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.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Plate of Java

Java, for most Americans, is synonymous with coffee.  Countless coffee shops employ
names such as Java City, Java House, and Java Corner to identify themselves as hip and
true.  They want you to know they serve the authentic coffee, no corporate multinational
conglomerate brew for them.  Unfortunately, Java produces little coffee these days, and that
which it does produce is generally inferior to that grown  on other islands in Indonesia such
as Sumatra,  Sulawesi, Bali and Flores.  Food is another story.

Throughout the archipelago local ingredients and conditions have influenced the cooking. 
Some cuisines, such as that of the Minangkabau of West Sumatra, have spread throughout
the islands; you are as likely to find a Padang restaurant in Irian Jaya as you are in Padang. 
Likewise,  a single dish such as soto has innumerable variations, evolving to reflect local
tastes and ingredients. 

For this month’s Foodbuzz 24 x 24, I proposed a sampling of the foods offered on the streets of
Kediri, my wife’s hometown in East Java.  We arrived here Friday evening,  after traveling
for 36 hours from California to reach Java, 23 of those hours spent in the air.  While time generally
seems to slip by more quickly the older I get,  not so for those long flights.

A minivan shuttled us from my wife's cousin's house in Surabaya to Tjing's family home in Kediri.  A drive that normally takes around three hours took six.  With less legroom than is afforded in economy airline seats these days, the van ride seemed every bit as long as the flight from California.  Arriving in Kediri around 8:30, we quickly set out to a local pushcart serving fried rice (nasi goreng), fried noodles (mie goreng), noodle soup (mie kuah), and a mix of fried noodles and rice (nasi mawut).  In a small wok set over a burner of glowing coals, the cook prepared each serving cooked to order.  It was a nice start to our stay in Kediri.

I thought the task of sampling a variety of the dishes available in Kediri through the course of a day would be relatively simple.  I had forgotten how much variety there is in Java, how many possibilities and variations there are.  As much as I wanted to, it was impossible to include sup buntut (oxtail soup), rawon (a hearty beef soup), pecel lele (catfish grilled or fried and served with vegetables and sambal), belut (eel), swike (frog), martabak telor (a kind of crepe folded around beaten eggs and fried crisp) while also having those dishes that I did.  I chose to avoid gado-gado and sate (satay), as I figured they were familiar to anyone who has ever been to an Indonesian or Malaysian restaurant. 

Normally my breakfast here consists of coffee and a bowl of fruit, usually papaya with a squeeze of lime.  Tjing's family consider this odd, fruit not being adequate for breakfast.  Most often breakfast for the family  is rice with whatever was left from yesterday's meals.  When told of my need to blog about the food typically eaten in Kediri, Tjing's sister, Lili, and her husband, An Kok, both natives of Kediri, quickly suggested where to get the best nasi gurih, nasi kuning, and other dishes they thought were worthy to blog about. 

A little after 7:15 on Saturday morning, Lili, Tjing, and I set out to get the food.  The first place we stopped was at the bubur ayam truck on Jl. Doho.  Bubur ayam is a rice porridge (congee or jook) usually served with a sprinkling of fried peanuts, fried shallots, chopped scallions, and fried Chinese crullers (cakwe).  It's the very definition of a comfort food, simple yet satisfying.  Although it wasn't even 7:30 yet, there was only enough bubur left for one bowl.  We purchased that for 8,000 rupiah (90 cents) and continued on our way to get nasi kuning (yellow rice).

At the nasi kuning stall we discovered we were once again too late.  Sold out.  Some sort of school group had come earlier and bought all the yellow rice.  They had nasi gurih though, so we got a portion of that for 10,000 rupiah and three fried bananas (pisang goreng) for several thousand more.  Nasi gurih is rice that has been cooked with a little coconut milk and served with several sides.  Here it was served with chicken, tofu, vegetable in a spicy coconut broth, sambal kentang kering, and a sprinkling of fried shallots.

We then went to another stall and picked up some more nasi gurih, this with a spicier broth.  After this we stopped at another sidewalk vendor on Jl. Doho that still had some nasi kuning.  Nasi kuning is traditionally a celebratory dish, often served at weddings, birthdays and selamatans.  Rice is cooked in coconut milk colored with turmeric and scented with pandan leaves.  This produces a rich, fragrant rice, visually and aromatically appealing.  This was bundled together with noodles, sambal tempe kering, fried tofu, chicken, and vegetables in spicy broth.

