Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Food memories - palm sugar and black tea on a bamboo mat

For some reason I've been thinking a lot lately about the seminal food experiences in my life.   We've all had them - those food moments that have risen well above the day-to-day ho-hum meals we eat to keep ourselves fuelled.  For me, so many of my key memories are bound up in the things I was eating at the time.  And almost all my great travel moments involve food.

One such memory came back to me when I went looking at the markets for palm sugar.  My first real introduction to palm sugar was in Indonesia where they call it "gula merah" - red sugar.  Certainly palm sugar does get a certain claret colour as it ages and dries, but when it's young and fresh it's actually the colour of caramel creams (and just as delicious).

All the ingredients for Indonesian satay - including fresh palm sugar

This was when I was studying Indonesian in Yogyakarta and my language teacher, having heard me talk (haltingly) in Indonesian about food all day long, had finally decided it was time for a field trip.  I had just recovered from my first major stomach upset (I never could say no to delicious street food), so I was initially nervous about departing from flushing bathrooms, to say the least.  But Geger was taking me to Borobudur temple (a World Heritage Listed site) with a "surprise" detour on the way home, so I agreed to come along.

Enroute to the main event (the temple, remember) we turned into a small village, or kampung, of traditional homes constructed of woven bamboo mats and dried palm-leaf thatching.  My teacher confidently navigated us through he narrow streets and past a number of roving chickens to the home of an older couple who, though well past Australian retirement age, made their living harvesting the sap from palm trees and boiling it into a treacle-like syrup which they then poured into coconut-halves to set into the half-round shapes we're familiar with in stores.

Fish market near Yogyakarta

We arrived to find Ibu crouched over a bubbling pot of caramel in its final stage of preparation over a wood-fired stove.  She stirred the pot gently every so often, scooping the surface-scum and foam from the liquid and  was seemingly unaware of her audience.  Finally, she scooped the molten sugar into the coconut moulds and, when there were only scrapings left in the pot, took some spoons and twirled the caramel around them, passing them out for us to taste.

I can't describe to you the rich, dark sweetness of the fresh sugar.  The closest you can come to the flavour is a dark, gooey fudge, which is almost exactly the right texture of freshly cooled palm sugar.

Every type of banana you could ever want.  Ever.

Ibu brewed us some black, bitter tea and then plopped two large chunks of the fresh sugar in each tin cup.  As I sat there on the bamboo mats on the floor, sweating in the humidity and drinking my dark, sweet tea, I thought there really wasn't much better in life.

Back in Canberra, no matter how much I search the local Asian grocery stores, I've never been able to find anything to match the caramel of Ibu's fresh-made gula merah straight from the pot.  I doubt I ever will.

Duck eggs at the local markets

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