(Earth Eats theme music)
KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington Indiana, I'm Kayte Young, and this is Earth Eats.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: I've paid other Indonesians who maybe have traveled to Indonesia recently and brought back ingredients. I like give them money and they give me stuff that I'm not able to find here. Smuggling in goods.
KAYTE YOUNG: This week on our show, Toby Foster talks with Melati Citrawireja of Three Salted Fish about exploring Indonesian cuisine with her family. And she shares vegetarian recipes featuring ingredients from her garden in Oakland, California. And we hear about a scientist turned farmer, applying eco-organic methods to grow foods usually found in China. Plus reflections on our sense of smell. That's all coming up, stay with us.
KAYTE YOUNG:Thanks for listening to earth eats, I'm Kayte Young. Farmers in the Midwest are gearing up for a fight over whether pipelines can cut through their land.Three companies are proposing piping carbon dioxide emissions from ethanol plants out of state. Many look to the experience other farmers had with the Dakota Access Pipeline a few years ago. HPM’s Katie Peikes reports.
KATIE PEIKES: Keith Puntenney’s home in Boone, Iowa has become a library dedicated to his fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
KEITH PUNTENNEY:There's 10s of 1000s of pages and stuff in here.
KATIE PEIKES: The retired tax attorney’s living room has bookcases of legal documents and maps of his farmland. After the crude oil pipeline was announced in 2014, Puntenney feared what would happen if the oil spilled.
KEITH PUNTENNEY: The oil in the pipeline is very dangerous, if there's ever any kind of a release, the way that they were crossing people's property was going to damage a lot of the farmland and also all the pattern tiling that was there.
KATIE PEIKES: He also worried about how construction would impact his soil and yields.The Iowa Utilities Board signed off on the project and allowed the pipeline’s owner to seize peoples’ private land. Puntenney fought the board and the pipeline all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court. But he lost. It was a big disappointment.
KEITH PUNTENNEY: We expected them actually to rule in our favor, because there had never been an Iowa Supreme Court case on an interstate pipeline, you know, benefit out of Iowa, given eminent domain. That was the first time that it happened.
KATIE PEIKES: Eminent domain… that’s the power to seize peoples’ private property for a public purpose.
SHANNON ROESLER: One of the first things you learn in law school in your first year property class is that property rights are a lot less absolute than you probably assumed.
KATIE PEIKES:That’s University of Iowa law professor Shannon Roesler (RACE-ler). She says eminent domain has been used for projects such as water infrastructure and highways. Roesler (RACE-ler) says for eminent domain to be applied in Iowa, there has to be a public purpose beyond economic development.
SHANNON ROESLER: The question for the carbon pipelines is what is the extra benefit to Iowans from shipping carbon from ethanol and fertilizer plants out of state? Extra meaning more than just revenue from taxes and jobs.
The carbon pipeline companies say they will extend the viability of the ethanol industry - - an important part of Iowa’s economy. They also promise environmental benefits. Elizabeth Burns-Thompson is with Navigator CO2 Ventures - one of the pipeline companies.
ELIZABETH BURNS-THOMPSON: These are truly taking CO2 that otherwise would have been emitted in some of our small communities across our states. This isn't just offsetting an emission, you know, on one coast to the other, this is truly preventing an emission that would have happened in some of our backyards .
KATIE PEIKES: But some Iowa farmers don’t see it that way.
RICHARD MCKEAN: This is greenwashing, on the benefits that they’re trying to sell.
KATIE PEIKES: Richard McKean has more than 900 acres of farmland in northern Iowa. Some of the land has been in his family for more than a century. He and his wife Phyllis are familiar with how other farmers struggled with the Dakota Access Pipeline. They worry about the safety of the carbon dioxide pipelines … and being forced to give up the land that they’ve worked hard to protect.
RICHARD MCKEAN: It's a nightmare. It's a living nightmare. Because, you know, it'll be right smack in front of our house. It's hazardous material
PHYLLIS MCKEAN: It makes a person angry, that this is private property. And they think they can come in and do what they want to.
KATIE PEIKES: In Keith Puntenney’s case, five years after the Dakota Access Pipeline’s construction, he’s still seeing impacts. He says the three acres affected are less productive and their value is down.The pipeline’s owner, Energy Transfer, says it’s mostly done remediating the land and it’s still working with a few farmers to fix things. But now Puntenney’s farmland could be adjacent to a carbon dioxide pipeline. He says it’s deja vu.