In both the nasi gurih and the nasi kuning there is a balance between the savory and sweet, the spicy and mild, the crispness of the sambals and the pleasing suppleness of the vegetables in their broth. 

Finally, two doors down from Lili's house, we stopped and picked up an order of pecel tumpang.  Pecel is a kind of less elaborate version of gado-gado.  Consisting of some boiled greens (in this case cassava leaves) topped with some fried tofu and tempe and dressed in a peanut based sauce, this a what might be described as a vegan's wet dream.  Pecel tumpang is a specialty of East Java, the sauce using overly ripened tempe to give it it's complex funkiness.  My brother-in-law in Bandung, West Java, who has been known to travel 14 hours by bus to Kediri, visit for two hours or so before getting back on the bus to return to Bandung, never fails to get some pecel tumpang when he is in town. We also picked up some kolak ubi there, a sweet soup rich with coconut milk and palm sugar.

bubur ayam
the spread
nasi tumpang
nasi gurih and nasi kuning
another version of nasi gurih

 kolak ubi--a sweet potato sweet coconut milk soup
Having at last assembled all the elements for our breakfast, we headed home, just two doors down.  Lili and Tjing spread the bounty upon the dining table and we all helped ourselves to a little of this and that.  The nasi kuning was superb, expertly seasoned, and the sambal tempe kering that accompanied it was just as good.  For a total of 56,000 rupiah (about $6), we had more than enough food for four adults and two hungry girls.

For lunch we had one of my favorites, soto ayam.  Soto ayam can be found throughout Indonesia, but some of the best is undoubtedly in Central and East Java.  When I first came to Indonesia almost 30 years ago, soto ayam was what I had for a mid-morning snack or lunch at least four days a week. The best soto ayam I've had is still that I used to get in Cepu, but Kediri has several worthy contenders.  We chose to eat at the venerable Soto Pojok (Corner Soto), a small rumah makan located on Jl. Doho, Kediri's main street.  Soto Pojok has been in business since 1926 and is open every day of the year, including national holidays and during Ramadan.

soto ayam
tahu dan tempe goreng
enjoying lunch
A rumah makan (which literally translates as eating house) is a kind of scaled down restaurant.  Most rumah makans offer a very limited menu of a few dishes which are already cooked and are merely assembled when ordered.  Soto Pojok offers two items, soto ayam and tahu and tempe goreng (fried tempeh and tofu).  Their tempe goreng is heavenly, with a golden brown and crisp exterior and an almost creamy interior.  Although they use a light hand when adding chicken to the soto, and the rice they use is not the best, their broth is very good, which you would expect from a place that has been in business more than 75 years. Six bowls of soto, five krupuk, two portions of tahu dan tempe goreng plus drinks came to 75,000 rupiah (about $8).

Having purchased food from pedagang kaki lima (street vendors) and warungs for breakfast, and eaten lunch at a rumah makan, I thought for dinner we should go to a restaurant.  It's one An Kwok and Lili took us to several years ago, a seafood restaurant which I remembered having some excellent ikan bakar (grilled fish). 

Ikan Bakar 99 is an odd place that serves very good food.  The owner and main cook is a body builder who stands about 5'6" tall.  On the walls inside the dining room, which appears to be the living room of a house, are pictures of the owner oiled and flexing.  As sometimes happens in Indonesia, one of the servers was wearing a T-shirt that might not have been appropriate for a restaurant.  It read: Save Water, Pee While You Shower.  Not something you really want to think about while sitting down to eat.  The room has the capacity to seat 28, uncomfortably.  Being Saturday night, it was full when we arrived, but fortunately we were able to squeeze into a table in the back corner. 

All the food is prepared in front of the restaurant.  The owner/cook mans two gas fired burners, one dedicated to a wok for deep frying, and another for braises and stir fries.  An assistant oversees a grill of ruby coals over which whole fish are quickly grilled.

