Tuesday, October 30, 2012


The iconographic image for Bali is a line of women on their way to temple balancing platters tiered with fruit, flowers, and woven offerings.  Even in the still photograph there is movement, a sense of the women’s rhythm, of their calm grace.  Their kebayas, fluorescent against the green of rice paddies and rain forests in the distance, shimmer in the stillness.  The first time you encounter such a procession of women in Bali, it catches your breath, the beauty of it, the recognition of the baseness of your own pitiful existence. 

One of the iconic images for me of Java is the jamu lady, resplendent in a vibrant, lacy kebaya, a length of batik wrapped as a sarong around her legs, a basket slung by a selendang from her shoulder, drifting along dusty streets, an apparent lightness to her step and being.  In heat that sucks the breath from you, these women move as if untethered to this earth.  They are their own best advertisement, a testimonial to the tonics they peddle.

Jamu is a traditional herbal tonic popular throughout Indonesia, but especially in Java.  Although it seems to be on the wane in the larger cities, jamu is still widely consumed in the rural areas.  Western medicine and pharmaceuticals seem to be supplanting the use of jamu among the younger population, but many Javanese still tout its virtues.  Long before the arrival of Viagra (knock-offs of which are widely distributed as "pil biru"--the blue pill), there was a jamu to treat limp dick.  There are also mixtures to keep women's juices flowing and preserve their youth, elixirs to keep their men from straying.

Tjing's childhood home, the house we still return to when we return to Java, was a jamu shop.  Customers would come in, say what ailed them, then sit on stools along a bar while Tjing's mother or aunt would prepare  tonics to remedy their complaints.  The mixtures were mostly prepackaged, a blend of various herbs that would then be made into drinks that also contained raw eggs and honey.  When I first visited the home in 1993, the bar was still set up and some customers still drifted in although it was no longer an active shop.  Until the last year or so, if you wanted to give a becak driver directions to the house all you had to do was to mention it was the cap Jago shop on Patimura (cap Jago being the brand of jamu that was sold there and featuring a sign with a rooster which still hangs outside the house).  

Too much of the world now seems familiar.  The uniqueness of place is vanishing as one small village becomes no different from another half a world away.  The Big Mac served in Kediri is not dissimilar to one you might have in New York, Moscow, or Lodi.  As smaller communities long to join the dominant world, they sacrifice pieces of themselves.  Regional foods disappear; newscasters all speak with the same generic accent.  That jamu ladies still tread this earth is something to give thanks for.  Seeing them, their baskets laden with bottles and packets of jamu, a pail for dirty glasses grasped in their hands, brings a recognition that this is Java, that it is a unique place graced by these women, that this land is unique, that here, in this everyday world, there is still that which we might recognize as sacred.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Curried Butternut Squash Tartlets with Maple Bacon Topping

Butternut squash and curry seem to have a natural affinity, as do bacon and maple syrup. Add a ready to bake puff pastry shell, a little brown sugar and cream cheese, and you have a sweet and savory dessert that is ready in minutes.

Peel and thinly slice a small butternut squash.  Saute the slices in butter with some madras curry powder until just softened.  Combine a couple tablespoons of cream cheese with brown sugar.  Spread this on some thawed puff pastry shells that have been rolled out to 5-inch circles.  Overlap about four or five slices of the squash.  Bake in a hot oven for twenty minutes.  Top with crisped pieces of bacon in a reduced maple syrup.  Bake another five minutes.  Remove from the oven.  Cool and serve.  I suppose you could serve with ice cream, but they are awfully good by themselves. A more detailed recipe is below.

Curried Butternut Squash Tartlets with Maple Bacon Topping

1 package of Pepperidge Farm® Puff Pastry Shells, thawed
1 small butternut squash, peeled and sliced into thin slices (1/8 inch thick)
2 TBS butter
3 tsp good quality madras curry powder, divided
8 oz cream cheese, softened
6 TBS brown sugar
4--6 slices of bacon, crisped and broken into small pieces
1/2 cup maple syrup

Preheat the oven to 375º F.

In several batches, sauté the slices of squash in a skillet with the butter and 2 teaspoons of the curry powder.  Cook just long enough to soften the slices slightly, about 3 to 4 minutes.  Remove to a paper towel lined plate and cool.

Stir the brown sugar into the cream cheese, making a smooth, uniform mixture.  

On a lightly floured surface, roll each pastry shell into a circle about 5 inches in diameter.  Place the pastry circles on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Spread 1 to 2 tablespoons of the cream cheese mixture on each of the rolled out shells.  Top with five slices of the butternut squash, overlapping them in a circular pattern.  Bake the pastries for twenty minutes. 

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan stir together the maple syrup and the remaining teaspoon of curry powder.  Reduce the maple syrup by about half.  Stir in the pieces of crisped bacon.

After the tartlets have baked for twenty minutes, top with the maple syrup glaze.  Return the baking sheet to the oven and bake for an additional five minutes.  

When done, remove and cool for at least 15 minutes before eating.  May be served warm or at room temperature.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Rengginang--Fried Rice Crackers

When I made some sambal serai--lemongrass sambal--a few weeks back, I thought it needed something other than some grilled food to accompany it.  The sambal is great with a meal, but I wanted to be able to enjoy it as a snack.  Rengginang--which are a kind of rice cracker made from sticky rice--make a perfect accompaniment.  They are light and savory, easy to make, and store well.

