Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Salted Mustard Greens

Mothers-in-law are an apparently universal source of jokes and vitriol.  I've had students from countries throughout the world tell me jokes about mothers-in-law.  I've also heard tales of their viciousness and oppression.  If one were to believe the lore, mothers-in-law transform from ordinary women (if such beings can be said to exist) into a chupacabra-like beast that can suck the blood and life-force from a marriage.  The metamorphosis is said to start with the planning for the wedding, mildly annoying at first, eventually becoming a heinous monstrosity that feeds on slights and rips the flesh from marriages.

It may seem odd then that I regret never having met my mother-in-law, who died before Tjing and I began seeing each other.   I have had the pleasure of meeting her two sisters, both of whom have been very kind to me.  The older one, who also enjoyed cooking, clips recipes and gives them to me when we visit.  Both sisters have good senses of humor, and from all accounts Tjing's mother also managed to maintain her sense of humor and to raise a remarkable family in difficult times.

It's hard for non-Indonesians, and perhaps for younger Indonesians, to appreciate the difficulties of being identified as Chinese in Java, especially in the 60s.  Although my mother-in-law was an Indonesian citizen whose family had been in Indonesia for several generations, and my father-in-law was born in Indonesia, their children did not become citizens until the 80s.  At one point, Tjing's mother was tempted to destroy the birth certificates and her marriage license so that her children would be citizens.  Had she been recognized as the sole parent, her children would have her rights of citizenship passed on to them.  As children follow the husband/father, since Tjing's father was not recognized as a citizen, none of his offspring could be.  He refused to have his children be identified as bastards in order to procure citizenship.  Tjing finally managed to get her citizenship shortly before going to Galang.

After the fall of Sukarno in 1965, between 100,000 and 1,000,000 people were killed, most of them in Central and East Java.  While the targets were ostensibly communists, who were blamed for the failed coup that led to Suharto's ascension, Chinese were also slaughtered in huge numbers.  The town where Tjing's mother was born was largely Chinese and was virtually wiped from the map.  In the following years, Chinese publications and the studying of Chinese were banned.  The Suharto government forced assimilation on the Chinese by erasing cultural ties.  While cleansing them of their Chinese cultural heritage, the policy did not integrate the Chinese Indonesians into the mainstream of society.  There was a limit on the number of ethnic Chinese allowed to study at universities and to work for the government.  The limit was also imposed on multinational companies. 

In this hostile climate, Tjing's mother raised four children and ran a jamu shop.  All children, including her daughters, went to university.  While her life was confined to Kediri and surrounding towns, she ensured that Tjing was able to study in Yogya and enabled her to live and work in Galang.  For Americans this might seem like no big thing, but without her mother's support, Tjing's father would have never allowed Tjing to go to Galang.  Later, when Tjing was offered a full scholarship by the Australian government to get her Master's in Canberra, it was her mother that allowed Tjing to accept the scholarship.  While Tjing was completing her degree, her mother was discovered to have cancer that had already reached a very advanced stage and died within days of entering the hospital, before Tjing was able to get back to see her.

One of the reasons I regret not having known Tjing's mother is that in addition to having a good sense of humor, she also was a skilled cook.  Unfortunately, Tjing didn't take much interest in learning how to cook from her mother.  She can describe dishes her mother used to make, but is very fuzzy with the details.  Rice with salted mustard greens is one of her dishes that Tjing sometimes makes.  Her mother used to make the salted mustard greens, but Tjing didn't know how, so this is my attempt.  They turned out pretty good.  They are certainly cheap to make, and we much prefer them to the ones available in the market that are made in China.  I don't quite trust the safety of Chinese food products.

The recipe I used came from HungerHunger, a blog based in Kota Kinabalu.  Her recipe called for drying the greens before salting them and using water from rinsing rice.  Other recipes omit the drying and use just plain water.  While I'm sure the other recipes may be just as good, HungerHunger's approach seemed much more like what I imagine Tjing's mother would use.  The only change I made was in the drying time, cutting down the amount of time because of Sacramento's heat and low humidity.

Salted Mustard Greens

Several bunches of Chinese mustard greens (I got eight for a dollar at the farmer's market)
water from rinsing rice
glass jar

Wash the mustard greens to remove any dirt.  On racks or strung together and hung, dry the greens outdoors until thoroughly wilted.  This took about 24 hours in 92º heat with low humidity.

