‘Raya’ Tries To Be a Potent Ode To Southeast Asia, but It Falls Short of True Representation
In one early scene of Raya and the Last Dragon, the titular heroine follows Chief Benja, her ba (father), into the kitchen, where the pair leans over a simmer pot of what looks like shrimp curry. Raya thinks the dish doesn’t quite taste right, so her father adds “shrimp paste from Tail, lemongrass from Talon, bamboo shoots from Spine, chilis from Fang, and palm sugar from Heart” — ingredients each region in a fractured, warring nation once known as Kumandra, which also happen to be the foundational ingredients that show up in recipes from countries in Southeast Asia like Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The intimate interaction between father and daughter immediately reminded me of my own dad, who is half-Indonesian, spooning sambal in a steaming bowl of pho, and reminding me to add terasi — shrimp paste — to nasi goreng, Indonesian fried rice. My dad taught me how to connect to my ancestors, and my Indonesian heritage, by teaching me how to cook their food, and in that moving sequence, Chief Benja tries to impart a similar lesson to his daughter.