KEITH PUNTENNEY:I have concerns that this is just saying the same thing, different day in terms of how this pipe is going to be put in the ground. And that the issues that I experienced, and still experience five years later are not ending. They're just going to happen to somebody else.
KATIE PEIKES: So Puntenney is preparing for another fight. And he’s not the only one. Farmers across the state are organizing…hoping to protect their land. I’m Katie Peikes, Harvest Public Media.
KAYTE YOUNG: Find more from this reporting collective at Harvest Public Media dot org.
KAYTE YOUNG: In rural North Carolina, many organic farmers are trying to crack the code on how to grow without pesticides and fertilizers. Josephine McRobbie has the story of one farmer who is applying his research skills to do something even more difficult, grow vegetables usually found halfway across the world.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: It's a rainy summer morning at Huanong Ecorganic Farm in Hurdle Mills North Carolina. Changhe Zhou is harvesting sugar tomatoes for market.
CHANGHE ZHOU: So the regular tomato breaks the index of sugar around 3-5, but this one, it's 11-12, even higher.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Changhe, who goes by Chang, is telling me about the Brix index, it's an optical measurement of sap from a fruit or vegetable that can quantify its sweetness. He is more than familiar with these more scientificy parts of farming - because until recently, he was a senior research scientist at Virginia Tech University.
CHANGHE ZHOU: So I got my bachelor degree in vegetable science, master's degree in plant pathology, and my Ph. D. in fruit science.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Chang was born in the Hunan Province in central China, where both of his parents were farmers.
Did you learn certain things from them growing up?
CHANGHE ZHOU: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was very young, probably five to seven years old. I work with them, to help them do some farming. I learned how to sow the seeds, how to harvest, how to farm management.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Chang went to college and eventually taught in Wuhan at one of China's best agriculture schools. He came to the US in 2001 as a visiting scholar hosted at the USDA fruit lab in Maryland. He was working on how to quickly identify diseases in imported grapefruit. As he continued to move through research science positions in the southeast. He was always looking for Asian produce that he missed from home. A favorite is winter melon.
CHANGHE ZHOU: Winter melon, you can buy some in the Asian grocery store. But that's not good.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Another is hon tsai tai
CHANGHE ZHOU: Tastes like the mini broccoli, but it tastes better than it.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: He began experimenting with growing his own fruits and vegetables over the course of several years. Chang dreamed of farming more seriously after retirement, but he came to realize time was of the essence.
CHANGHE ZHOU: We studied the farming in 2016, five years ago. So while I do this, because at that time, I had just passed 50s but I have a lot of thought in my mind, that I cannot wait until I retire. I'm not retired, I can't do everything. So I think should have started earlier, then I could do everything by myself. At that time I decided to quit my job, start the farm. So not in one day. I want to do farming and next day I quit my job.
So I did some small-scale experiments, and I thought oh that's good! Then I decided in 2016 after very good preparation, and so then I quit my job.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: When he left his research career in 2016 Chang and his family decided to move south to North Carolina's warmer climate to give commercial farming a serious go. And he knew that this would mean learning every part of the farming process.
CHANGHE ZHOU: So in the last five years, everything is done by myself. I have to because for the farmer you have to you have to everything by yourself. So if you know what's going on. Which is tricky. What are the good things are the bad things how do we improve that? So even I was a professor, so I have to do to everything, everything by myself.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Today he grows and sells southern US staples like tomato, watermelon and okra but specializes in a wide variety of Asian produce. He's had to do a lot of legwork to figure out what will grow in North Carolina clay.
CHANGHE ZHOU: A lot of people do not want to grow their vegetables, it's too much work. Another problem is you do not have a good variety, such as these cucumbers. I select at least a 30 varieties. I introduced them from China, then just one or two varieties are good here - very very difficult. In the last several years we've grew a lot, but just harvest a little, very little.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: He shows me a line of tender water spinach newly watered and protected under a see-through mesh fabric.
CHANGHE ZHOU: Some sandclothe. Yeah in the summer time it's very hot, and you're looking for relief. Also this is an insect barrier, to prevent insects.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Mechanical and traditional means like fences and coverings are important tools. Chang does not use pesticides or fertilizers or even farm manure to control disease and grow crops. It's an ethos he developed through years of studying plant pathology and he's passionate about it even if it further limits what he can grow.
CHANGHE ZHOU: Some are very good, but not for this eco organic manner. You will use fertilizer pesticides they grow very well. But if you go there without a chemical pesticide, without these pesticides and without a lot chemical fertilizer, it cannot. Very bad. A lot of insects pathogens, so it cannot survive.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Despite his background in plant disease, Chang isn't afraid of critters, even bugs. His fields are buzzing with noises, crickets, bees, chickens, ducks. Properly managed, they can all be of benefit to the crops.