Use one tablespoon of kosher salt for each bunch.  Rub the salt well into the greens.  Place the greens with the salt into a large glass jar or container.  

When you make a pot of rice, reserve the water from the first rinse to pour over the greens. Make sure the water completely covers the greens, placing a weight on them if necessary.  

Store at room temperature for 5 to 7 days.  After that, keep in the refrigerator for longer storage.  I vacuum pack the bunches in small bags after using several of the bunches rather than keeping them in the large jar.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Kue Bika Ambon

Spend any time in Indonesia and you will soon learn the importance of oleh-oleh.  For those fortunate to visit other places, it is expected that they return with some oleh-oleh to share with family, friends, and coworkers.  These may be trinkets such as key chains or handicrafts, but the most popular oleh-oleh are local foods.  Flights from Jogya have passengers carrying boxes packed with gudeg.  Take the northern express train across Java and you will be pressed to buy dodol, wingko Babat, and other local flavors.  

Foods don't have to be a specialty of the place you travel to in order to be suitable oleh-oleh.  If they are unavailable locally, they are valued.  When the first McDonald's opened in Jakarta, I saw people flying back to Surabaya and Jogya with bags of burgers as oleh-oleh.  The same thing happened with Pizza Hut.  These international brands have an allure that is difficult for me to understand.  I would much prefer a fresh plate of even average tahu lontong to a five-hour old Big Mac or slice of pizza.  Of course, those were the old days.  Now even Kediri has its own McD's and Pizza Hut (where you can get a pizza with canned tuna, creamed corn and mayonnaise, ugh!).  

Kue bika Ambon is a cake famous not from Ambon, but Medan in North Sumatra.  It is the oleh-oleh of choice for people who have visited Medan.  Unlike western cakes which are made from wheat flour and have a delicate, crumbly texture, kue bika Ambon is made from sago starch and has an odd, slightly gelatinous texture.  Leavened with yeast,  and flavored with kaffir lime, pandan leaf, and lemongrass infused coconut milk, it is unlike any other cake I have ever tasted. While I must say I still prefer a European style cake, I can understand the attraction of kue bika Ambon.  Both its flavor and its texture are delightfully distinctive.


The difficulty with making this cake in the United States is that for best results you should use sago flour/starch.  While tapioca starch is readily available, this is made from cassava.  It is an acceptable substitute for sago flour in most recipes, but I believe it may not work as successfully in making bika ambon.  I have tried several recipes, and ones that I substituted tapioca starch for the sago flour called for in the recipe were not as successful.  This recipe uses a sponge of wheat flour as well as some glutinous rice flour to produce a much more satisfactory result.  This is adapted from the Indonesian recipe found here.

Kue Bika Ambon

(Since getting a digital scale, I find it much easier and more reliable to measure most ingredients by weight.  I know many people prefer to measure by volume, so I include both measurements.)

100 grams (4/5 cup) all-purpose flour
125 ml (1/2 cup) lukewarm water
2 1/2 tsp yeast

300 ml ( 1 1/4 cups) coconut milk (I use Chaokoh canned coconut milk)
1/2 tsp powdered turmeric
12 kaffir lime leaves, shredded
2 stalks lemongrass, bruised
2 pandan leaves (we can get these in Sacramento; if you can't, don't worry)
1 tsp salt
300 grams (1 1/3 cups) sugar
225 grams (1 4/5 cups) tapioca starch
25 grams (2 1/2 TBS) glutinous rice flour
7 large eggs

In a bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water.  Add a pinch of sugar, then stir in the flour.  Let this sponge rest while you prepare the other ingredients.

Pour the coconut milk into a saucepan.  Stir in the turmeric.  Add the lime leaves, pandan leaves (if using), lemongrass, salt, and sugar.  Bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt.  Turn off the heat and let the mixture steep while cooling slightly.

In a mixing bowl, stir together the tapioca starch and rice flour.  Add the risen sponge and use a mixer to thoroughly incorporate the starch mixture into the sponge.  Add the eggs one by one, making sure each is completely mixed in before adding the next. 
Strain the solids from the coconut milk.  You should have about 450 ml (a scant 2 cups) of liquid.  With the mixer running, slowly add the strained coconut milk to the batter.  Continue to mix for about 15 minutes.  

Grease an angel food cake pan, or a 9" by 13" baking pan.  Pour the cake batter into the pan and let it rest for 2 hours.

Bake the cake in a 325º F oven for 40 to 50 minutes.