Not food, but fun anyway -- Dave's Indonesia national day multimedia piece from our trip to Sulawesi last year. Think I posted it way back when, but it's worth redirecting you again, if you haven't seen it, here.
A squeeze of lime to balance the sweetness of young coconut juice and palm sugar syrup
Kelapa muda (young coconut) juice is a common beverage in Southeast Asia. It usually comes in the form of a whole coconut with its crown whacked off and straw stuck in.
After a several-hour crawl through the Sunday market in Rantepao, in Sulawesi's Torajaregion, we were thrilled to come across this mobile cart serving up an Indonesian variation of the popular refresher. Even better - it incorporates our all-time favorite Southeast Asian sweetener, palm sugar.
The technique's pretty simple: drain the juice of a young coconut into a glass (this bore a cigarette logo) and scrape the fruit's flesh in after it.
Follow with a bit of smoky palm sugar syrup made from the sap of immature buds of the aren palm, and then balance the sweetness with a generous squeeze of lime juice.
Stir and enjoy.
(We weren't the only happy customers.)
This treat's two in one, both beverage and snack -- fruit juice and soft, sweet flesh.
To start your weekend with an appetite-rousing slide show of more street food from around the region hop over here.
It's a beautifully crisp blue-sky morning here in the Berkshires, but I'm about to tell you about a street treat we ate in Jakarta last April. I've no choice; the Photographer hasn't been on food photography duty since we landed in the States a week ago.
No matter -- kerak telur is nothing to turn your nose up at.
Kerak telur used to be thick on the ground in Jakarta, or so we've been told. Though we'd previously encountered this egg and rice 'omelet' it in an indoor food court or two this was our first time to find it sold on the street.
There are a couple things to note about kerak telur. One, it's traditionally (and most deliciously) cooked over charcoal. And two, it involves a pretty cool technique that somewhat mimics that used for an Italian frittata.
It goes like this:
The vendor spreads a thinnish layer of cooked rice in the bottom of a small single-handled wok and places it over the coals. He then sprinkles over some browned crisped shallots, breaks a couple of eggs over the top,
whisks eggs and yolks with his fork, and smears it all over the rice.
After leaving the eggs to set for a minute,
he flips the pan over to expose the eggs directly to the heat of the coals. Amazingly, though it will later slide (seemingly) effortlessly from the pan, when it's suspended over the coals the omelet clings tenously to the metal.
Turned upright again, the kerak telur gets a final browning over the newly stoked and fanned coals,
Crackly brown on the bottom now, the kerak telur is loosened from the pan with that ever-useful fork,
and transferred to a paper-lined plate, where it's topped with heaps more crispy shallots and sprinkled with coconut dry-toasted with - I'm guessing here - turmeric.
Puffed and golden, sweet and savory, substantial but light enough to go down well as a pre-dinner snack -- and quite unlikely to find its way to a corner near you anytime soon.
Kerak telur vendor, Fatahillah Square, Kota Tua, Jakarta. Evenings.
On Sulawesi, wrapped and twisted rectangles of dried corn husk hide baje kacang (bah-jay kah-jahng),
irregularly shaped balls of roasted peanuts glued together with aren palm sugar. The combination of savory-salty nuts with smoky, slightly bitter sugar is something like the best part of Cracker Jacks (c'mon former Cracker Jack eaters, go ahead and admit that you used to pick through the caramel popcorn for the candy-coated peanuts) -- only one thousand times better, because small-batch Indonesian palm sugar has got it all over mass-produced American molasses.
A conservative estimate of how many baje kacang we consumed over the course of 10 days in Toraja would put the number at, oh, 100 each. And we carried a few bags home (they quickly disappeared). If we came back from Sulawesi with cavities (I feel a twinge in lower molar), baje kacang are the culprit.
After dedicated, extensive sampling we can assert with confidence that Rantepao's best baje kacang are sold by two female vendors on the Pasar Bolo (the big morning market, not the one by the river). They can be found outside, on a corner of the market at the opposite end from the tuak (palm wine) sellers, sitting or standing behind their table piled high with baje kacang in yellow plastic bags (28 pieces for Rp10,000.) Their baje feature super-fresh, crunchy peanuts and gula that's glossy and crackly rather than old, dried out, and crumbly.
With all that rice on Sulawesi you had to know that some of it would end up in sweet treats.
