A Balinese Idiom: Selem Manis (Black Sweet)

I just had my appendicitis surgery last week, but feel the longing for blogging. So, I write this post in the nick of time to meet the weekly writing challenge: In the beginning. When I feel much better or at least manage to sit more than 15 minutes….I will try to catch other dear wordpresser friends posts who has been very nice to like, comment and follow A Simple Note.

I was intrigued by an idiom that is quite popular said in Bali and also other regions in Indonesia. That is selem manis (in Balinese language) or hitam manis (Indonesian), literally translated means selem = black, manis = sweet. It’s none of sugary things like in culinary side, much more to someone’s looking, as in his or her skin colour. Why it is then becomes popular and what other idioms that may begun from selem manis.

The Balinese, like most of Indonesian, more adore fair complexion/ skin than sawo matang/ very brown coloured or as we usually say here, selem. The fact that the TV commercials on cosmetic is also keep ‘reminding’ people to make their complexion looks fair, confirms that. Use this soap with mulberry extract to have fair and smooth skin like the Japanese ladies. Really? Probably, the smoothness. But, fairer complexion? I wonder how many kilograms of soap we (read: people with very brown colour) should use to make our complexion/ skin looks like the Japanese. Surely, out of many people with the very big hope/ dream to have fair complexion, fairer is nicer…some of us, still got mind intact by feeling blessed with our skin colour. Creating an idiom to express love to our skin in the Balinese language: biar selem tapi manis….very brown complexion but is sweet/ pretty/ lovely or exotic (I added the last one, to make it more dramatic). And also a song:

Selem selem manis (black, black sweet)

Cara buah manggis (like a mangosteen)

Diapin selem, kenyem ne manis (although she’s black, her smile is sweet/ lovely)

But, a joke followed, in Balinese language saying: telah manis ne, enu selem ne, when the sweetness has run out, remains the black/ very brown colour.

Does it make us feel no longer blessed? Of course not, in the old days, my mother used to say…hitam hitam kereta api, biar hitam banyak yang menanti: the blackness of a train, many people are waiting. What was the beginning of this idiom? Likely, because the colour of a train in the old days (steam one) is black, but many people (commuters or passengers) are waiting for it. Nowadays, trains are colourful or at least rarely found in black and monochrome, what a new idiom to keep the essence of very brown/ black but special. It has something to do with coffee. Especially when the coffee is Luwak (a civet) coffee. It once ever mentioned in The Bucket List movie, starred by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Kopi Luwak is IDR 100.000 or $ 12 for a cup, because of its exclusiveness in the taste and fragrance. That’s a price in Bali, I was not saying in other countries, it is said to be one of the most expensive coffees in the world (be my guest to check it in google :)).


I think, the latest idiom that is derived from selem manis as a compliment to very brown complexion is selem kopi, maal ajine: the blackness of coffee (Luwak), it is expensive/ exclusive.


23 thoughts on “A Balinese Idiom: Selem Manis (Black Sweet)

    • Thanks, Indah. Yes. Sunshine is a lot in Indonesia. That’s our country’s blessing and make us selem manis ;). Thank you very much for your kind concern. Hope you enjoy your vacation in Indonesia! ;).


  1. I was wondering why you did not blog for so long 😦 Sending many good wishes for your speedy recovery and regaining of excellent health. In our North we have very fair people and in the south people are dark. In central areas people are in between 🙂 But frankly beauty lies not in the color but within us – our nature.
    Thanks and happy blogging.


  2. Hope you are feeling better! In Egypt the women prefer fair skin, too, but we say to the darker skinned girls they hafe the true color of Adam and Eve, the first humans God created. That’s a nice compliment! ♥♥♥ ;^)


  3. Fair skin is sought after in most countries and cosmetic companies make fortunes out of this fad. However, dark skin is better in sunny climates as fair skin burns more easily and causes pigmentation, freckles and wrinkles. I have missed your posts. I hope you are fully recovered now.


  4. I’ve gotten so far behind in reading and I did not realize you had surgery. I am so sorry to hear that but I am so glad to hear that you are recovering well. Being fair-skinned isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be! I’m fair-skinned and right now I’m still suffering from burned shoulders, back and forehead from our time at the beach earlier this week! Sending prayers and well wishes for your speedy recovery! 🙂


  5. Thank you very much for your kind wishes, Linda. I am much better, now. Spent time at the beach…how fun! I hope your burned skin will be relieved soon. Darker and fairer skin have their own benefit :).


  6. Good to know, this ‘selem manis’. Ever stayed for about a month in Ubud once. It’s paradise. 🙂
    Yep. Walking barefooted on the sunbathed beach sand. I hope you’re getting better.


  7. Pingback: Palermo Palms | litadoolan

  8. Great to learn about the origin of language, it is our self expression. Hope you are feeling in good health now. Thanks for the beautiful cup of black coffee at the end. Bliss! ;-D


  9. I’m so busy I didn’t know you had surgery, I have to keep up with your blog! I hope you’re fully recovered now.

    Very interesting post, in which we clearly see how the culture is linked to the language. It’s a very interesting fact that we tend to worship fair skin these days because of TV despite history. I think there’s beauty in the variety, and taking advantage of the issue and sell a magic soap is not the right thing to do I’d say, as if it were bad to have a darker skin.

    In sunny Spain is actually the opposite, these days people are sunbathing on the beach all day long to get darker and darker, and everybody has a sun tan except me, so pale and working 12 shift away from the sun!

    We all want what we don’t have.


  10. Sure! we must practice gratitude and not willing more and more, which is a bad desease these days. In Spain we say the richer person is not the one who has more things, but the one who needs less.


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