GRUB!: Inappropriate Cheese

Sunday, April 29, 2018

It’s about time I told you about some Indonesian grub. There has been no shortage of odd and notable food in my life since I arrived, but today I thought I’d focus on one particular thing that’s cropped in a few different places: Cheese.

Asia in general is not a hugely cheesy place. In fact, cheese is notably absent from basically all East Asian cuisine. This is partly cultural (Ha! Cheese… culture…see what I did there?) and partly because a large percentage of East Asian people are lactose intolerant, though really the two feed into each other. Whatever the case, the cheese selection in my local Ranch Market runs heavily to processed stuff, maybe because of the growing influence of Western fast food. I have managed to find two worthwhile offerings in the harder, more pungent end of the cheese spectrum, but all in all it’s not exactly a cheese party here. (Also wine is so heavily taxed that it’s basically out of the question to buy it for casual consumption. A bottle of wine that I’d expect to pay £10 for at home would be about £50 here. So a wine and cheese party? Definitely not happening.)

Then again, you do run into cheese in some unusual places. Back on Carefree Day in Jember our local hosts presented me and my colleagues with large boxes of packaged local cakes to bring back to Jakarta with us. This was a lovely gesture, expect that the airline forced us to check our cake boxes (???) so we ended up having to hang around at the luggage carousel even though we’d cleverly travelled with only carry-on bags. Apparently this cake could not travel safely in the cabin.

Naturally, I was curious to check out the contents of the sealed boxes once I got home to Jakarta.

And here it is - what a spread!

First - DO NOT BE FOOLED. Those look like regular cakes right? And that bottom one totally looks like a tray of brownies. Which it is… sort of. All of these treats are made from tape (pronounced TAH-pay, and note that link requires translation). Tape is a fermented product, sometimes made from rice, but here we were dealing with the cassava variety. (Cassava is a starchy root vegetable called manioc or yuca in other parts of the world.) I’ll admit I was having a bit of trouble getting to the bottom of this tape business, mostly because all the websites are in Bahasa and Google Translate can only do so much.

As evidence, I submit:
"Prol Tape is known as food with nano-nano flavor, in it can contain sweet, sour and savory taste. This cassava-based food offers a variety of flavors ranging from chocolate, cheese, raisins and original. Types of food made from wheat flour, cassava tape, milk, butter and eggs it tastes almost like a cake but the flavor of tapenya is very tasty that is sweet, wry and tasty." 
So you can understand why I was confused until I found this You Tube video - which you all really need to watch right now - where the making of cassava tape is detailed in still photos and videos with English subtitles and a backing track of “I will survive”. (It is the video that proves you can find anything on YouTube). For those without the inclination or bandwidth, here are the basics: peeled cassava is partially cooked then sprinkled with a powdered form of yeast, wrapped in banana leaves, and left to ferment for about three days. The end result is a soft, sweet but a little bit sour and slightly alcoholic mushy thing. I can only assume that’s what forms a large part of the cakes from my box of cake.

So there I was with a box full of cake made from fermented cassava. Luckily, I didn’t really understand the whole fermented cassava thing when I first tried the cake and therefore approached it with an open mind. It was a bit heavy and quite moist but otherwise, pretty nice and reasonably cake-like. The thing that really threw me off was the topping.

See the stuff on top of the brownie that looks like grated cheese? It looks that way because it is, in fact, grated cheese.

So yeah, it wasn’t just a box of cake made from fermented cassava. I was a box of cake made from fermented cassava topped with grated cheese. There’s no getting around it, that’s just a weird combination. Also, the dry cheese is just sprinkled on top so it gets everywhere when you try to eat it. This turns out to be lucky because it means you can easily brush the grated cheddar off and be left with just the cake made from fermented cassava. Then you can go about your normal business untroubled by cheese where cheese shouldn’t be. (Like here, where you can’t even brush it off.)

Or here, at Dunkin Donuts. (Yes, they have Dunkin Donuts here. Also Krispy Kreme and A&W, though it’s not A&W as we know it.) Honestly, Indonesia, WTF? A chocolate glazed donut rolled in grated cheese? Ok, we’re talking about a relatively mild cheddar here, but still it’s just not right. I blame the Dutch, who brought their cheese culture here as colonial overlords but clearly did not take the time to explain the finer points before they left.

Finally, there was the delicacy we sampled on the Jember trip on our first day there. After we’d concluded the business of the day we had some time to do a bit of sightseeing and ended up driving half-way up the mountain outside of town to a faded old resort hotel. Along the way there were some nice views.

And once we got there we had a good look down at where we’d come from.

And of course we stopped to sample the local delicacy as recommended on the TripAdvisor page that directed us up the mountain. One review in particular pointed out that the “banana fritter come up beyond expectation” so of course we had to try that.

Pisang keju. Literally, “banana cheese”. This has confused-Dutch-mashup written all over it - especially the chocolate sprinkles part.

Sliced bananas, lightly coated in flour and pan-fried, topped with grated cheese and chocolate sprinkles. I think there may have been sweetened condensed milk in there too. It was weirdly ok, but maybe that’s just because I was hungry. Also these bananas are a different variety that the usual Cavendish that we get at home. They were starchier and less sweet and I think that helps. Our lovely local staffer said this is a very common preparation in Indonesia, and one that she even makes at home. However, I can’t help but think it would be greatly improved by removing the cheese, and I say that as a committed caesophile. But think about it: fried bananas + condensed milk + chocolate = undeniable yumminess. Whereas: fried bananas + condensed milk + chocolate + grated cheddar cheese = Huh?

We didn’t finish the whole plate of pisang keju. Too much keju for my taste, and it was also quite filling. Since that trip I’ve seen this weird grated-cheese-on-dessert phenomenon repeated over and over again. I think my "I'll try just about any weird food" credentials are pretty unimpeachable, but I struggle with this. Cheese - at least the firm, salty cheese we're talking about here - is such a very savoury thing. If we were dealing with cream cheese or ricotta or mascarpone or similar then I'd be all over that. But I find this combination a bit like dipping your pain au chocolate in soy sauce or spreading your chocolate cupcake with a nice layer of miso paste. Yes, you could get used to it, but why bother?

In the mean time, work is still busy. I've tried to do some touristy stuff in Jakarta, but have been slightly defeated because it's a very big, very hot, very choked up city so it's hard to move around, and then mostly uncomfortable when you get where you're going. Or perhaps I just had a bad day. Stay tuned and I'll try to find something worth telling you about. And while you're waiting could someone please have a Tim Hortons Sour Cream Glazed donut in my honour? With extra gorgonzola, please.

*P.S. Am I the only one who thinks “Inappropriate Cheese” would be a great name for a band?


Colleen said...

Hey Pam! Am getting caught up on some of your posts and just had to watch the video of fermenting cassava. Will have to rely on your description of the taste since the Co-op is out of cassava and Sobeys doesn't carry banana leaves. I tend to agree with you on the whole cheese with sweets thing but will admit that I like cheddar with apples as a snack. Keep up the good work! Hugs, ck

Kathryn Davies said...

This food post scares me almost as most as the fried tarantulas!

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