The art of buying oleh-oleh


Did you ever return from an oversees trip and the very first thing you had to say at work was an apology for not bringing any oleh-oleh (gift), and everybody around you just looks away in disappointment, not even caring to ask about your well being after the trip or how the trip was? If you have ever been through this situation, or if you have never been through this situation because it would not cross your mind to forget oleh-oleh, then you know how serious the oleh-oleh business is.

I used to live in the Netherlands for a couple of years, and whenever we go to Jakarta for the summer holidays we had to at least dedicate one suitcase filled with typical Dutch oleh-oleh for our relatives. The same amount of space plus an extra handbag would be reserved for the Indonesian oleh-oleh that we needed to carry along in our journey back to Holland.

My mother is a traditionalist when it comes to the purchase of oleh-oleh items. Think clog keychains, Verkade chocolate and Edam cheese for the Indonesians in Indonesia and all kinds of fruits and food in embarrassingly large amounts for the Indonesians in Holland. Imagine the mixed smell of Dutch cheese and fufudaun papaya in our suitcases and the back breaking weight of these items, and you understand my determination to do this oleh-oleh thing differently once I have my own family.

Below are some tips and ideas for oleh-oleh hunting that have been screened by yours truly as odorless, lightweight and unique. My mother had a hard time adjusting to my oleh-oleh regime, but I am proud to say that she finally acknowledged the merit of having no overweights or weird smells coming out of her trunks.


What to bring as a gift from home

1. Local films and/ or music.

In my case, it is Indonesian films and music. The beauty of movies and music is the versatility of the content. You can gift a young family with kids traditional Indonesian songs for children or the Indonesian version of popular animations such as Dora or Paddlepop. You can never go wrong with the acclaimed movies (Laskar Pelangi and the likes) or you can go totally overboard with the dangdutish titles. My friends, who aren’t cinephiles, LOVED Suster Keramas or Istri Bo’ongan because of the cover design and titles.

Go to Gramedia or Duta Suara for a well-stocked selection of local movies. They also have a section with Javanese based music for relaxation, meditation and yoga, which happens to be a great success as a gift for my busy Dutch girlfriends.

2. Local fashion and/ or accessories

The toiletry bags at Tulisan are always a hit and run. They are beautiful, lightweight and there is no such thing as having too many toiletry bags. I buy at least about five of them for my cousins in Holland. I also love the fashion bazar at Citos because of the booths with cute t-shirts using Indonesian slogans. There are a lot of those for babies and toddlers, but they also have adult shirts and tops. Another source for patriotic clothing is of course Damn! I love Indonesia or AlunAlun, but they also come at a much higher price.

3. Local chocolate and/ or candies

Say what? Bringing chocolate to Holland as a gift? Isn’t it normally the other way around? That is true, but the cute packaging of Silver Queen and the lack of a cashew nut chocolate variety in Dutch supermarkets turn out to be essential in making my SQ bars unique as oleh-oleh.  Also very popular are the old school candies and cookies at CemalCemil. I love the petite krupuk tins with a clear window that contains sugar cookies or haw flake candies. Their enamel mugs with a lid are super light, very retro, not expensive and a wonderful gift for friends who are into design.

4. For the finishing touch.

I want my oleh-oleh to come in a nice wrapping, but I don’t want to waste time wrapping them up with giftpaper and then see it coming out of my suitcase all crumpled and nasty. Sarinah, Pasaraya and sometimes Gramedia have a nice selection of inexpensive paper bags with a batik motif and I like to buy a stack of them and put all of my oleh-oleh in individualized bags upon arrival. These bags weigh nothing and add a nice personal touch to your oleh-oleh.


What gifts should I bring home

After unloading gifts from the homeland, what should one bring from the visited land back to the homeland? Forget the souvenir shops, the keychains and the Hard Rock t-shirts. Be more creative and scout your holiday destination for some local bargains and memorabilia

1. Look for the local department stores and warehouses.

I could go bananas in the typically Dutch chains such as Xenos and Hema. Xenos’ delfts blue napkins and kitchen towels that weigh less than 100grams and only cost a fraction of what they are normally priced in souvenir stores, high quality incense sticks for just 1 euro, cute travel make up kits from the HEMA, retro sticker books in Dutch, French and English for 50 eurocents, mini stroopwafels, the list goes on and on. Find your own local department store and immerse yourself in the local taste, habits and flavor and bring some of their quirkiness home.

2. Get busy in the supermarket

A much overlooked grocery store is the organic or ‘eco’ deli, which is a shame because organic or ecological snacks always make a nice oleh-oleh for the homeland. They are of amazing quality, lightweight and cost only half of what you pay here at the Ranchmarket. I also like to scroll the sweet section in regular supermarkets to find local delicacies and to sample the smallest and prettiest packages for oleh-oleh. Look out for the special holidays and the seasonal products that are so unique as oleh-oleh.

3. Go for Prints

I am a fan of bookstores and magazine counters. The AKO magazine stand in the airport is filled with goodness from different European countries, and for less than 10 euros you can bring home the gift of beautiful prints and letters. My favorites are interior design and travel magazines with such spectacular covers, they can easily be gifted as coffeetable literature for your friends back home.

For more reading about oleh-oleh check out this site


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