dried onions (Indomie KSA 2012). Both the production and distribution process leave little to be romanticized. Thus, the challenge faced by Indomie is not that globalization threatens to corrupt its authenticity by the introduction of outside ingredients or processes. Instead, Indomie is thoroughly international in its ingredients, supply chains, and distribution networks.
In this sense, Indomie provides an alternative model of gastronationalism than that of the Slow Food movement. Gado-gado (a type of salad served with a peanut sauce) may be a better candidate for a uniquely Indonesian dish that can lay claim to be representative of Indonesia. It is perhaps more in line with the gastronationalism that is often in play in the slow food movement and what DeSoucey probably had in mind when constructing her argument. It is worth considering why something that appears to be far more banal and less refined, such as Indomie, has become attached to the symbolic flow of images and symbols associated with the Indonesian nation.
Another divergence from the way DeSoucey theorizes gastronationalism through the foie gras example is her claim that gastronationalism is exclusionary in its restrictions on others who make food claims on a product either materially or symbolically (DeSoucey 2010: 442). Within the European Union, DeSoucey’s area of concern, there is a complex set of legal rulings and systems that designate a particular food as authentic only when produced in a particular locality or way. Indomie, which usually aims to copy existing dishes (mie goreng, mie aceh, soto padang, etc.), is neither engaging in a process of trying to patent specific dishes, nor making claims about the culturally correct methods of producing instant noodles. Furthermore, some of these examples—mie goreng being perhaps the most obvious—are not solely Indonesian. Mie goreng is common in both neighboring Malaysia and Brunei (though this does not stop Indomie from putting a nationalist stamp on the dish).
One possible way to understand how Indomie engages in a form of gastronationalism despite not having the features discussed above is by increasing the variety of ways we codify gastronationalism. If we think of gastronationalism on a sliding scale, we can see Indomie as an example of a soft gastronationalism without the rigorous legal protections on its production and with a more quotidian, less traditional association of its product with a national food culture. This can be thought of in opposition to the harder gastronationalism that DeSoucey describes in her example of foie gras. This harder gastronationalism features more rigorous protection by state or regional institutions.
The Nation and the Noodle
The public presentation of Indomie, especially its advertisements, shows how the company has long been engaged in an attempt to associate itself with an idea of Indonesia that bears a strong resemblance to the state’s presentation of Indonesia. This is especially the case when these data are understood as symbols within a larger discourse about the interaction of culture and nationalism in contemporary Indonesia. These public presentations also highlight how others have been afforded uses by their own association with or mimicking of Indomie’s advertising.
SBY’s understanding of the appeal and ubiquity of Indomie was a likely motive when his campaign copied one of the company’s jingles for a televised presidential advert in 2009. The advertisement explicitly linked SBY to obvious types of nationalism with the lyrics modified over an existing Indomie advertising jingle. The lyrics were
“Dari Sabang sampai Merauke, Dari Miangas sampai Pulau Rote, Pilihan partai boleh berbeda, Presiden tetap SBY…SBY dari dan bagi Indonesia.”
“(From Sabang to Merauke, From Miangas to Pulau Rote, Choices of party can be different, SBY is my president…SBY for and from Indonesia).” (This translation is taken directly from Prasetyawan 2012: 321–322).
The references to places define the territorial boundaries of Indonesia and are plays on the advertisement’s original wording: “Flavour choices may differ, but we are single-hearted on taste.” That a president should be willing to associate his image with a company’s advertisement speaks to the bidirectional usage of imagery between Indomie and the Indonesian nation. This instance also acts as another example of Indomie providing an affordance to another actor, in this case one who is symbolic of the nation as such. The advertisement also features different people from across Indonesia in traditional dress as shots of singers cut to scenic landscapes with people holding aloft a giant Indonesian flag. The use of territory, culture, and the flag are all used as noncontroversial elements of Indonesian life that were utilized to connect SBY to the nation.
That Indomie was used as an ingredient alongside such staples of the nation as dress, territory, and the flag speaks to both its banality as an everyday part of Indonesian life and also its significance as symbol of nationhood. It is likely the banality and ease with which Indomie sits beside these markers of the nation that encouraged SBY’s use of Indomie in his political marketing. Part of the reason SBY could utilize an association with Indomie in this way for his own political marketing was because of the types of affordances Indomie have themselves drawn from the symbols of Indonesian nationhood.