CHANGHE ZHOU: In the last 40 years, I have been working on this vegetable science. My idea is we don’t use any pesticide. Just grow nature, so let the nature control everything. Every organism has their role in this nature. Even some insects, they eat our vegetables or other crops. But we do not need to control them, kill them, insects survive in our farm. That means you have some room in our farm.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: One role is within the soil,
CHANGHE ZHOU: Your soil, we know that that contains this clay, fertilizer, or a lot of chemicals. And the most important things in the soil is the organism. A lot of these microorganisms are living on or in our body. So that's a very important of our health. So this is a new technology called the microbiome. In the plant, they call it a phytobiome.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: The phytobiome of a plant benefits from a controlled diversity of organisms and microorganisms living in and around the soil, things like insects, fungi, small animals and bacteria. And the soil is further strengthened by another technique.
CHANGHE ZHOU: All of that outside is weeds, native weeds. So weed is our treasure, it's the very important of all.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Chang is pointing to a tumble hoop overrun by weeds. They can actually do a lot of good for a garden, they protect the soil, attract beneficial insects and even help pull minerals up to the roots of growing plants.
CHANGHE ZHOU: Yeah, these are why we do not use cover crops, we use the weeds. So their roots are very developed, very developed, very deep, very long. Yeah, you can observe some minerals from the deeper part of our soil into topsoil.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: New plantings grow through can sized holes in a tarp on each row. Underneath weeds are controlled but not killed. After harvest the tarp is removed, and the weeds take over for the fall and early winter. Then he mows and tills the area to prepare for a new season of crops.
In coming years, Chang hopes to grow Asian pear apple and Asian flower varieties on the farm. His passion for sharing through science and growing even factors into the name
Huanong Ecorganic Farm which is partially in tribute to his alma mater and partially a mission statement.
CHANGHE ZHOU: Huanong in China, I thought Huanong Culture University. Hanong in China known either to the Chinese or agriculture.
JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: So the name translates as Chinese agriculture eco organic farm. For WFIU's Earth Eats, I'm Josephine McRobbie.
KAYTE YOUNG: I'm Kayte Young, thanks for listening to Earth Eats. We'll be back in a moment.
I'm Kayte Young, you're listening to Earth Eats.
TOBY FOSTER: How do you know how much rice you're going to do?
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: I don't know, it just always worked out!
My name is Melati Citrawireja and I write an online newsletter called Three Salted Fish that explores all things Indonesian food and culture, from my perspective as an Indonesian American.
TOBY FOSTER: I was first introduced to Melati over a year ago through my partner's brother Peter, but I only finally got the chance to meet her outside of zoom call last month when my partner and I visited Oakland, California, just before the Delta variants that many of us retreating back into our homes.
Melati is primarily a photographer by trade, but when I saw that she started writing a newsletter last year called Three Salted Fish focused on Indonesian food and cooking, I was excited to subscribe. In it, she shares recipes for Indonesian food, many of which are inspired by or adapted from her stepmother Esti. It's a type of cuisine that I didn't know much about, and I've enjoyed learning about it and trying a few recipes at home. Melati was kind enough to let me interview her during my visit, and we also got the chance to cook together.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: I started an Indonesian food Instagram last year, I think maybe in October and then I think I started my newsletter in April or March, a monthly newsletter. Yeah, my newsletter is called Three Salted Fish or in Indonesian, it would be Tiga Ikan Asin.
TOBY FOSTER: I asked Melati about where her interest in cooking and sharing recipes began.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: So I kind of always grew up cooking, my mom was a pastry chef. So we were always baking and cooking together. And then my father is Southeast Asian. He's Indonesian and grew up in Java. And that's how I got interested in Indonesian cooking. He remarried a really sweet woman, named Esti and she is an amazing cook, and has always been really forthcoming with sharing her secrets and recipes. And so I grew up cooking with her as well.
And yeah, I just feel very connected to my dad's side of the family when I'm cooking. And whenever I go back to visit Indonesia, I always insist on spending lots of time in the kitchen with my relatives, because they're all really amazing cooks. And it's a very different flavor profile than what I guess I am normally used to living in California. So it's been really nice to explore, just like different flavors and dishes that are unique to me, and also people here as well.