I ordered more food than we could possibly eat, more than I was comfortable ordering, but I wanted to try a range of dishes.  I was uncomfortable ordering so much in front of An Kok and Lili, not wanting them to think Tjing and I were gluttons or people who didn't know the value of money.  There is always this line one walks as a foreigner in Indonesia, knowing that what seems like little to you is not so little to those who live there.  A plate of noodles for less than two dollars would be nothing for many Americans, but for many Indonesians that would seem an extravagance.  Nevertheless, I ordered away, explaining it was Foodbuzz paying for the meal, not me.  We had ikan kakap bakar manis (snapper grilled with sweet soya sauce), gurame goreng (thin slices of filleted gurame dusted with flour and fried, served with a sweet and sour sauce, sawi cah udang (choy sum with shrimp), kweitiau seafood (broad rice noodles with seafood), udang crispy (crispy fried shrimp), mun tahu (tofu braised with vegetables and seafood), and steamed rice.  The total for the dinner, including tea and a glass of fresh orange juice, came to 199,000 rupiah (a little over $20). 

ikan kakap bakar manis

gurame goreng

digging in

mun tahu

sawi cah udang

 udang crispy

All in all, it was a wonderful day sampling some of the foods Kediri has to offer.  I'd like to thank Foodbuzz for the opportunity and hope to post more of the places  and recipes I try in my next few weeks here.

*When I originally posted this my laptop had less than 5% battery life, so I wasn't able to include any recipes other than the link to soto.  Here are a few others.

Pecel Sambal Kacang

500 grams peanuts, fried
1 red chile
5 red Thai chiles
5 cloves of garlic, peeled
1/2 inch of fresh kencur (almost impossible to find in the US) or 1/2 tsp ground kencur
2 kaffir lime leaves
1 tsp vinegar
200 grams sugar
salt, to taste
3 TBS vegetable oil

Long beans or green beans
Bean sprouts

Heat the vegetable oil in a wok or skillet, add the chiles and garlic and stir fry until softened, being careful not to brown the garlic. When softened, remove from the pan and mix with the peanuts, kencur (if you have), lime leaves, sugar, and salt in a blender.  Process until you have a well mixed paste.  Add the vinegar and enough water to make a sauce that is thick, but can be poured atop the vegetables.

Boil the vegetables separately in a large pot of boiling water.  The beans will take two to three minutes, maybe a little less for the spinach, and a minute should be long enough for the bean sprouts.  As each vegetable is cooked, drain and plunge in cold water to stop the cooking.  Drain well.

Place the vegetables on a plate and top with the peanut sauce.  Serve with rempeyek and/or krupuk.

Pecel Sambal Tumpang

150 grams tempe, diced
50 grams tempe semangit (overripe tempe--if you make your own tempe, let some of it continue to ferment before wrapping it and putting it in the refrigerator or freezer)
1 salam leaf
2 kaffir lime leaves
1/2 inch of laos, pounded
3 red Thai chiles
200 ml water
500 ml coconut milk
3 TBS vegetable oil

4 shallots, peeled
3 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 red chile
1/2 tsp coriander seeds, finely ground
1/2 inch kencur
salt, to taste

Long beans or green beans
Cassava leaves (these are somewhat bitter, chard or kale would be a good substitute)
Bean sprouts

In a mortar or using a food processor or blender, grind together the shallots, garlic, chile, coriander, kencur and salt.  Heat the vegetable oil in a pan over medium heat and add the ground spice mixture.  Cook, stirring, until fragrant and softened.  Remove from the pan and cool.

In a medium saucepan boil the water with the two tempes, salam leaf, kaffir lime leaves, laos and Thai chiles until they are cooked.  Add the previously fried spice mixture, bring to a simmer, then remove from the heat.

Process the cooked tempe mixture to a paste and return to the saucepan.  Add the coconut milk and bring just to a simmer over low flame.  Remove from the heat and allow to cool.

Cook each of the vegetables separately in a large pot of boiling water. Put in cold water to stop the cooking and drain. 

Place a mix of the cooked vegetables on a plate and pour over the cooled tempe sauce.  Serve with rempeyek.