Ilmasari and Patria (2016: 108) in their close reading of Indomie adverts have written on the regularity of Indomie incorporating images and ideas of the nation into its own marketing. One advertisement that uses the song “waktunya Indomie” (Indomie time) cuts between various shots of daily life in Indonesia. The advertisement deftly appeals to different groups within Indonesia. Shots of corporate office workers sharing Indomie and university students eating while studying are interspersed between images of mosques and a warung (food stall) owner standing in front of her cart covered in Indomie posters. The advert cuts between rural and urban settings quickly; children in villages are seen chasing a delivery man carrying boxes of Indomie, while rice paddy workers are shown taking a break eating the noodles. The advert culminates in a long line of people lifting the noodles in the air with high-rise buildings in the background. The camera then zooms out from a position in Java and continues until the entire archipelago is on display.
Another Indomie advert, first shown in 1997, features even more explicit nationalist imagery and lyrics. The advert’s lyrics include the national territorial markers of Sabang and Merauke alongside phrases such as “Indonesia is my homeland, Indomie is my taste” (Indonesia tanah airku Indomie seleraku). The penultimate line of the advert is “Indomie from and for Indonesia” (Indomie dari dan bagi Indonesia). The advert itself shows a father and son looking at a book before fading to shots of the Indonesian landscape and agricultural workers collecting fruits. The advert ends by cutting back to the father and son as the mother brings them a bowl of Indomie and, as the book closes, we see the page is turned to a map of Indonesia. The closing shots show the noodles and the family hugging and kissing as the Indofood logo appears beneath them.
Other adverts, such as the one that uses a song titled “Satu Selera” (one taste), feature references in the lyrics to adat (customary law for different ethnic groups within Indonesia) and to diverse languages whilst emphasizing their belonging to a shared nation. The advert ends with Indonesians of various ethnic backgrounds lifting bowls of noodles to the sky with a backdrop of the Jakarta cityscape. Again, the advert draws on two key ideas of the Indonesian nation pembangunan (development): the city skyline rising behind the consumers, and tradition illustrated with reference to adat in the song’s lyrics, the traditional dances performed, and the vernacular architecture on show throughout the advert. In every case the adverts work to present Indomie as another one of the symbols of Indonesian nationhood.
Indomie stresses ethnic and cultural diversity in both its domestic and international marketing. A visit to Indomie’s Indonesian version of its website shows a company working overtime to associate itself with the idea of Indonesia and its national project, in its more inward and self-celebrating form. The border of the company’s website is adorned with small representatives of the various cultures of Indonesia in their traditional dress. Papuans, Balinese, and women wearing hijabs are all presented next to one another enjoying Indomie. To accompany these cartoons, under the title “Kuliner Indonesia,” a range of products is shown aimed at capturing the local culinary traditions of different parts of Indonesia. An example is the Indomie mie goreng Aceh in a packet with a green background showing fried noodles prepared in the traditional Acehnese way with red onion and cucumber on top. Region-specific variations of Indomie are helpful in its attempt to thread the individual regions of the nation into a broader collective; as Ferguson (2010) has argued, culinary nationalism often functions through recipes and ingredients, symbolizing a sense of connection to place. In a multi-ethnic state such as Indonesia, the relationship between parts and whole with regard to region, ethnicity, religion, and culture is always being balanced and rebalanced. Indonesia has a long history of representing its diverse communities in ways that make their complex social realities easily legible to both the nation and state.
Indomie’s presentation of ethnic difference with a harmonious arrangement is not dissimilar to the monuments of ethnic cohesion constructed during the Suharto period. Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (the beautiful Indonesia in miniature park) was the key monumental project of the New Order in this act of representation (Aspinall and Berger 2001: 1003–1004). Each of the then twenty-seven provinces of Indonesia was represented with a traditional house containing traditional costumes and artefacts inside. In many ways, the logic of representation on the Indomie website resembles that of the Taman Mini Indonesia Indah. In each case a culture is quickly represented through a set of symbols that also locates them as immediately part of the broader whole that is the Indonesian nation. Pemberton (1994) has argued the park’s miniature models efface both past and future, and he seems to suggest a fixing of cultural forms in their representation; such a fixing he notes was fundamentally at odds with the Javanese conceptions of historical change held by the Surakarta kraton that choose not to participate in the park’s logic.
