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.
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.
|My effort at producing a roll.|
|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.|