THE SILENT INVASION OF TOFU


> By: Myra Sidharta <
 

"Look, Dad! They have McDonald’s here too!” said little Yanto when he visited the USA last summer with his parents. For Yanto, McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s and all the other big fast-food outlets are part of his daily life in Indonesia. These name-brand outlets have taken the world by storm with their huge billboards, fast service and gifts and playgrounds for children.
        Paradoxically, this fast food is considered unhealthy, especially for the heart. According to an article in Time magazine (30 September 2002), the main culprit is the frying oil used for the French fries, fried chicken and other things we love. Recently, a new oil has been introduced that makes the fries less unfriendly to the cardio-vascular system; but the calorie content remains the same, and it is just as bad for the waistline. I
n the meantime—although in a far less boisterous manner—Asian cuisine has invaded the West with its own forms of fast-food. “Chinese take-away”, spear-headed by chow mein (fried noodles) and fried rice, has been popular for decades as a convenient solution for quick dinners. But even less obvious has been the subtle invasion of tofu, a soft, cheese-like soybean product known in Indonesia as tahu. The reason for its discreet profile is that the target group for tofu is not children and their indulgent parents, but people who are especially conscious of their health.
       Tofu has a long history in China, where it originated about 3 millennia ago. The technology of soybean processing spread quickly to Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. While tofu is but one of the soybean products of these countries, it is perhaps the most for general consumption.
       In Indonesia, tofu is considered an important element in the daily diet. It is found throughout the nation’s archipelago, prepared everywhere in the style of the local cuisine and reflecting its great ethnic diversity. It may be mixed with dog meat, in those regions where dog is considered a delicacy; in other places, tofu may be mixed with salted fish.
       Tofu feeds the rich as well as the poor. Five-star hotels and roadside stalls serve a variety of tofu dishes and types, from the soft custard style to the crisply fried. Judging from the processing technology, tofu seems to have been brought to the archipelago by the Chinese, but the exact date is difficult to establish. People in Kediri claim that tofu came to their city first, brought by the troops of Kublai Khan in 1292. The story begins, according to historical records, when Kublai Khan demanded tribute from the Javanese king Kertanegara of Singosari; but the king refused to fulfil the Khan’s request. The Khan’s special envoy, sent to Java in 1289, suffered the injury and indignity of having his face disfigured by the Javanese court. Kublai Khan sent an expedition consisting of 20,000 soldiers to punish the king. Meanwhile, however, Jayakatawang, king of the east Javanese realm of Kediri, had conquered Singosari and killed Kertanegara. Raden Wijaya, Kertanegara’s son-in-law, vowed revenge. Fortuitously for him, the Mongol expedition landed in Surabaya. He directed the ships through the Brantas river to Kediri, and led a heavy battle. Raden Wijaya, the victor, then established the illustrious Majapahit kingdom, whose imperial reign endured into the 15th century. The place where the Chinese junks anchored is now called Jung Biru (“blue junks”). Kublai Khan’s ships had complete cooking galleys, of course; and some were equipped for making tofu. Today many tofu shops can be found in Kediri, offering tofu in a great variety of consistency, from soft custard-like cakes to the more solid takua. The process of making tofu is similar to the production of cheese. First, soybean milk is obtained by grinding the beans mixed with water between two heavy stones. In Kediri, this grinding is done the old-fashioned way, by two men who turn the heavy stones by hand. From this liquid, different products may be produced at successive stages of processing: soy milk and whey in the early stages, and tofu at a secondary stage. Nothing is wasted. The leftover skins are used for cattle feed, but sometimes are also sold to local villagers, who ferment  it  to make oncom, an orange-colored  substance, that smells  aomewhat stale, kije bkue cheese, but (like blue cheese) is delicious.
       Kediri is so proud of its tofu history that, as part of the celebrations of the 1123rd anniversary of the city, a 500 kilogram tofu was made and submitted to the Indonesian Museum of Records in Semarang. Understandably, this highly perishable half-ton tofu cake is on display only in the form of a replica. The original was donated to the poor.
       On our way home from our research trip to Kediri, we decided to visit some other places known for their tofu specialties, so we stopped in Yogyakarta to taste the tahu dan tempe bacem.  In this specialty of Central Java, tofu and its cousin, the cured soy block called tempe, is marinated in soy sauce mixed with palm sugar, coconut milk and spices and then fried.
       After Yogyakarta, we decided to take the southern route home to Jakarta, by way of Bandung. This was not only to enjoy the beauty of the tea plantations, but also to stop in Sumedang in West Java, another city that prides itself on its tofu.        Visitors to Sumedang are greeted by hundreds of signboards advertising their tahu pong. Tahu pong is tofu cut into one-inch cubes and deep-fried until crispy. It is offered in restaurants with a thin chili sauce. In Jakarta, road-side hawkers in traditional markets offer you the same thing, only sprinkled with a little salt and some fresh green cabe rawit (small hot green chilli). There is nothing better after a hectic afternoon of shopping!
       From Sumedang, we traveled to Bandung, famous for its tahu bakso—stuffed tofu served with a peanut sauce similar to that of gado-gado­—and pepes tahu, for which the cook has mixed ground tofu with mushrooms, garlic and onions, and a little finely sliced chili; the mixture is wrapped in banana leaves and grilled on a charcoal fire.
       All these traditional treats made us admire the skill of ordinary people in adapting tofu into their local cuisine. So when we got back to Jakarta, we were keen to see how tofu is served in five-star restaurants.  In one, we tried the Ma-po-tau-fu, a delicious but maliciously named dish of tofu and ground meat, which means something like “tofu that looks like a woman with pock-marks.”  In another restaurant, we were surprised when the chef recommended “deep fried tofu”. While we waited, we wondered what could be so special about this, the staple of a rice-farmer’s diet—which indeed is what it looked like when it arrived. But once we picked up a piece with our chop-sticks, dipped it in the special chili sauce and took a bite, we melted with admiration for the chef. The tofu was crispy on the outside, and so soft and fine on the inside that we agreed that only a master could produce something so delicious from such a simple ingredient as tofu.        This wonderful chef also gave us tofu custard for dessert, finished with a slightly sweetened ginger sauce, as a complimentary gesture. In the midst of this pleasure, we may, I hope, be forgiven for thinking, “Who needs McDonald’s?” But we would never say so out loud. Perhaps there are as many levels of fast food as there are of heaven.

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