Indonesian food is very flavorful, it's not really a subtle type of cuisine. They really like spicy food, pretty much every meal that you'd have would have some sort of sambal or like spicy chili paste. And there's all different kinds. There's like ones with tomato, and ones with fermented shrimp paste. And there's sambals that are served mixed into a vegetable salad like a green bean sambal. And also because Indonesia is basically a string of islands, it's very close to the ocean. So there's a lot of fish-based stuff.
So my newsletter Tiga Ikan Asin / Three Salted Fish is sort of kind of an homage to my family because my dad's family is from a fishing village and my dad was a fisherman when he was younger. And my grandma still, to this day, she doesn't need to work, but I think she likes to stay busy, she salts fish. She cures fish and then sells it on the beach. So yeah, that's also a flavor that's very present. Salted fish, different kinds of fish, shrimp.
And some other flavors that are pretty common are like coconut because there's lots of it's a tropical place. So there's lots of coconuts growing. And so there's like coconut sugar, coconut milk, shredded coconut. There's lots of roots in spices in there, too, because it's also kind of the Spice Islands area. So lots of turmeric and ginger and some different things that I'm only just learning about like kencur, which is sort of a type of ginger.
TOBY FOSTER: I asked Melati how often prepandemic she was able to visit Indonesia to visit family and learn more about the food.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: I would go every maybe three or four years. I didn't go for a while when I was younger, and then I went when I was a teenager. And yeah, I've tried to make it my agenda to go back maybe every three or four years. But I'll go for a long period of time. I'll go for four or five months and really spend a lot of time with my family and travel around. Yeah, and try to feel more invested in the place.
TOBY FOSTER: I wondered if Melati has any trouble finding the right ingredients for her cooking.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: I am lucky to be in a place where there are lots of Asian markets all over the place. But specifically Southeast Asian ingredients are a little bit harder to come by. There's lots of Chinese markets and Korean markets but finding specifically Indonesian ingredients has been difficult and there are a couple of places that I know of and sometimes they have what I would need, and sometimes they don't have what I need. So that's been a challenge, but it also has gotten me interested in growing my own ingredients, which has been fun, especially over the pandemic doing a lot more gardening. So yeah, I've been like growing ingredients that are not accessible here like lemon basil or kencur - the root I was talking about, makrut lime leaves which are relatively available here. But it's nice to have some just kind of readily on hand, lemon grass, stuff like that.
And also, I've paid other Indonesians who maybe have traveled to Indonesia recently and brought back ingredients, I like give them money, and they give me stuff that I'm not able to find here. Smuggling in goods.
TOBY FOSTER: Although I try to search out as many different kinds of food as I can, I haven't come across very many Indonesian restaurants or cookbooks. I asked Melati about this.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Yes, definitely growing up in the Bay Area, which I feel like is known for being really diverse and having a lot of different kinds of foods, Indonesians food is still like, just not present. It's just now starting, I think, since the pandemic, and now with loosening restrictions on like home cooked foods, some pop ups are starting to crop up. And that's been really exciting to see. And there also has been a new Indonesian restaurant that opened up recently. But aside from a small handful of people that have been doing this, it's kind of been a cuisine that hasn't really been explored.
TOBY FOSTER: I wanted to know more about these home pop ups.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Pop ups are pretty common here using commissary kitchens. And also like lots of brick-and-mortar restaurants have been pretty generous in offering their kitchens like after hours to do pop ups. But I think now that you can actually use your home kitchen and sell a certain number of meals a week, I think that more people are stepping up and doing that.
There's a local soto pop up, which is Indonesian noodle soup. It's like the first time I've had Indonesian noodle soup here ever. So it was really, really exciting to see them do that. And they're really, really sweet people.
TOBY FOSTER: Yeah, that's cool. I think it's definitely going to be interesting to see how the pandemic changes the restaurants.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Yeah, a lot of actual brick and mortar restaurants have had to close. So if you like there are people who maybe had restaurants before, and that wasn't sustainable anymore. So now they're doing kind of more creative things with their skills, like doing pop ups.
TOBY FOSTER: I wondered if Melati had any plans to try cooking professionally?
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: No, not currently. I think, for me, it's a little bit more of a personal project. Having the newsletter kind of keeps me continually exploring and kind of holds me accountable, and it also offers me an avenue to kind of share with people. And I do want to do some pop ups occasionally. But I don't think that it will ever be my career to do this. Yeah, it just brings me a lot of joy.
