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.


  1. What a fascinating story, sad and powerful at the same time. I can only imagine how difficult it was for Chinese living in Indonesia.

    I've been making kimchee for a few years now. While I've heard of fermenting and pickling mustard greens, haven't yet ventured into that territory. I also live in Sacramento and usually shy away from making these types of things during the summer. We keep our house in the low 80s and fermentation takes off quickly in this warmer environment. But it sounds like your salted mustard does just fine so I'll have to pick up some greens at the farmers market. Thanks for sharing ;-)

  2. Lynn,
    I bought these greens at the Asian, non-certified, farmers market on 4th between X and W, about eight bunches for $1. Temperatures in Indonesia and Malaysia rarely get cool, so I figured this would work in Sacramento in late spring. Mind you, last Saturday (when we reached 108º F) you probably could have dried the greens in half the time.


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