Mun Tahu

8 oz silken tofu, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 oz shrimp, peeled and coarsely chopped
4 oz chicken or pork, coarsely chopped
1 cup water
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 slice of ginger, crushed
1/4 tsp white pepper, finely ground
1 TBS light soy sauce
3 TBS vegetable oil
1 tsp cornstarch mixed with 2 TBS water
8 young scallions, thinly sliced
1 tsp sesame oil

Heat the vegetable oil in a wok.  Stir fry the garlic until golden and fragrant.  Add shrimp and chicken or pork, stirring.  As soon as this mixture colors, add the water and bring to a boil.

Lower the heat and add the tofu, ginger, white pepper and soil sauce.  Simmer five minutes to allow the flavors to develop.  Stir in cornstarch slurry and simmer several minutes until the sauce thickens slightly.  Stir in the thinly sliced scallions and sesame oil.  Remove from heat and serve.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Tofu and Garlic Chive Turnovers

Garlic chives (kucai) appear in many dumpling recipes.  They are much more fragrant, some might say odorous, than regular chives although their flavor is not overpowering.  They are particularly nice when cooked with shrimp.  In this recipe from Andrea Nguyen's Asian Tofu, they are paired with tofu.  Nguyen's recipe actually calls for the use of seasoned pressed tofu, but I used some fresh tofu from a local tofu maker after first draining the tofu in a colander under weight and then wrapping the tofu in cheesecloth and wringing out every bit of moisture that I could. 

These are substantial, much larger than potstickers.  They are about the size of empanadas.  The dough is easy to make and work with, and it produces a chewy crust.  Although best served warm (and what fried food isn't?), they are not bad at room temperature. 

I am not someone who eats tofu as penitence.  While I would never choose to eat a tofu, lettuce and tomato sandwich instead of a BLT, I  certainly might opt for tahu lontong or tahu telor rather than a BLT.

Tofu and Garlic Chive Turnovers
printable recipe

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
1/2 tsp salt
2/3 cup warm water
4 tsp vegetable oil

1 small bundle (they come eight to a package) cellophane noodles, soaked in hot water to soften, drained and chopped
2 blocks of fresh tofu, drained, squeezed in cheesecloth to drain all the moisture you can from it--or 4 to 5 ounces baked pressed tofu, finely chopped (about one cup)
1 1/2 cups garlic chives, chopped
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp white pepper
1/2 tsp sugar
1 TBS cornstarch
1 TBS sesame oil
1 large egg

vegetable oil for panfrying

In a large bowl or  food processor, mix together the flour and salt.  Combine the water and oil and add to the flour mixture.  Process in the food processor until the dough forms a ball and continue for another 30 seconds or so.  If mixing by hand, stir in the liquid until the dough comes together.  You should have a fairly soft, supple dough.

Knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic, maybe about ten minutes if doing the entire process by hand, less time if starting with the food processor.  Once the dough is smooth, wrap well with plastic and let rest at room temperature for at least 15 minutes and up to 2 hours.

While the dough is resting, make the filling.  In a medium-sized bowl mix together the noodles, tofu, and garlic chives.  Mix together the salt, pepper, sugar, and cornstarch in a small bowl.  Stir in the egg and sesame oil into the seasoning mixture and mix well.  Pour this into the tofu mixture and stir until well combined.

Make the turnovers in 2 batches.  Cut the rested dough in half.  Wrap the half you are not using in plastic.  Cut the half you are using into 4 equal size pieces about the size of golf balls.  Flatten each ball into a 3-inch wide disk.  Dust both sides of each disk with flour.  Use a rolling pin to roll the disks out to approximately 6 1/2-inch diameters.

Place approximately 1/4-cup of filling just off center of a rolled out piece of dough.  Bring over half of the circle and press to seal.  Lightly wetting the bottom edge of the circle helps ensure a secure seal.  Make sure the filling is distributed evenly within the closed turnover.

Dust the bottom of each filled turnover with flour and place on a parchment lined baking sheet.  Cover the filled turnovers with a dishtowel while rolling out and filling the others. 

When all have been rolled and filled, heat about 1/4 cup of oil in a large nonstick frying pan over medium to medium-high heat.

When the oil is shimmering, panfry the turnovers for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, frying 2 to 3 turnovers at a time.  Fry until they are brown and crispy on both sides.  Nguyen suggests using tongs to hold the turnovers upright and brown the spines.