TOBY FOSTER: Three Salted Fish is more than just recipes. Additionally, Melati interviews other chefs and artisans, and uses food as a jumping off point for thoughtful, personal reflections on life in general, and specifically during the pandemic as an Indonesian American in the Bay Area.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Yeah, so I think food is sort of the common denominator, and that's a good kind of easy way to connect with people and to invite people into this culture or learning more about this country. But also, for me, it has been a way to connect with the wider Indonesian community in the Bay Area. Especially because, not only are there not many restaurants around, but I feel like the community is sort of like spread out. And there's not really a central community, Indonesian community that I've really known about or been connected to growing up. So for me, this was a good excuse to like, slide into people's DMs. And be like, "Can I talk to you? You seem really interesting, and I want to learn more about you and your community and your family history." So it's been a good way to connect with other Indonesian Americans.
I interviewed a tempe maker, named Febi, who is a local tempe maker and she does subscription tempe. And she was really sweet. And she's about my age. So it was cool to connect, kind of on that peer level and being raised with Indonesian parents, but also being American and how we kind of juggle that dynamic. And I also spoke with a local chef named Siska Silitonga, who just opened a restaurant in Redwood City. And she grew up in Indonesia, but she's been in the Bay Area for a very long time. It's been great to finally connect with all of these people who I just didn't even know existed until I made it my agenda to find them.
TOBY FOSTER: Do you wanna describe what you're going to cook, or what we're going to cook?
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Sure. So I'm going to make a vegetarian meal today. Both of these dishes that I'm making are kind of common street foods that you can find. One's called tempe kering and it's fried tempe with kind of tangy tamarind sauce. And it's kind of yummy and decadent in the fried sort of way.
And then the other one is called karedok. And it's a fresh salad with a spicy peanut sauce dressing. So it has long beans and cabbage, and sprouts. And then the dressing has different spaces and makrut lime leaves and more tamarind and coconut sugar and coconut.
TOBY FOSTER: Both sounds amazing. Yeah, I'm excited to see them being made and try them both. Cool. Well, I guess we can go get started.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Okay!
TOBY FOSTER: First, we go out into the garden to pick a few ingredients for the meal.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Well, this very overgrown greenhouse is home to a lot of our tropical types of plants and veg. And I have a lot of lemon basil in here that I grew from seed because it's really hard to find fresh in the Bay Area. And I really, really liked the flavor and it's kind of a favorite that can't be replicated, and it's super yummy. It's gonna go in the karedok. It's very, very good.
And we also have kencur. That's the kind of gingery root I was talking about.
TOBY FOSTER: Okay.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: And also the leaves are kind of a more fresh version of it. Do you wanna try it?
TOBY FOSTER: Sure.
(Sound of root snaping)
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: It's kind of licoricey. Can you taste anything?
TOBY FOSTER: I need a bigger piece. Yeah it's pretty subtle. But yeah, it's good. And you said this is something that you can't really find in the store.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: This one so you definitely can't find it fresh in the store. But it's also used in Chinese food too. I think it's called sand ginger, and you can get it dried at the Chinese market at certain places. But I've never been able to find it fresh.
TOBY FOSTER: And what's this?
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: This is also lemon. Lemon, lemon, all that's lemon. This is a pandan plant. Yeah, a lot of Indonesian desserts are centered on coconut, sugar, pandan, rice, kind of like some combination of that.
Yeah that's probably good. Yeah, got lemon grass over here, got our makrut lime. These ones are tiny, they have a ways to go. So for now I just steal from other people's yards.
TOBY FOSTER: We head inside to cook. Melati starts by getting rice on the stove.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Pretty much every Indonesian meal has rice. My grandma refuses to eat bread. She thinks it's disgusting. But rice she eats for every meal.
You rinse the rice first, I always do the finger method.
TOBY FOSTER: what's the finger method?
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: The finger method is where you fill the water about up to your first finger notch, the first knuckle. The knuckle method.
TOBY FOSTER: How do you know how much rice to put in it?
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: I don't know, it just like always works out.
Okay, so I think maybe first I'll make the salad and then make the tempe because then the tempe will be hot when we have it. So I'm going to fry some peanuts and chop up the veg.
TOBY FOSTER: Feel free to put me too if you want.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Sure you do you wanna chop some veg?
TOBY FOSTER: I can chop
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Okay
TOBY FOSTER: I begin to wash and chop long beans while Melati fries peanuts for the sauce.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: In Indonesia there are many, many, many different dialects. There's the kind of main national language which is Bahasa Indonesia. But then on every Island there are many different dialects that are all so contrasted with each other. And my stepmom is grew up in sort of the Sudanese region of Java. And she lived like 20 minutes away from where my dad grew up. And he, his family and his area, they speak Javanese and so the languages are totally different, but they're like 20 minutes from each other, which I think is really interesting.
