At the back of the hill

Warning: If you stay here long enough you will gain weight! Grazing here strongly suggests that you are either omnivorous, or a glutton. And you might like cheese-doodles.
BTW: I'm presently searching for another person who likes cheese-doodles.
Please form a caseophilic line to the right. Thank you.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013


One of the last times I saw my friends Henri and Suzanne before I left Valkenswaard for Berkeley was in neither place.
The centre of Valkenswaard ('Grote Markt') did not have the really ancient trees and the genuine Indonesian Restaurant occupying a dominant location as a few other towns, and had started modernizing, meaning that there were more bars than any other form of business.
It was not nearly as appealing for a long quite lunch as some other places.

We took the train somewhere else. Not far, but it would have been a two or three hour bicycle trip, and it threatened to rain. Besides, the owner of the restaurant we intended to visit was kin, in a way. Henry and Suzanne had not been born in the old country -- their parents had been forced out in the fifties -- but they and the restaurant man spoke the same language. Not standard Malay, which later became Bahasa Indonesia, but something a little wilder, more eastern. Yes, standard Malay also, because many of the transplantees and their families in the Kempen knew that language. But in the sixties and seventies odd linguistic strata were still evident.

[Transplantees: people who had left Indonesia when that country became independent. Many were Dutch legally if not entirely by descent, others did not have much or any Dutch blood at all. Most were too educated and too associated with the old regime to still be much welcome in the islands of their birth; the nationalists had since the Japanese occupation tried to erase as much of the Netherlandish overlay as possible. During the fifties and the sixties the local societal webbing and woofing got a lot worse. The term for such people in Holland nowadays is Indos, but up until the seventies, calling someone an Indo was considered depreciating. Some did not consider themselves 'Indo' in any way at all. Two of my classmates in high school, for instance, spoke barely a word of 'Indonesian' (Malay), but dreamed in the Hakka tongue of the mining settlements in Borneo. They were very white in that regard.]

Henri was back from college for a week, Suzanne would be at Leiden University after summer, and I was going to return to the United States in August. My exile was ending, and I both dreaded and welcomed the prospect of becoming more of what I was.

So it seemed perfectly appropriate to leave Valkenswaard for the day, and have a long lunch in a restaurant where another world was remembered.
At least one table leg elsewhere, so to speak.

Remarkable for a town far in the south, almost isolated from the modern world, Valkenswaard had much that subconsciously reminded one of Indonesia. After the war a number of people had arrived there, and while local society remained somewhat closed, it did welcome them. The cigar factories still used leaf from Djember and Bondowoso, the coffee everyone drank from dawn till midnight tasted still of the lost empire, and a number of the local people had served in the Preanger during the troubles. Poverty had sent local sons all over Europe and the East, many families had an uncle or cousin who used odd locutions, probably every household had something that recalled the Orient.

Valkenswaard even had some musicians that played Indo Rock.
Boisterous, melodic. Reminiscent of krontjong.

Other villages in the Kempen were similar. Cigar factories. Veterans. Mercantile people. And transplantees.

The "elsewhere" we visited that day had once had a cigar factory too, and a graduate of the Technische Hogeschool Bandoeng (Institut Teknologi Bandung - Technical University of Bandung) had opened a restaurant serving Dutch-Indonesian food there. He was a classmate of Henri and Suzanne's uncle, both men had worked with thousands of others on a railway in Sumatra.

After the war, they returned to their city looking out over the water north of 'returning plank', and discovered that it had changed. More Muslims, more Malays, more Madurese; along with destroyed oil installations and bridges. As engineers, they were perfectly suited to help rebuild it. But the world was a much different place by then.
When Henri's father finally came back from Semarang, all of them decided to leave.
Things were no longer the same.

That afternoon there were eight of us at the restaurant named after a famous shopping street in Bandung.
Henri, Suzanne, and myself. The owner, his wife, a waiter, and two people in the kitchen in addition to the wife. She spoke to them in Cantonese, to her husband in Indonesian, and to us in Dutch.

Four people who had lived through the war. Three who had only heard about it secondhand. Two that had been in camps.
But, given that particular time and place, and that all of us had roots elsewhere, the war still seemed a significant factor, more than thirty years after it ended.

