Saturday, July 30, 2011

Opak Gambir--Rolled Wafer Production in Wlingi

Tjing’s favorite aunt in Kediri, an excellent cook who taught me how to make botok jagung last year, arranged an outing to her hometown to visit some homes where opak gambir is produced.  These are thin, crisp wafers made from a variety of flours, coconut milk, eggs, and sugar that are cooked between two plates of iron stamped with various designs. Rolled or folded while still hot, opak gambir may be plain, with sesame seeds, or flavored with banana, pandan, ginger, or durian.  In Vietnam,  banh kep ngo are a variation of opak gambir with cilantro leaves and a sweetened peanut filling. 

Wlingi, the town where  Ching’s aunt, Yi Tjim, was born and grew up, is not quite half way between Kediri and Malang.  Although not a big town, it has grown since Yi Tjim moved to Kediri and she couldn’t quite place her old haunts.  Many of the people living there have been there for generations, so when Yi Tjim (who is in her 70s) would meet an older person she would introduce herself by saying she was so and so’s daughter.

Bu Liu has been making and selling opak gambir since 1968.  It is a small operation, with only two cooks, each managing 5 or 6 irons at a time.  On the day of our visit, the more experienced cook, whose hands have toughened to the point where she can fold and roll the still hot wafers, was absent.  The young woman working that day could only make the rolled version of the wafers.

Given the opportunity to try our own hands at rolling the wafers, Tjing and I had mixed success.  Tjing was unable to do more than pick up the wafer briefly before dropping it back onto the hot iron.  I managed to roll one, but it was a grosser, cloddish effort compared to the tight rolls the young woman produced. 

My effort at producing a roll.
From there we drove maybe a quarter mile down the street to visit another maker of opak gambir.  This was a larger operation than Bu Liu’s.  From the street we descended a steep alley to an area bordering rice paddy.  Housed in a shed with wire-meshed windows and a corrugated zinc roof, this “factory” employed seven cooks and two packers.  It seemed to be primarily a wholesaler, packaging the opak gambir in massive bags containing several thousand wafers.  As with Bu Liu’s, each cook handled 5 or 6 irons, constantly opening, filling, closing, flipping, and lifting one iron or another, always remembering which held a wafer ready to be rolled or folded.  Each cook produced about 6 1/2 kilograms (a little over 14 pounds) of wafers a day.  A kilogram of wafers sells for a little less than $3. 

Laundry drying outside the factory.
Don't worry, the girl is the owner's daughter.  She doesn't work there.
Mixing the batter.
Pandan flavored cone shaped opak gambir.
A scant teaspoon of batter is used for each wafer.
The hot wafer is folded, then rolled to form a layered cone.
The heat from the bank of coals is quite intense.
One of the packers.
Should you happen to find yourself in Java sometime, opak gambir are great with coffee or tea.  They’d also be nice with a dish of ice cream.  We picked up a couple of the irons in a shop in Kediri, so I’ll be attempting to produce my own opak gambir after returning to Sacramento.  Stay tuned for that post.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Feathered by the Sunlight--Kecap Manis in Wlingi

Kecap manis being produced in a home in Wlingi, East Java.  This operation was even smaller than Bu Evie’s, with a single wood burning stove in a room at the side of the owner's house.  The whole house was rich with the perfume of kecap manis.  Shafts of light poured through the atap roof illuminating the room where the kecap was being cooked.
To fully enjoy this post, heat up some kecap manis until its fragrance fills the room.  

Monday, July 18, 2011

Apel Hutan--Forest Apple

 The variety of fruit available in Java is astounding.  With a temperature that varies only slightly from month to month, and an even parsing of day and night throughout the year--sunrise and sunset forever between five and six--Java is not an island one would expect to find seasonal differences in what fruit is available.  Although certain fruit is available throughout the year, papaya, for example, others such as klengkeng (longan, a fruit similar to lychee) and rambutan (another fruit related to lychees) are only available for a month or two. 