Rengginang are nothing like the tasteless puffed rice crackers that were popular with dieters many years ago.  Who knows, maybe they are still popular.  Nutritionally, they were equivalent to eating styrofoam. Unfortunately, styrofoam probably tastes better.  Rengginang taste like toasted rice with a hint of garlic and shrimp.  In Indonesia you can also get a sweetened version, but I've always been partial to the savory ones.  While they are usually about 3 inches in diameter, you can find platter-sized ones that are 10 inches or more across. 

Making these is a multi-step process, but it is not difficult.  Soak, steam, mix, steam, dry, and fry.  There's also a little grinding of garlic, but those are the basic steps.  While I like a little sambal with mine, you could really use them with almost any dip, especially salsas.  The dried disks can be stored until you are ready to fry them.  The fried rengginang will keep for at least a week in an airtight container. 

Rengginang--Fried Rice Crackers

1 kilo glutinous rice (approximately 5 cups)
6--8 cloves of garlic, peeled, and pounded to a paste
2 tsp salt
1 tsp terasi (optional)
2 TBS ebi (dried shrimp) soaked in hot water for 10 minutes, drained, and pounded to a paste (optional)
400 ml (1 3/4 cups) water

Soak the rice in water for two to four hours.  Drain, then steam the rice for 15 minutes.  Remove the rice to a large bowl.

In a mortar, pound the garlic, salt, terasi, and ebi (if using) into a smooth paste. Stir this paste into the 400 ml of water.  Pour this into the partially steamed rice and mix well.  Allow the rice to absorb the seasoned water.

After 15 to 20 minutes, when the rice has absorbed the added liquid, return the rice to the steamer and steam for another 30 minutes.  Remove the rice from the steamer and form into disks about 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch thick (.5 cm to 1 cm). 

If you live in a warm, sunny climate, place the disks in a single layer on some sort of rack or porous surface and allow them to dry.  This may take several days.  I hurried the process by putting them into an oven which I turned on to the lowest possible setting.  I meant to turn the oven off after five minutes, but forgot, so I dried them a little faster and at a higher temperature than was ideal.  Still, they fried up fine.  If you have a dehydrator, I would think that would be ideal for drying these.

Once dried, they are ready to be fried.  Heat oil in a wok or other pan to around 385º, maybe a little hotter.  Slide a disk into the hot oil.  It will sink to the bottom, but should rise almost immediately.  Cook in small batches.  Each only takes twenty seconds or less to cook.  The important thing is to have the oil hot enough so that the disks will rise to the surface almost immediately.  If the oil is too cool, the disks will remain on the bottom and you will have a hard, unpleasant cracker.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


Some cookies aren't for kids.  Not that they won't eat them, but they would prefer something less complex, a more straightforward sugar rush.  These gingersnaps would go as well with a lowball of scotch as a glass of milk.  I first made them to use for the base of a cheesecake that I topped with some pineapple, banana, and coconut jam that I recently made. Since the recipe makes two logs, each of which yields 20--24 cookies, I put aside one log in the freezer to bake at a later date.  That date came due last night.

This is a very easy recipe that comes from David Lebovitz, or at least I discovered it on his site.  The actual recipe is apparently from Alice Water's The Art of Simple Food.  I made some slight changes to the recipe, adding cloves and nutmeg, options that the original suggests.  For the cheesecake base, I didn't top the cookies with the coarse sugar, but I do like the crunch it adds to the cookies.  I try to avoid having too many sweets in the house, so I am unlikely to make these very often.  I know if they were in the house, I would be unable to resist them. Anyways, I'm out of scotch.


2 cups (280 g) flour
1½ teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1½ teaspoons ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
4 whole cloves, finely ground
1/2 freshly grated nutmeg
11 tablespoons (150 g) butter, salted or unsalted, at room temperature
2/3 cup (130 g) sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup (80 g) mild-flavored molasses* (sometimes called ‘light’ molasses)
1 large egg, at room temperature

Coarse sugar crystals (I used Trader Joe's Turbinado Raw Cane Sugar) for topping the cookies

In a medium bowl mix together the flour, baking soda, salt, and spices.  With a mixer, cream the butter until fluffy before gradually mixing in the sugar. Add the vanilla, molasses, and egg, and mix until thoroughly incorporated.  With the mixer running, gradually stir in the flour mixture until you have a smooth, uniform dough.

Divide the dough in half.  Roll each half on a lightly floured surface to form two logs, each about 2 inches in diameter.  Wrap each log in plastic wrap and freeze or refrigerate until firm.  (At this point, you may keep the logs in the freezer for up to three months before baking, and you now have something that is every bit as easy to use as those refrigerated cookie tubes you see in the supermarket.)

When you are ready to bake some cookies, preheat the oven to 350º F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; one baking sheet should suffice for one log.  If you are expecting company, have a large family, or should be checking yourself into a clinic to deal with your overeating issues, line two baking sheets and get it done with.

Slice the logs into 1/4-inch thick coins of dough.  If topping with the coarse sugar, pour about a quarter cup of the sugar into a small bowl.  Firmly press one side of a sliced round of dough into the sugar.  Place the sugared rounds on the parchment-lined baking sheet(s), sugared-side up.  

Bake for 10 to 14 minutes.  Let cool on the baking sheet for two minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.  Enjoy.