Our speech, naturally, was "mixed".

As was the food.

A lovely white-cooked chicken dish -- not the Chinese chicken with ginger shreds and green onion, but a pale and slightly sweet compound of breasts and livers in coconut milk -- a dark almost black beefy offering, and a golden bamboo shoot and dried fish gulai, which was actually a version of ebere without the pork.
Plus crunchy vegetables to dip in hot sauce, and a clear soup with tamarind and lemon grass.

Coffee and tobacco afterwards.

Douwe Egberts with condensed milk. Pungent bolknak cigars from Hofnar.
Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes (or were they Caballero?), and pipe-tobacco from a black and white tin.

"How are your parents?"
[Ei, Apak Amao mo, ma-ano dema? Sarwa bate sametek?]

"Oh, they're fine. They send their regards."
[O, dema bate bate sahadja, mag-ngirim salam para kuwang, ya.]

"How's your uncle's gout?"
[Bagemano sakit-yikit nya pamongmo?]

Odd, that after much rich food, gout should come up.
Somehow it just didn't seem right. Natural, yes, but not right.
I also remember wondering at the expression 'sakit-yikit'. It struck me that it was a term I had never heard before, ere I understood that it was merely a borrowing from Dutch.
Jicht (ph: 'yikht').

[This was years before I got to feel gout firsthand; like the war, it was something I only knew from hearing.]

Gout is probably a lot more common in Indonesian circles now than it was several decades ago, as eating habits have changed. What were once foods limited to festivals are now so widely available that middle-class children may at times resemble beach balls, much like in Holland and America at present. And pudginess is considered a virtue.
But before prosperity made us fat, our diets were much healthier.

In Indonesia, the women of Sunda and North-East Borneo were always considered beautiful, with clear glowing skin and bright expressive faces, because they ate so many vegetables.
Crisp greens dipped in fresh chilipaste, vegetable curries coloured with turmeric, ginger and green herbs in soups and stews.
Not very much meat.
Fresh fish.

In the Netherlands at that time, the repatriated veterans and colonial administrators wanted the rich coconut curries, fried dishes, and roasted meats they remembered from their insular East Indies environment, the exiled Indos longed for the water spinach (蕹菜 eng tsae, kangkong), longbeans (豆角 tau kok, 菜豆 tsae tau, atawa katjang manjang), amaranthus leaf (莧菜 hin tsae, daon bayem), fresh chilies (辣椒 loat tseo, tjabe hijo), and basil (九層塔 kau tsang tak, daon tulasi) of home.

Over all this, the fragrances of chilipaste (sambal), dried fish (ika karing, daeng) and shrimp-dew (patis), lime juice (tjeap limo), tamarind (asem djawa, atawa buwa tjaramanggi, tan wae kampal), coconut (kalapa, niyog; but more often the milk - santen - and the raspings - katjurokan kalapa).
Lemongrass (sere), ginger (djae, haleya), galangal (umbe langkuwas, langkwang), cilantro (ijo katumbar), Chinese keyes (kantjor, tamo kuntji, atawa umbe wangi).

Most Indonesian restaurants in North Brabant were actually Chinese, with a menu that offered food that neither the staff nor the kitchen really understood. A few represented Javanese tastes -- often run by little old aunties and uncles from somewhere near Bogor or Surabaya -- and one or two catered to the ex Ambon military.
All of them had sate, and semur, gule and kare, lumpia, saoto, gado gado, besengek, ayam taliwang, and babi panggang, babi taotjo, babi ketjap, babi tomat.
That's skewers of small grilled meat chunks with peanut sauce, soy and onion braised meat, yellow soup curry and hot brown dry curry, small eggrolls, soup with meat and potato or rice-stick noodle, blanched vegetables with peanut sauce, spicy Javanese chicken stew, fiery Menadonese chicken, roast pork, beanpaste pork, soy pork, and pork with tomatoes and chili.

Pork is not really an Indonesian favourite, at least not in Java and Sumatra, where most of the people live and almost everyone is Muslim.
But Hindus, Christians, Chinese, and Tribals all love it.
As do restaurant owners and Dutch people.

For the best truly authentic food, you went to Den Haag or Amsterdam.