As anthropologists such as Schlehe (2011) have noted, these acts of quick representation in theme park form engage in a wider symbolic system of representation and become a microcosm for making legible differences within Indonesia. More recently, Costa (2020) has written how the park is engaged in an aestheticization of politics that centers unity and harmony, both core New Order goals that fix cultural difference in an apolitical place. These same logics of representation have been picked up by Indomie and afforded them useful marketing campaigns and product variations.
Following from this, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (unity in diversity), Indonesia’s national motto, may come to mind. The adverts discussed above suggest a unity in the shared consumption of Indomie, even if different preferences for a particular type exist. There is a homology, then, between Indomie’s use of different flavors as part of their “kuliner Indonesia” and Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, showing a symmetry in the representations of the state’s ideology and the company’s marketing and flavor decisions. Indomie itself has made explicit the link between its framing of its products and the Indonesian state. In their advertising for a variety pack of different types of noodles from their kuliner Indonesia range, released in 2020, the company termed the product “Bhinneka Indonesiaku.” The advertising for this often included #BhinnekaSatuSelera, a reference to both the national motto and Indomie’s own earlier marketing.
Ultimately, this allows the idea of “Indonesianness” to afford Indomie as a company the opportunity to wrap their image in that of the Indonesian nation, associating itself with the symbols and language of a united but diverse Indonesia. Indomie is happy to absorb and repurpose the ideas of diversity for its own marketing reasons so long as they remain within a bounded sense of the larger national project. Presumably, the goal is to use national identity as a marketing tool without any deep association or commitment to a politics beyond the symbolic appropriation of national imagery. Consuming citizenship here means consuming diversity and unity simultaneously but in something of an apolitical manner. Indomie, then, has both tried to plug itself into this discourse and also been picked up and used by other actors.
What this purposeful association with the Indonesian nation does, then, is allow for Indomie to draw on a sense of attachment to Indonesian nationhood and its symbols. The sense of national identity furnishes Indomie and its marketing team with an opportunity to manipulate ideas and symbols toward their own corporate end. Meanwhile, this manipulation has been subsequently manipulated by others in their own ways, with SBY’s use being the most obvious. The successful association of the Indomie brand with Indonesia amongst the majority of citizens afforded him the opportunity to bolster his political image with a symbol of everyday life in Indonesia. For anthropologists engaged in the study of food, it is imperative we study not only the attachment of symbolic value to food as a marker of identity but also the commodity status of foods such as Indomie, thus revealing the dialectic of global and local.
Indomie is caught somewhere between the local and the global, immediately recognizable as Indonesian, yet also obviously a part of a global economy and being appropriated and reappropriated in diverse locations. It straddles the demands of ethical consumption for growing Islamic markets hungry for halal-certified goods in West and North Africa whilst also being a cheap hunger killer in undergraduate’s kitchens in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand.
In its symbolic dimensions and public presentations, Indomie has worked to attach itself to an idea of “Indonesianness” and draw affordances from the national project of Indonesia. While deeper ethnographic research is needed to assess the depth of association between Indonesia and Indomie among Indonesians, the response to the passing of the creator of the mie goreng flavor, Nuraini, shows at least some attachment has formed.
Meanwhile, tracing the flows of wheat across space from their origins in Australia and other large wheat-exporting nations shows that the material dimensions of Indomie are far from uniquely Indonesian, which is also true of the gastronomic technologies that brought instant noodles from Japan. In its domestic marketing, Indomie works incredibly hard to weave itself into the imagery and discourses of the Indonesian nation. By looking at the knot of the global and local in Indomie as a food commodity, we can better understand and appreciate how gastronationalism can be understood in terms of Keane’s development of the idea of affordances. Keane’s work, which contributes toward an understanding of Indomie’s relationship with nationalism in Indonesia, is a useful bridge between those accounts of commodities that would only focus on its materiality and economic value and those that would emphasize its social reality independently of the commodity’s material composition. Through this application we see how gastronationalism works through more quotidian food commodities that are still equally connected to the dialectic of local and global.
I am grateful to Clara Siagian, Michael Dunford, and Jesse Grayman, all of whom offered thoughtful feedback on an earlier version of this article.