As we drove north from Makassar to Toraja we came, about two hours into the ride, across a strip of roadway lined with probably fifty or so stalls selling exactly the same thing: dange, a cake made from red rice and gula aren, or sugar made with sap from the cut flower stalk of the aren palm.
The dange are cooked in clay molds laid over a wood fire, their surfaces exposed to the heat and smoke.
When the cakes are done the vendor uses a knife to unmold them onto fresh banana leaves, where they're left steam and soak in a bit of scent from the banana leaf.
We ate them hot, one after the other. Dange are absolutely appealing in both texture -- crusty outside, tender within, pleasantly chewy -- and flavor. They're nutty from the rice, sweet but not tooth-achingly so, there's a hint of bitterness and lots of caramelization from the cooked gula, and it's all overlayed with an intriguing smokiness.
All this, from two ingredients: rice and sugar.
Talk about ingenuity.
Dange sellers, south Sulawesi. If you're driving north from Makassar you can't miss 'em.
Dave left for Toraja packing not only his usual bundle of camera equipment but a digital recorder as well. In the coming months we're hoping to increase our storytelling ability by including slide shows, accompanied by audio, in some of our posts. No idea where this will lead but we're looking forward to seeing how far we can go with it.
Here's a teeny taste. Lots of kinks to work out -- we're taking baby steps at this point. But have a look and let us know your thoughts -- and what sort of multimedia projects you'd like to see (and hear) here in the future.
When we lived in northern California we bought our coffee beans from Peet's -- mostly Sulawesi-Kalosi. We like our coffee full-bodied, complex, and with a balanced acidity, which is why we've always gravitated to beans grown in the Pacific (as opposed to, say, the Americas). And we prefer a dark roast. Peet's certainly has its detractors (who feel that their coffee is 'burnt'), but for us a cuppa made with light-roasted beans is just too insipid to satisfy.
At that time (we left the San Francisco Bay Area for the first time in 1995, and for the last time in 2002) Sulawesi was just a place on a map. We knew it was in Indonesia and we knew that the island was once called 'Celebes', but at that point we'd never travelled further east in the country than Bali.
Back then we paid $13.95 a pound for our beans from Sulawesi (looks like it's gone up a buck in intervening years), so it was kind of a kick to find ourselves shelling out less than a third of that amount per pound last Saturday in Rantepao, Toraja's main tourist hub.
Toraja is in Sulawesi's relatively remote mountainous center (the drive from Makassar, on the islands southwestern coast, takes around 10 hours and Batutumonga, where we stayed for part of our trip, sits at 1,500 meters above sea level). And it's in Toraja that most -- and certainly the best -- of Sulawesi's coffee is grown. (Googled sources tell me that Kalosi, or Kalossi, is Toraja's coffee bean distribution hub. We didn't make it there.)
In Toraja coffee, like rice, is everywhere. There are proper coffee plantations but also scattered bunches of trees by the road, on the edge of rice paddies, clinging to slopes, in front yards and side gardens. Coffee is set out to dry on tarps on sidewalks, driveways, and harvested and burnt paddy fields.
One evening, in search of a perfect sunset view, we drove to the top of a mountain on the other, quiet side of the river that runs through Rantepao. After forty-five minutes of gut-clenching hairpin turns and washboard (or non-existent) tarmac we arrived in a sea of clouds. No view, no sunset. But plenty of freshly picked coffee beans, laid out to dry on a lonesome hillside (above).
At Rantepao's morning market coffee is literally in the air; you can hardly walk twenty paces without running into a vendor selling roasted beans -- whole, pre-ground, or ground to order. (You can buy green beans too). The comforting aroma of coffee envelops you as you wander its aisles and inhaling deeply delivers nearly as much of a kick as a sip of the black stuff.
For the caffeinated traveler Toraja is Paradise. A decent and often transcendent cup awaits on nearly every block. Deep in the heart of the market is a row of dark, down-at-the-heels shops serving breakfast. We stopped into one for a pick-me-up. It was delivered in the sort of big, heavy glass mugs that Westerners usually reserve for beer. It cost Rp 2,000 (about 20 US cents). And it was fantastic.
A mug of coffee with a view -- of the market
In Toraja, as in the rest of Indonesia, coffee is drunk unfiltered. The beans are ground to the finest talcum-like powder, which is spooned into a cup, a mug, or a pot. Boiling water is added, the mixture is stirred to release the coffee's flavor, and the grounds are allowed to settle before the coffee is poured or drunk.