But this dish that we're making today karedok I think originally a Sudanese dish. And Sudanese like to use shrimp paste a lot. So normally this dish would have some shrimp paste in it, but we won't need it.
TOBY FOSTER: The emission of shrimp paste is for my benefit as my partner, and I are both vegetarian. Meanwhile, we're joined by Melati's roommate Emily, who takes over the questions well, I chopped cabbage.
EMILY: Do you think they're frying the peanuts fresh right before you make the sauce is like... that's what makes it taste different?
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Yeah.
EMILY: Makes it taste like unique?
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Yeah, cause I tried to do it with baked peanuts and it's still good, but I feel like frying it just makes it extra delicious
(Sound of vegetables being chopped)
TOBY FOSTER: As I chopped cucumbers from the garden and picked lemon basil, Melati starts the second batch of peanuts and soaks the dried kencur so it can be ground along with the other aromatics.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: So traditionally, everything would be blended with like a very big mortar and pestle, called a Cobeck and Ulekan but I am using my blender, since it's quicker.
So we'll have fresh ginger, kencur, garlic and shallot are like in pretty much every single Indonesian dish. Tamarind, palm sugar, lots of makrut lime leaves, I like to put lots of them in because I really like the flavor. Sweet soy sauce.
TOBY FOSTER: Sweet soy sauce is another ingredient that is common to Indonesian cooking, but I only had a vague familiarity with.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: It's almost like molasses in a way.
TOBY FOSTER: Like, thick like that?
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Yeah, it's thick, and sweet and salty. It's a bit like kecap manis so we've called it like "kecap" for short, which I think is confusing because people are like you're putting ketchup in?
Yeah, also, the other thing about Indonesian food is there aren't very many cookbooks, people just like do it by sight, and just by memory. So when I'm trying to learn recipes or follow along, they're just like, "Oh, there's a little bit of this, this little bit of that until it tastes right." Which is hard when you're working with food unusual to you. It's definitely a learning curve.
Indonesians also really liked it to be very salty, stinky, spicy.
TOBY FOSTER: All the good things.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Yes.
So this is the coconut palm sugar. This is the kind that comes in blocks. The way it's made is it's cooked over a wood fire.
My uncle makes coconut palm sugar for living - hard work.
TOBY FOSTER: Yeah, it's gonna say what's that process like?
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: So he has to climb. I forget exactly how many but like dozens of trees every day, twice a day. So first he'll go in the morning, and he'll tap it, and start the process of getting the nectar at the top of the tree. And then at the end of the day, he'll go up and he'll take the buckets down. And then his wife who recently passed away was usually in charge of cooking it. You cook it for like, I don't know, many hours, cook the nectar down into this like thick sludge and then they pour it into molds. So it's a very arduous process.
TOBY FOSTER: So at this point, we have fried peanuts, makrut lime leaves, coconut sugar, tamarind, lime, garlic, ginger, shallots, white pepper, and a little bit of vegetable stock just to get everything moving in the blender.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Whenever I cook Indonesian food in a huge mess, cause there's like a thousand ingredients.
TOBY FOSTER: I know, I was gonna say it seems like there's a lot of ingredients involved.
(Sound of blender whirring)
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: These are thai chilies, or I think they're also called bird's eyes chilis.
TOBY FOSTER: You're putting them in, seeds and everything?
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Yes. Soy, sauce. Okay, I'm gonna try this and see how it tastes.
(Sound of blender whirring)
I think it needs a little more of everything. I really want to be able to taste the makrut lime.
(Sound of chopping)
TOBY FOSTER: It's pretty tasty already.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Yeah, it tastes not too spicy.
TOBY FOSTER: No.
We get the sauce dialed in to everyone's satisfaction, then we started on the tempe kering. I'm in charge of frying tempe.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: So the tempe dish has a lot of coriander in it, that's what really makes it yummy.
Nice and fresh. So I just like to cook the tempe till it's golden brown, kind of crispy. So for this one, I think I'll actually just blend it in the mortar and pestle so you can see how it's really done.
So for a lot of Indonesian dishes, they blend together spice paste in the beginning and it's called bambu.
TOBY FOSTER: It wouldn't be like a premix thing?
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: I mean these days more and more there are premix packaged spice blends, but if you're doing it to village way, you'll do it yourself.
