I haven’t written much about the food here, which, given my blog title and personal interests, may be surprising. As we wrap up our time in Borneo, though, I’m ready to reflect on that most important topic: eats! We decided early on to abstain from meat, seafood, and poultry. Anecdotally, we’d heard that it’s a lot easier to get sick from these items, largely since most foods are not refrigerated. Also, it’s hot. As a final nail in the skip-the-animal-protein coffin, our dinner is usually cooked around 1pm or 2pm and left on the table until we eat it at 6pm or 7pm. There are usually ants, and rat and gecko poop on the table, too. Also, did I mention that it’s hot?
Skipping the fried fish, stringy chicken, and other animal delights means that we’ve been enjoying a lot of what George aptly calls the holy trinity of Indonesian cuisine: tofu, tempeh, and eggs. I might make that trinity a square, and add rice. Steamed sticky white rice accompanies every meal, including many traditional breakfasts.
Tofu and tempeh invariably arrive shallow-, stir-, or deep-fried in palm oil. Deep-fried eggs and omelets often grace our plates, too. In fact, some of the staff and volunteers joke that ‘goreng’ (which means ‘fried’) is Indonesian for ‘good’. They’re not far off. Palm oil is cheap (albeit very environmentally destructive to produce) and adds calories and satiety that the diets of many people here often lack. Sweet and salty sauces are popular, especially kecap manis – a considerably sweet syrup of soy sauce and palm sugar. We put it on everything. It’s the Indonesian equivalent of ketchup, and is pronounced about the same!
To know me is to know my love of vegetables, and to say I’ve been deprived of the green stuff here would be an understatement. I figured that would be the case, but have been happy that our lunches and dinners sometimes include cooked vegetation including water spinach (which I affectionately call swamp greens), carrots, mung bean sprouts, green beans, cabbage, cassava leaves, and young jackfruit.
Before coming here, I couldn’t have named the last time I had two consecutive meals that lacked vegetables. Here, I’ll go a couple days with nothing green in sight! This is partly my own doing: I skip anything crunchy, figuring it hasn’t been cooked into oblivion. This isn’t, however, a fail-proof strategy. This week that I learned that our cook uses non-filtered water (i.e., full of unknowable diseases!) to cook our meals. Great.
Tempeh production here is a big-time cottage industry, with banana leaf-wrapped packets of still-warm soybean cakes delivered at least once a day to street-side open-air markets and shops. While at Whole Foods tempeh is hermetically sealed in plastic bags, here it continues to ‘breathe’ and ferment. This means that it’s covered in a layer of mycelium, a fuzzy white mold that continues to grow (and generate heat) until it’s killed by cooking.
After I got over the mold, I quickly fell in love with Indonesian tempeh. It’s vastly more flavorful than what’s commonly available at home, as the fermentation process here less regulated and allows for two strains of fungal spores - Rhizopus oligosporus (similar to bread mold) and Klebsiella pneumonia, while in the US most commercially available tempeh is inoculated only with the former.
On a few weekend nights, absent a meal prepared by our house helper, I tried my hand at some classic Indonesian tempeh preparations. One, tempeh bacem, involves boiling tempeh slices in a sticky-sweet mixture of palm sugar, herbs and spices, and coconut water before deep-frying them to a crisp; the other, sambal tempeh, a stir-fry of little tempeh pieces in a fiery and aromatic sauce (sambal) with peanuts and green onions.
As is traditional here, I did some cooking – like the grinding of dried chilies, herbs and spices, and various knobby roots in a mortar and pestle – on the ground. I cringed every time I used palm oil, but it’s the only cooking fat available here. Both tempeh bacem and tempeh sambal are approachable gateway recipes for tempeh neophytes. I plan on posting recipes for them when I get home, so that you all can experience the true delight of moldy soybeans.