It is my misfortune that my favorite variety of mango, and the one that is generally most prized in Indonesia, harum manis (sweet smelling), is not really in season in Java during the months Tjing and I are able to visit.  After tasting the mangoes that are available in Indonesia (and there are tens of different varieties), I am always disappointed by those I get in California. 

Yesterday my sister-in-law Lili brought home a new fruit for me to try.  Apel hutan (forest apple) are about the size of softballs.  The light green exterior is of a cork-like consistency, firm yet yielding, about a quarter inch thick.  The ivory flesh is the texture of honeydew melon that has just passed the peak of ripeness. The taste is reminiscent of honeydew as well, but without the aggressive sweetness. 

Sliced in half, each half serves as its own bowl.  The flesh is spooned from the shell like a creamy pudding.  I can find no mention of this fruit elsewhere and Tjing and others in her family had never had it before either.  Perhaps it is known by a different name elsewhere?  If you have any information on this, I’d love to hear it.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Street Food

Treats abound on the streets of Java.  Go anywhere and there is someone selling something good to eat or drink.  Vendors sell from stalls set beside the road, from pushcarts, from baskets slung from cloths across their shoulders onto their hips, from trays poised on their heads, and from wooden boxes suspended from poles they balance on their shoulders.

Walking to the supermarket to buy some shampoo, I pass a man carrying some grilled cakes with the aroma of coconut.  I stop and ask what he is selling.  Kue rangin, he says, a savory snack made from fresh coconut and flour that is cooked in half-moon molds.  Like waffles dense with fresh coconut meat, the salty cakes are served with sugar.  The contrast between the saltiness of the kue and the sweetness of the sugar spark the tongue. 

He tramps the streets balancing the stove on one end of his joist, some finished cakes in a display box on the other end.  There is a rhythm to the walk of these vendors carrying their wares upon their shoulders, an easy, rolling gait.  Like acrobats balanced on a wire, they stride with apparent weightlessness, moving easily among the traffic of motorcycles, bicycles, trucks,  and automobiles.

Lowering his two boxes to the dusty street, the vendor plucks a batch of the kue from the molds, and wraps them in a piece of paper which he sprinkles with sugar before placing the wrapped cakes in a plastic bag and handing them to me.  Lightly greasing the molds, he pours in the next batch of batter, arranges his goods, arises and is on his way.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Where I Am Writing From

My posting has become infrequent, sporadic.  Lack of discipline, entropy, inertia, a failing appetite, a reluctant acknowledgement that my wife and I are newly unemployed teachers, a dying father-in-law, witness to the dismantling of two ESL programs that served several generations of adult immigrants in Sacramento and helped it become recognized as the most diverse city in the United States--any and all of these may be behind the scarcity of recent posts.  I try to be generally upbeat in my posts, but it has been hard to be upbeat recently.  Yet, in the end, what choice do we have?  Stew in our funk, or try to enjoy life. 

Currently we are in Indonesia, visiting my dying father-in-law.  While the death of any parent is difficult, it is more so when they are not near.  Tjing’s mother died while Tjing was getting her Master’s in Australia.  She also had cancer, but her death was swift, happening just days after being diagnosed.  Although Tjing was home within 72 hours of hearing the diagnosis, it was too late.  That loss, that failure to connect with her mother one last time, is a hurt that haunts Tjing to this day. 

Despite­ the advances of science, cancer remains an unpleasant killer.  My father-in-law’s cancer of the tongue is particularly insidious, not only making it nearly impossible to eat or drink, but also robbing him of his voice.  He speaks as if muffled, choking on the tumor that mushrooms on his tongue and down his throat. Still unbent in spine, he stands about 5’9’’ but now barely weighs 90 pounds.  A once vibrant, social man who enjoyed morning walks and conversations with all manner of people, he now spends most of his days in his room, wanting only, he says, to die.

So yes, I’m in Indonesia, a country I feel at home in and enjoy as much as any.  Yet, it’s not exactly a vacation.  Still, it’s hard to stay in a funk in Java, to not appreciate the magic of its people, food, and culture.  Soon there will be more postings on some of that magic.  This I promise.