TOBY FOSTER: So you're pouring the tempe into the pan, with salt.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: I do it with salt, and coriander and then I also add more coriander later. But I also kind of like when it gets sort of brown and crispy. Candlenuts are also in the base of a lot of Indonesian bambus, also I guess I just recently just found out it's also the same as a kukui like in Hawaii.
TOBY FOSTER: What did you call it before?
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Candlenut, and if you don't have candlenut you can substitute with hazelnut or like a macadamia nut. Kind of just makes it a little bit creamier. It's not very flavorful. Yeah, that looks good.
TOBY FOSTER: Okay.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Also anytime I use a mortar and pestle in front of my family they always crack up because they've been doing this they're whole lives, and they have this very special way they do it, and my way just looks so clumsy.
And this also has makrut lime leaves so I'm gonna slice them up really thin.
TOBY FOSTER: So are you cutting out the stem basically?
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Yeah, deepening it.
TOBY FOSTER: So at this point our spice blend includes garlic, shallots, chilies candlenuts, ginger and bay leaf. And I'm just about done frying the tempe.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Okay I'm just gonna wash that up. Indonesians are also not shy with oil.
TOBY FOSTER: We fry the spice mix then add tamarind, sweet soy sauce, and coconut sugar.
So you're kind of deglazing the pan with the tamarind mix?
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Yeah it could also just be water too and add the tamarind in later.
TOBY FOSTER: So I'm seeing the palm sugar just all kind of dissolve into the...
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Basically you just want to cook it down until it's sort of like a sticky, tacky, sauce, and mix in the tempe. And that's it.
TOBY FOSTER: That looks really good.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Just jouging it a little bit. Shall we eat? Are we hungry?
TOBY FOSTER: Yeah, I'm hungry.
We move to the living room to enjoy the meal together with friends. The karedok is bright and refreshing with raw long beans cucumber is cabbage sprouts and lemon basil. Dressed in the peanut sauce, it has a deep complexity of flavor.
The tempe kering includes more bitter notes that are perfectly balanced by the sweet soy sauce and coconut sugar. The sauces syrupy and very satisfying. It's a perfect way to spend the afternoon and I'm so grateful to have had the chance to learn about so many ingredients that were previously unfamiliar to me.
EMILY: I never really know how your voice is gonna sound until you listen to yourself recorded.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Oh god
EMILY: Well now you're going to have so much of your voice to listen to after today.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: That's why I said "oh god"
(Sound of eating)
EMILY: It tastes so good. It is really citrusy.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Sometimes I find that the peanut sauce is even better if you get prepared ahead of time. And then kind of like soup is so much better.
TOBY FOSTER: Well, thanks for doing the cooking with me Melati.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: Yeah, thank you for helping. That was fun.
MAN: Are you recording in here?
TOBY FOSTER: Yeah
MAN: How are you gonna edit all of that? That's a lot.
TOBY FOSTER: Thanks to Melati Citrawireja for spending the time with me and sharing her cooking. Melati lives and works in Oakland, California, and writes the newsletter Three Salted Fish. You can find her recipe for tempe kering on our website, EarthEats.org.
MELATI CITRAWIREJA: You can subscribe to my newsletter by going to MelatiPhotography.com. That's m-e-l-a-t-i photography.com and clicking on the newsletter tab and entering your email. Or you can go to my Instagram page which is @Three_Salted_Fish and you can click the link in my bio to sign up.
KAYTE YOUNG: Toby Foster wrote and performed the opening and closing music for this piece and Melati Citrawireja wrote and performed the cello underscoring throughout the piece. This is Earth Eats, I'm Kayte young. We'll be back in a moment.
I'm Kayte Young. Thanks for listening to Earth Eats.
The first sign was a noticeable absence of what my friend Chuck politely calls, bathroom related smells. I wondered, could it be true? I rushed out into the garden and pulled a basil leaf from a clueless plant, crushed it between my fingers and put it right up to my nose and sniffed.
(Sound of sniffing)
Nothing. There was absolutely nothing there. It was alarming, distressing, and extremely disorienting. I expected something to be a certain way, which has always been that way. And it was not that way.
My covid-19 symptoms were relatively mild, as they often are with breakthrough cases. I was fully vaccinated, and the virus remained primarily in the nose and throat region, while my vital organs were protected by the vaccine, and my immune system. When my fever broke after a few days, and the body aches, sinus pressure and mild cough subsided, my sense of smell did not return.