This isn't at all problematic. We're not talking Turkish coffee here. The fine grounds, when mixed with water, form a heavy sludge that sticks to the bottom of the cup or the pot. As long as you don't knock your coffee back like a shot of whiskey (or upturn the pot when you pour a cup) you don't end up with a mouthful of grit.
And because this 'brewing' method exposes the coffee to hot water longer than it would be if it were suspended in a paper filter it produces a richer, stronger cup. It's the way we're drinking our Toraja brew now, at home.
Kopi susu (coffee with sweetened condensed milk) is ubiquitous in Indonesia but noticibly absent in Toraja, where coffee is usually drunk black or with sugar. For as long as I've been drinking coffee I've taken it with milk. But the flavor of the coffee grown in Toraja is so rounded, so rich and beautifully balanced that I'm drinking it with only a bit of sugar, even now that I'm home.
On our last day in Toraja, on the recommendation of friends in Batutumonga, we headed to a shop in Rantepao called Rezeki, to stock up.
Owner Saleh, who named the shop after one of his sons, has been in business for over twenty years. With the help of a son (not Rezeki) he roasts beans every day on the second floor of his shop, underneath a piece of corrugated metal with a square cut in it for ventilation.
When roasting is in process you can smell Rezeki long before you see the plumes of smoke wafting from its roof.
The beans, which Saleh buys from a middleman ((Palu Palu and Pangalla produce the best arabica and Rembon the best robusta, he says), are cooked in a huge, continually rotating metal drum set over an open flame.
Saleh is particularly proud of his roaster, which he built himself. He says that its unusually thick walls (5 mm instead of the usual 2) enable him to roast the beans for up to two hours without burning (other roasters limit the process to thirty minutes).
After they're roasted (actually goreng -- 'fried' -- is what coffee beans are in Indonesia) the drum is slid along a frame away from the fire and the beans poured into a shallow wooden bin. Saleh and his son rake the beans to cool them down as quickly as possible and then pick them over, discarding those not up to snuff.
Saleh isn't a coffee drinker; he prefers tea. But his product is pretty fantastic -- proving that, for this coffee maker (and as Rezeki's paper bags advertise), 'Quality is the most of everything'.
(The shop's logo, visible at the top of the circle, is a rocket. Interpret that however you like.)
Not everyone likes their coffee pitch black, so Rezeki sells arabica and robusta beans (and a mix of the two) in four roasts, from 'golden' (a milk-chocolate brown -- popular with foreign tourists, he says) to 'black'.
Unfortunately Saleh was sold out of arabica black roast on the day we dropped in, so we settled for a couple of bags of arabica Italian roast beans and two more of robusta black. (We drank quite a bit of robusta in Toraja. Despite its reputation as an inferior bean we found it to evince a pleasantly jagged-edged earthiness, with just a hint of cherry.)
We also walked away with 250 grams of arabica Italian roast, powdered to order in Rezeki's funky old coffee grinder (above).
We predicted that our hotel in Makassar, where we were to spend one night before heading back to Malaysia, wouldn't serve coffee anywhere as delicious as that which we'd drunk in Toraja. We were right. But thanks to our pre-ground from Rezeki and the water boiler in our room we slurped down many excellent cups on our last morning on Sulawesi.
Agri Industri Kopi Rezeki, Jalan Emmy Saelan No. 28, Rantepao. Tel. (0423) 21629. Open 7a-6pm everyday. Robusta Rp 50,000/kilo and Arabica Rp 50,000/kilo.
In Rantepao, enjoy a fine cup of coffee at Manalagi, just a block from Rezeki, on Jalan J.A. Mappanyuki steps from Jalan Emmy Saelan (Rp 6,000 for a pot big enough to share). Or head to Rumto Cafe on Jalan Bolo Rantepao, a block from the main market (7,000 for a cup of Arabica - the pisang goreng, or fried bananas, make an excellent accompaniment).
From Toraja we're carrying home new friendships, wonderful memories, thousands of photos, a full notebook ... and rice. Bags of it. Pounds and pounds of grains red, white, and black.
Toraja is rice country, paddies carpeting valleys and marching up slopes. We arrived in the middle of the rice harvest, when some rice fields were still a lush green tipped with gold and others sported a burnt brown stubble of shorn stalks.
In Asia we eat so much rice that we often take it for granted. But to be in a rice-producing area during harvest is to be reminded of the extent to which life in much of this part of the world revolves around these little bits of starch.
On most days we managed to get out into a field or three to watch farmers and their families (or hired labor; Toraja is a relatively prosperous area, rich enough to support some hired help in the fields) cut and thresh and winnow and, finally, burn leftover dried stalks to the ground.
Like many Southeast Asians Torajaan families erect structures specifically devoted to storing rice. Their alang-alang or rice barns are architecturally similar to their tongkanan, the traditional wooden houses with dramatic upwardly bowed roofs that resemble water buffalo horns (I'll write more later about the water buffalo and Torajaan culture). Many families have more than one alang-alang, each devoted to a different type of rice (glutinous and non, white and black, maybe some red, brown) grown on the clan's land.
For much of last week we stayed in a beautiful old tongkonan built on a piece of land nestled in the bend of the Sa'dan River. Across from us, visible through our front wooden shutters, was the rice barn pictured above (one in a row of several). At night we could hear the river sing and rain made a soothing light thrumming sound on the structure's high metal roof.
At first light two roosters played dueling cock-a-doodle-doo beneath our thick floorboards -- better than an alarm clock, even though we slept fifteen or so feet above where they stood. We didn't mind, because when we rose there was strong Toraja coffee to wake us us, pitch black and aromatic, made from beans roasted by the lady of the house and so delicious that this dedicated coffee-with-milk person savored hers with just a bit of sugar.
And there was breakfast, always based on rice. Fresh white rice, harvested just two weeks before and fried into a simple nasi goreng, or glutinous white rice to eat with a rich soupy mixture of grated coconut, sambal, and a bit of water.
Perhaps our favorite breakfast featured black rice -- which is really
not black-as-night black but more of a deep black-purple with spotty magenta-ish highlights. It's a fantastic long-grained variety, full-flavored and nutty.
The flavor of Toraja black rice is so fine that it begs to be eaten on its own, or with the simplest of accompaniments. On this morning it had three: fresh golden-yolked hard-boiled eggs; grated coconut; and a tomato sambal sharpend with trassi (Indonesian shrimp paste) and hot-as-Hades Toraja chilies and mellowed with caramelized onions.
Onto our plates went rice. Then a mound of coconut, a splodge of sambal, and an egg. The latter we chopped with spoon and fork before mixing everything together.
As we ate we added a little sambal for heat here, then soothed our throbbing tongues with another spoonful of rice there. Now a bit more coconut for sweetness, which would ultimately need to be balanced with more sambal. A vicious cycle. Every bite different.
By the time our plates were clean the sambal had disappeared, and most of the coconut too.
...in Tanah Toraja, Sulawesi. Land of coffee (amazing, wonderful coffee ... the once-every six days market smells like it, you can catch a caffeine buzz just cruising the aisles... even the robusta is stupendous), keluak (the finest in Indonesia, we're told), meats cooked in bamboo over an open fire (including pork-most Torajaans are Christian), rock graves, and dramatic, gorgeously carved wooden swoop-roofed houses.
But not internet, at least not at a reasonable speed (and not at all where our friends live, at 1500m overlooking the Rantepao valley - oh my goodness, have we been enjoying dramatic sunrises!), so no pictures this post. And no further posts till we're back in KL next week.
In the meantime we would like to send a shoutout to Tewfic El-Sawy, a travel photograper and co-organizer of the Foundry Photo Workshop Dave attended in India last month. Thanks Tewfic, for posting a write-up on Dave and EatingAsia on your blog.
Have a great week ahead. We are going to make the most of the opportunity for lots of fresh air and terraced rice paddy hikes. See you in a week or ten days with word of a few Torajaan specialties.
A few weeks ago we sat at a table in a rear corner of Songkhla's morning market, nursing kafe booran ('ancient coffee' - the magic words that just might land you a non-Nescafe caffeinated beverage in Thailand). Halfway into my second glass, as neurons and synapses sprang to life, I focused on the scene in front of me.
A row of pork stalls: ladders of ribs and tenderloins dangling from hooks, pig heads propped on wooden counters, the notched surfaces of butcher blocks made from thick sections of tree trunk littered with odd pink bits. Behind me a butcher used a blowtorch to burn the hairs from a pyramid of pig's feet.
These stalls stood side-by-side and back-to-back with others displaying fresh vegetables and southern Thai kitchen staples like naam budu (super-fermented fish sauce along the lines of bplaa raa), palm sugar, taramind, and chilies. Behind each stood a headscarf-wearing Muslim woman.