Or places run by retired exiles: the uncles and the aunties.

There were few such in the hinterlands.

But you probably cooked at home, even if all you wanted was bami goreng and gule ayam, or simply ketoprak, rendang, and a bit of rice.

My tastes have expanded since I left Valkenswaard, but I still cook at home. Especially if I want to remember. Things like Suzanne's ready wit, or Henri's smile -- her faint hint of girlish perfume (Joy, by Jean Patou), his subtle odour of cigars -- and above all the light of Northern Europe, strong coffee and amber tea, old camphor wood cabinets, as well as the whisper of sandalwood (keeps away bugs), and diluted lime juice or green tea used to soften the hair of the ladies in Indo households.
These elements are all revived when I have Indonesian dishes.
Which I cook myself. Because no one else does these.

[How do I know what perfume Suzanne wore? Simple. I asked. It was available at a store on the Grote Berg in Eindhoven, as well as a place on the Rechte Straat near the 18 September Plein.
I bought her some for her birthday that last year. Of course I remember.]

Coconut milk white chicken

One chicken cut into 6 or 8 pieces.
One onion, minced.
Six kemiri (candlenuts), lightly toasted.
Six cloves garlic, slivered.
A slice or two ginger.
One TBS. ground coriander.
Half Tsp. each: ground cumin, white pepper.
Small piece of cinnamon.
Two stalks lemon grass; bruised, folded, tied.
Whole green chilies.
Three cups coconut milk.
Three cups clear stock.
Pinches of salt and sugar.

Fry onion limp-translucent, add the garlic, ginger, and powdered spices. Gild very lightly. Now add everything except the chicken and whole chilies and simmer for an hour.
After this add the chicken and cook on low heat for about forty five minutes, then add the whole chilies and leave on the flame fifteen minutes more.

Remove the chicken to a dish, take out the whole chilies and piece of cinnamon, and reduce the liquid to a velvety consistency. Pour it over the chicken, and garnish with a few fresh basil leaves.

Curry lamb

One and a half pounds lamb, cut into chunks.
One onion, chopped.
Thumb-length ginger, minced.
Two or three cloves garlic, ditto.
Half TBS. ground coriander.
Half Tsp. each: paprika, turmeric, dry ginger.
Quarter Tsp. each: cayenne, ground pepper, mace.
A stalk of lemon grass.
A stick of cinnamon.
A bay leaf.
Three cups coconut milk.
One and a half cups water.
Quarter cup broken cashews.
Squeeze of lime juice.
Jigger of Louisiana hot sauce.

Grind powdered spices with the cashews to a paste, add the onion, garlic, and ginger, and mix - mash - grind till smooth.
Fry the spice paste till the oil separates, add the meat and stir to coat. Braise a bit, and keep stirring, to prevent burning at the bottom of the pan. Loosen the crusty bits as needed.
Add the remaining flavourings and about a third of the liquids (except the lime juice and hot sauce), cook into the oil comes out, then add the rest. Simmer for about half an hour to forty five minutes.
Stir occasionally to prevent scorching.
Squeeze the lime and jigger the hot sauce over before serving.

Yellow curry chicken

Half a chicken, in four pieces.
One onion, minced.
One or two cloves garlic, minced.
A little ginger, ditto.
Three kemiri (candlenuts); lightly toasted, ground smooth.
One TBS. sambal ulek.
One Tsp. tamarind paste.
One Tsp. each: ground coriander, turmeric, dry ginger.
Half Tsp. each: sugar, shrimp paste.
Generous pinch ground cumin.
A stalk of lemon grass.
One cup coconut milk.
Dash of amber fish sauce.

Gild the onion, garlic, and ginger. Add the kemiri, sambal, shrimp paste, and spices, stirfry till fragrant. Then add the chicken, lemon grass, and coconut milk. Cook till the chicken is tender and the oil starts coming out, about forty minutes. Add the sugar and fish sauce, and cook a few minutes more.

Meat and bamboo shoots in rich sauce

Pound and a half of chunked goat.
Cup and a half of julienned bamboo shoots.
One carrot, also julienned.
A small onion, minced.
Some minced garlic and chili.
One or two TBS. sambal ulek.
One Tsp. ground coriander.
Half Tsp. each turmeric, dry ginger, ground cumin.
Cup and a half coconut milk.
Cup of stock or water.
Dash soy sauce.
Squeeze of lime juice.