I could still taste food. But flavors were lackluster, and textures became more central. I've always been partial to crunchy foods and having dishes with a range of textures kept things interesting, despite the absence of complex flavor compounds that rely on our olfactory capabilities.
Cooking was a joke; I was lost in the kitchen. So many of the cues that I take for granted were missing. When onion and garlic are sizzling in a pan of olive oil on the stove, and you can't smell it, what are you even doing? How is that cooking?! I instinctively bring the jar of starter to my nose when beginning a batch of sourdough bread.
(Sound of sniffing)
It told me nothing. When the golden crusty loaf came out of the oven, it could have sat on the counter all night and I would have forgotten about it. Normally that hour of waiting while it cools is agonizing. The aroma of freshly baked bread is irresistible. But I couldn't smell it.
Gardening was strange. Pruning the tomato plants mid-season and training the vines onto the trellis is usually an overwhelming sensory experience. Tomato leaves have an unmistakable fragrance. But this year, I might as well have been pruning a maple tree.
It had not occurred to me before I lost it, the primary role that my sense of smell plays in my everyday life and the pleasures I experienced and some of my favorite pastimes, growing food and cooking food. Sure, I could still do those things, but it felt like the volume was turned down or as one person described it, it's like experiencing my garden in black and white, instead of the full burst of color I'm used to.
I'm not the first person in food media to explore this topic. Tegile Raul wrote about it for the New York Times, and I heard an interview with her about it on NPR. After months with no change, she dove into scent training and documented the process in her piece. A couple of weeks ago KCRW's show Good Food dedicated most of the show to talking about our sense of smell, including an interview with a researcher that shared some fascinating nose knowledge.
If you want to go further, Harold McGee has written a book called Nosedive, a Field Guide to the World Smells. Some listeners will know Harold McGee from his book on Food and Cooking, Science and Lore of the Kitchen. It's become an essential reference book in my household. Nosedive is his latest, but it was written before COVID-19 began robbing so many of us have this essential sense. You can hear a 2020 interview with him on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
He says that smell is the dominant sense in our appreciation and perception of food. He says that our experience of food, what we call flavor, the overall sensory experience of food is built on several sensations. One is taste on the tongue, which is limited to half a dozen or so sensations such as sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. But our sense of smell is able to distinguish among hundreds, even 1000s of molecules. So the distinctiveness of many foods comes from our perceptions of their aromas.
This definitely lines up with my experience and why I didn't really feel like I'd lost my sense of taste. My taste buds were working fine. For instance, tasting a hot sauce that I made, the acid from the vinegar was coming through and so was the heat from the peppers. But I wasn't picking up that distinctive fruitiness of the habanero. Those flavor compounds must reside in the nose.
I don't consider myself a super taster, but I might be a super sniffer, or at least I used to be. Less than a month before I caught the virus, I stepped out onto my back porch one morning and smelled gas, like natural gas or propane. My partner came out and sniffed around but couldn't smell it. He called the gas company anyway. And sure enough, there was a gas leak at our meter right next to the back door. I often pick up on foul odors before my family does. And I use my nose to tell me if food is safe to eat. It feels downright dangerous to have this olfactory malfunction. I know many people experienced this, some as a permanent condition. I never understood how devastating it could be. It just seemed like a minor inconvenience. Now I know better.
When my sense of smell began to return, it was atmospheric. A faint perception of something cooking, something savory. I picked it up in the garage before I entered the kitchen where Carl was cooking. I made pesto with the last of the summer basil and I caught whiffs of it in the air but not the garlic on my fingers. The peach dumplings, I almost knew they were baking. One night in the garden harvesting - cultivars, those thin bush beans I love to grow, a dill plant in the next bed over brushed against my arm and my nose caught it. But crushing a feathery frond in my face, still not much. But I know it's coming back. I believe in its return. Hope is in the air. And it smells like pancakes on the grill on a Saturday morning.
I'm Kayte Young. Here's hoping your nose is in perfect working order. It's one of the simple pleasures of human life. And one that I know I will never take for granted again. Thanks for listening to Earth Eats. You can find links to the work that I mentioned at EarthEats.org. That's it for our show. We'll see you next week.
RENEE REED: The Earth Eats team includes Eobon Binder, Mark Chilla, Abraham Hill, Payton Knobeloch, Josephine McRobbie, Daniela Richardson, Harvest Public Media and me, Renee Reed.
KAYTE YOUNG: Special thanks this week to Changhe Zhou, and Melati Citrawireja.
RENEE REED: Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from the artist at Universal Productions Music. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey.