Culinary Sleuth

Indonesian Stories

by Lynn Kerrigan


I clung to each word as if, by listening ever so carefully, I would be transported to Indonesia where he'd lived as a child.

"I didn't realize it then" he said, "but the 'tok tok' man who occasionally cooked dinner for us in our yard did something similar to what you Yanks call 'outdoor grilling.' It was in the early 1940's. We were living in Bandung at the time. I was about eleven and hated the plain Dutch fare my mother insisted on dishing up most evenings. But the Dutch colonists were most loyal to their homeland. My father often spoke of Holland with tears in his eyes."

How did his mother get ingredients for the Dutch dishes she made, I asked him.

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"The early white colonists had brought staples like potatoes, beans and cabbage with them as they had no idea what kind of food to expect when they arrived. They taught the natives how to grow, cultivate and cook these plain Jane foods which were mostly harvested in the cooler regions of Java and Sumatra. You can bet the house the natives soon learned how to make the most of these stick to your ribs foods as they incorporated them into their highly sophisticated cuisine. "My mother was not an adventurous cook. I often felt she secretly thought the spicy native food was markedly inferior to the hearty yet bland Dutch dishes my father and she loved. It wasn't until later, after she was long gone, that I learned her stomach could not take too much spiciness. To Mother's credit, she knew we kids loved the court and spark of a good Asian dish and she occasionally indulged us."

"And the tok tok man....?"

He laughed, his lustrous brown eyes teasing my childish impatience. "The tok tok man—named so because of the sound he made with his stick, meandered along streets pushing his small cart. The sound caused great excitement, for if we were very very good, and my mother was in an especially good mood, she'd give in to our pleas and wave the tok tok man to our yard"He never came before dusk. My parents were always comfortably settled in deep lawn chairs with their drinks by then. The tap, tap of a stick against a small hollow bamboo pole announced his arrival—a quintessentially Asian phenomenon, the ambulatory kitchen. A swaying kerosene lantern dimly lit his cart as he'd gently turn into our yard and swiftly turn to work.

"First he'd pull a small brazier from his cart and with deft hands he'd re-ignite the smoldering embers. Then he'd take his "kipas", a small, round, bamboo fan and wave it at the flame causing sparks to fly into the dark. He whipped a wok upon the hot coals and pulled ingredient after ingredient from the cart's innards. "I'd sit there on my haunches like him, hypnotized by the fire and his rabbit-like movements. We formed a bond of sorts—the tok tok man cooking dinner for the white intruders to his land and me, a thin, sickly kid who wanted to be a chef. "The meat went in first, already sliced just so. Sometimes it would be slivered chicken or fresh pork. Other times we'd dine on thin strips of marinated beef. Asian cuisine is always innovative because they never use the same ingredients or amounts twice. Whatever is in season is what goes into the pot because freshness and quality are important. "Round and round he quickly swirled the meat in the wok. The motion was rhythmic. It captured his entire body as if he were moving to a song played in his mind. "Into the hot wok went vegetables. Whole garlic cloves, chopped scallions, sambal, sometimes rice. Spices like coriander, lemon grass, and a sweet soy sauce unlike anything here you've ever had in the states."

My mouth watered. I swallowed as much saliva as I could, fearful of excess dribble sliding down my chin. And what about the satay man, I asked him, eager to hear it again.

"The sate man (pronounced and spelled satay in the states) often followed on the heels of the tok tok man. The most noticeable difference between the two was that the sate man grilled his fare on a skewer. An hour or two before making his rounds, he'd skin and bone and cut into one inch chunks as many chicken breasts as he thought he'd sell the following day. He'd marinate the chunks in a mixture of soy sauce, shallots, garlic, chili powder and lemon juice.

Wait, I stopped him my pen poised over the pad where I was furiously scribbling notes. How much chili powder? How much garlic? "Well, for two pounds of chicken you'd use 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce, 2 finely sliced shallots, 1 clove of garlic, crushed, one eighth teaspoon chili powder and one tablespoon lemon juice. These chicken chunks would then be threaded on his bamboo skewer and barbecued over the hot coals of his brazier. It was some of the best chicken I've ever tasted. We named it Sate Chicken in honor of the Sate man but its formal name is Sate Ayam. "Tell me again about the 'Krupuk'." I pleaded.

"Ah, the krupuk." He said rolling the word off his tongue like melted butter. "Krupuk is to Indonesians what bread is to Americans. It's made of dried shrimp and flour paste and resembles a pink plastic or cardboard disk. When fired in hot oil, it expands to triple its size. Light, pink and crispy—somewhat like a potato chip, but with a more dainty flavor and not at all smothered in salt. and yes, there was a 'krupuk' man walking the streets, bringing his dainty fried krupuk to the eager hands and bellies of the white colonists.

"But the food I remember and yearn for the most," he sighed, "is the fruit. But that is another story for another night. It's time for me to go to bed now. I am weary now. We shall meet and talk again in the morning."


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Copyright 1997 Lynn Kerrigan. No portion of this article may be reproduced for publication without express, written permission of the author.

Culinary Sleuth Archive

This Archived Page created between 1994 and 2001. Modified August 2007