As the (male and female) butchers and Muslim vegetable and sundries sellers worked they bantered back and forth, sometimes vacating their own stalls to hang out at their neighbors' for a few minutes. Muslim shoppers carrying bags spilling leafy greens ambled down the pork row, stopping in front of mounds of snowy fat to chat with the pig meat purveyors.
Nothing special, right? Well...
In Malaysia pork stalls are concealed, hidden away so as not to offend. Most every Malaysian wet market has one, but they're tucked down an alley, segregated behind corrugated metal walls, housed in a separate building, or - in the case of our neighborhood market - located in a far corner of the basement car park.
Many of southern Thailand's - and the majority of Malaysia's - residents are Muslim. So why the pork segregation in the one, but not the other?
For an obvious reason. Maybe.
Thai Muslims may comprise a relatively large portion of the population in southern Thailand, but they are a small minority in the country as a whole. For whatever reasons (and this post isn't about that) Bangkok has refused to recognize this population's language, culture, and Malay ethnicity; it's this non-recognition that's often cited as one of the drivers behind the deadly insurgency that plagues Thailand's south. In southern Thailand Muslims may be numerous, but it's most certainly vegetarian and pork-eating Buddhists (contrary to belief in some quarters, to be a meat-eating - and cooking - Buddhist is not so unusual, at least not in this part of the world) who run the show.
So I suppose you might say that Songkhla's - and southern Thailand's - Muslims (unlike Malaysia's) have had no choice but to accomodate, and that that accomodation is reflected in the market's lay-out: Muslims and pork, cheek by jowl (pun intended). Maybe.
In Jakarta's Glodok (Chinatown) pork is also sold right out in the open, pig butchers sharing lane space with Muslim mutton, kuih (sweets), and vegetable sellers. In an alley nearby, Muslim vendors prepare gado gado and rujak to order within whiffing distance of the porky steam that rises from the wok of Chinese Indonesians pan-frying pork dumplings. As in some parts of southern Thailand, it appears to be an easy coexistence.
This certainly is not a case of a Muslim minority forced to accomodate. Far from it. Economic success aside, many Chinese Indonesians feel that they are second-class citizens - a status that was, in fact, codified until recently.
Yesterday I lunched at Yut Kee, an early twentieth-century Hainanese establishment. At a nearby table sat three older Dato types ('Dato' is a Malaysian honorific title), two Chinese and a Malay (in Malaysia to be born Malay is - by law - to be born Muslim). While the latter tucked into his lamb chop his companions slurped beef noodles and shared roti babi, fried bread filled with pulled pork. A Malay eating in a non-halal establishment is something you rarely see here, though Malaysians of a certain age tell me that it wasn't such an unusual thing thirty or so years ago.
As a non-Muslim living in Malaysia who's lived and traveled extensively in neighboring countries with sizeable Muslim populations I can't help but draw comparisons. As a former political scientist I can't help but think about politics and politicians (and terrorists and insurgents) and their uses of religion. And as a food writer I can't help but focus on, well, food - and reflect on the way that, in southern Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia politics and religion and the ways in which they influence each other are played out at the market, in restaurants, at table, on the plate.
I've been pondering all this for a few years, actually, but more so recently as I've been working on a couple of projects - one that's partly about food as an expression (or not) of identity, and another about Muslim self-expression in Malaysia and Indonesia.
I haven't yet come to any great understanding. I'm throwing this out here to see what bounces back. I'd love to hear from anyone with something to say; leave a comment or send me an email.
A final thought that springs from a snippet I read a few months ago, can't remember exactly where.
The author wrote that in Malaya a few decades before Merdeka (independence), to be Muslim wasn't akin to making a political statement. It was during that era - centuries ago - that Chinese traders / immigrants to what is now peninsular Malaysia and Singapore married local (ie Malay, Indian, and Thai) women, giving birth to Peranakan (Baba Nyonya) culture and its exquisite fusion cuisine.
That, I think, is one culinary revolution that could not happen today. At least not in Malaysia.
Note: When I first published this post, a couple of hours ago, it wore a more benign title: On Hidden Pork Stalls. What I'd originally typed were the words that the title line now bears; I changed themright before publishing. Now it's back the way I thought, at the outset, that it should be. Hm. Why did I 'dumb down' my title in the first place? Not quite sure, really.
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