Jane and I are not fans of tour groups so we jumped on a motorbike and headed out into the countryside around Yogyakarta. We’d been reliably informed that there would be huge ancient religious monuments, something like the grandeur of Angkhor Wat, and no shortage of tofu (tahu) making villages. We were ready for some great times, lumps of tofu and stunning temples sounded like a decent way to pass a day.
We zig zagged and bounced our way out of Yogkakarta in the early morning, traffic flowing like a crazy vein of buzzing scooters making erratic patterns on rutted tarmac tracks. We made it to the greener surrounds and went off piste down little tracks lined with rice paddies and folk thrashing their harvest by hand. The countryside was breathtaking and so very fertile. After the polluted city, the fresh air and open skies were a delight.
We began to follow our noses, asking the wonderful people of Java for tips and signals. Many people understand English in Indonesia and they are so very kind hearted. One chap hopped on his bike and led us over awesome off road terrain to a little village where an old lady was sat on a terrace. ‘Tahu!’ he excitedly exclaimed and we knew we’d hit our plant-based jackpot.
Tahu (tofu) is a staple in Indonesia, as well as Tempeh (more to come of that in following posts). Many people in the countryside cannot afford to eat meat regularly and it seems that tofu and tempeh fills the gap. Indonesians love it and it is available everywhere, mostly in little stalls selling it as a deep fried snack with a cup of Jasmine green tea. We’ve so far eaten it many ways and have gobbled them all with glee. The tofu is generally given a quick fry in coconut oil before being re-cooked and the tempeh is regularly served after being simmered with cane sugar. Sticky and sweet. In many ways, eating tempeh and tofu in Indonesia is a little like eating Focaccia and Pasta in Italy, this is it’s land. Where it is from. There is something intangible there that cannot be recreated.
The tofu kitchen was actually a mini countryside production plant. Generations of the family were lending a hand as Grandmother supervised. For those who know the process of tofu making, it is the same as you’d do at home, just a larger scale. They made what we’d call ‘firm’ tofu in the UK and sold it straight up cubed or gave big chunks a couple of minutes in very hot coconut oil to crisp up and then stored the finished tofu in water. All of the heat used was via wooden braziers, the frying pan was heated using a large pile of wood chips. Very, very hot work but the aromas were a delight.
The family didn’t speak English and were a little shy. Our two scrumbled pages of Indonesian and a few sentences got us somewhere, but two big gangly exciteable tourists poking about your work place is generally a little unsettling. They were absolutely lovely and we got to taste the tofu at each process and it was excellent, as you’d expect. One thing that I did find surprising is that the soya beans used were from the USA. I know that the US grows vast quantities of soya beans to feed their insatiable appetite for beef, but I did not imagine that some of it would be feeding the people of Java! I can only imagine that its cheaper than local soya beans which just seems bizarre, but understandable with our current methods of food production and distribution. Organic tofu this was not! Otherwise, this method of making curd from warmed bean milk is completely genius and has long been established (Han Dynasty, China, over 2000 years ago) as a vital way to get nutritious, protein-rich food into diets. It’s also utterly lovely stuff.
This was our first time seeing tofu being made in a traditional way and the family had been making the local villages tofu for generations. It is such a privelege to be able to travel and investigate the food that we love. Our connection with and understanding of what we are eating grows and we can find new found enjoyment in the wonders of global cuisine. We’ll never look at a lump of tofu the same again!
PS – We’d love to tell you the name of the tofu village, but we were scooting all over the place and had no idea where we really were. It’s our little secret, somewhere near Karang. We’d also just had a jug of thick black coffee from Papua New Guinea which gave us some kind of joy jitters; laughing, jabbering, sweating, dazed, frantic, dry mouth……you know how that goes.