Saturday, June 30, 2012

Swike Kuah--Silence of the Frogs

Silence shrouds the fields outside Kediri this evening, the stillness that follows great violence.  Bonfires burn on the beaches of Troy and the boats are readied for sailing.  A slaughter happened here, a harvest of all who dared approach the light.  Even the unborn were not spared.  So vast the multitude even the blind poet tires trying to recall their names.  

Only the most unsentient carnivore can feel no twinge of complicity when gnawing the flesh off delicate bones of small beings.  I have caused this, he knows.  And I will do it again, for here, at this juncture where the thigh attaches itself to the hip, here the flesh is so sweet.  And this sliver just above what would be my ankle, so tender this flap.  My twelve-year-old niece rips another thigh from the dwindling pile of carcasses in her bowl and sucks it clean of the bone.  Her own delicate fingers drip with garlicky broth.  A mound of polished femurs and tibias rises from the yellow plastic saucer before her.  In front of each of the six of us dining here, the dainty scaffolding of frog carcasses stripped of their flesh mounts on the table.

My first night in Cepu some 29 years ago, at the Hotel Miranda on Jl. Pemuda,, room service delivered swike goreng to my room.  It had been ordered by my “handler,” my contact person with AKAMIGAS, the national oil and gas training academy where I was to teach English.  I had been in Indonesia less than two weeks, knew no Indonesian beyond “terima kasih”(thank you), “tidak” (no), and “baik”(good, ok).  Why Pak Soemadi thought I’d like fried frog, or if he ordered it as a test, I don’t know.  What I remember is that it was very good, cost around $3 for a healthy portion (it was room service, so prices were inflated), and how oddly human the frog looked, the torso with its frail ribcage still attached to the lower legs.

This is not the season for swike.  These are the dry months in Java, the rainy season being from October to March.  Frog giggers use the dry season to sharpen their gigs, trim the wicks in their lanterns, brush up on the latest developments and trends in frog gigging.  There are seminars and conventions at losmen where manufacturers demonstrate solar powered skinning contraptions, the industry conscious of the trend toward greener technology.  Women of the night lurk in the shadows of these conventions, cheeks billowing as a low croon rises from their throats, a siren call to the giggers, who cannot refuse them. 

This is not the season for swike.  The larger frogs, those needed for swike goreng and swike bakar (fried and grilled), are not in abundance.  There are smaller specimens, but their corporal beings are more suited to a broth.  The broth is loaded heavily with garlic and tauco (fermented soybeans).  It also has tamarind which is balanced by the addition of palm sugar.  Each bowl has some 15 to 20 quite naked frogs, stripped even of their birthday suits as it were, skinny-dipped in the broth.  Served with a plate of steamed rice, these gracious ballerinas offer a tasty midday repast.

Besides the swike kuah, we also sampled some pepes telor.  Pepes is a dish wrapped in banana leaf which is then usually steamed and sometimes grilled.  Pepes jamur is made of mushrooms, pepes ayam from chicken, pepes ikan from fish, and so on. I think Indonesia Eats has some information on pepes and its other names throughout the archipelago.  Hearing pepes telor, we (Tjing, too, not just me) thought this would include regular eggs (telor).  We didn’t factor in that we were in a rumah makan that serves one thing, and only one thing, frog.  So this pepes telor was made with frog eggs. 

Towards the end of the time I lived on Pulau Galang, a Vietnamese refugee camp in the Riau province of Indonesia just south of Singapore, I had a frog which took up residence in my bathroom.  The bathrooms for the staff residences were essentially cement floored rooms with a toilet and a bak mandi (a cement cistern for holding the water you shower and flush with) that were walled in and attached to the bedrooms.  Slightly smaller than the victims of our recent lunch, this frog seemed quite content to share the bathroom with me.  Having for some reason presumed him male, I was astonished to discover a frothy sac of eggs attached to just inside the lip of the mandi, the protective mother perched nearby.

With utmost care over the next weeks I would bathe ladling water from the mandi while making sure no soap or shampoo splashed into the water.  I hadn’t thought what I would do once the eggs hatched and polliwogs emerged, that to be followed by hundreds of tiny frogs proliferating within my bathroom.  Unfortunately, or not, I never found out.  Near the second week of gestation, the sac of eggs sank into the mandi and began to rot.  Bits of protoplasm would float then sink towards the bottom as I ladled the water over my body.  Remembering this, savoring the pepes telor was a challenge.

Mixed with coconut, herbs and chiles, the pepes telor tasted like egg yolk laced with cayenne.  About 3/4-inch in diameter, it was hotter than most sambals I have tasted.  No doubt a diet rich in these might lead to gout, a thickening of the blood and hardening of the arteries, but it might also lead to a guttural timbre to one’s voice, a low thrumming the opposite sex cannot resist.  Still, this is not the season for swike, and even pepes telor swike is in short supply.

The eating house is to be closed for the next two weeks as they wait for more frogs to be harvested.  In the fields surrounding Kediri a hush descends as men with lanterns drift above the grasses, gigs poised, recalling that night at the losmen, the woman, the sheen of her skin, her low throaty keening.

Should you ever be in Kediri with a hankering for some swike, the rumah makan is located on Jl. Doho, two doors down from Sate Ayam Ponorogo Pak Siboen, towards the mosque.  A bowl of swike basah goes for 10,000 rupiah, a little over $1 U.S.  One pepes telor swike is half that—5,000 rupiah.


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