Frazzle the onion garlic and ginger with a little of the coconut milk until the oil comes out and the mixture gilds. Add the powdered spices, sambal, and goat, plus a splash more coconut milk. When the oil comes out again, add the remaining coconut milk and the water. Simmer for an hour. Then add the bamboo shoot, carrot, soy sauce, and the squeeze of lime juice, cook half an hour more.

Soy-sauce pork

One pound pork loin, chunked.
One or two stalks scallion, cut into small lengths.
A thumb-length ginger, coarse slivered.
One Tsp. sambal ulek
One or two star anise.
Quarter cup soy sauce.
Two TBS. sugar.
Half cup water.
Jigger sherry.

Salt and pepper the pork lightly. Stirfry the scallion and ginger in oil till fragrant, add the meat and sauté to colour. Add everything else and simmer for half and hour or so. The sauce should be velvety, but not treacly.

Lemon pickle-relish

One cup white vinegar.
Half cup water.
Quarter cup sugar.
Two TBS. salt.
Half Tsp. turmeric.
Pinch paprika (for colour).
Three large lemons.
Three small green chilies.

Blanch lemons and chilies. Remove seeds, and chop.
Mix everything in a large jar.
Age a week, shake regularly.
Use a little for a startling condimental addition.

Sour and hot dressed salad.

Two TBS. each: lime juice, tamarind liquid, amber fish sauce, smooth peanut butter.
One TBS. each: brown sugar, Louisiana hot sauce, sambal ulek.
Hot water as needed for diluting, and a few drops of oil for smoothness.

Whisk together till smooth.
Serve as a dip, or use as dressing, for raw and blanched vegetables and sour fruits, with shrimp chips, fried tofu squares (tauhu pong), and slices of hard-boiled egg.

Crispy coconut and onion garnish

One cup grated coconut.
One finely slivered shallot.
Two TBS. lime juice
One TBS. amber fish sauce.
One Tsp. sugar.
A few drops Louisiana hotsauce.
Pinches ground coriander and turmeric.

Mix it all together well. Let stand an hour or two. Spread thinly on an oiled baking tray, and toast it for two hours at slightly below 300 degrees Fahrenheit. If necessary, decant it to a skillet and toast it golden brown afterwards by hand. Keeps for a few weeks.
Use it to add textural excitement on top of curries.

[A version of serundeng with cashews is here: sarundeng kadjo. It can also be made with rehydrated laver (seaweed), at which point you have something that you will eat huge handfuls of in front of the teevee late at night.]

Note that lemon grass can be found in many Asian markets, sambal ulek is plain red chili paste as manufactured by Huy Fong Foods in Irwindale -- as well as other companies, and you can also substitute similar products -- and good amber fish sauce comes from Thailand or Vietnam. Avoid the Filipino versions; they're chemically unstable.
Kemiri nuts (Aleurites moluccana) are often used in Indonesian cuisine. They add a saveur of their own, and help unify emulsive sauces. But you can substitute many other nuts for a similar effect, entirely excepting kluwak (Pangium edule ), which has its own unique function within the Indies kitchen.

Customarily, freshly chopped cucumbers, a clear soup, simple and cooked sambals, and rice are part of the meal. Cucumbers lessen the effect of hot weather as well as gastric distress from too much sambal. Often some blanched or quick stir-fried vegetables will also be served.
Amounts of sambal ulek are suggestions.
Feel free to increase.


I remember that afternoon fondly. Suzanne was more sparkling than ever, and her brother Henri seemed pleased and proud that his sister was such a nice young lady. Over the next several hours he had three cigars, I smoked my pipe constantly, and Suzanne manfully put up with our smelly habit.

The uncle and his wife happily listened in on the juveniles, sometimes adding a comment. Perhaps it somehow reminded them of somewhere else, a different time and place. Youth, cleverly mixed languages, witty conversation, and spicy food.
Was it perhaps an echo of a city far away, and the people who had once lived there?
Outside it was raining. Not the hard downpours of winter, but a steady drubbing amid the green green leaves of the tall trees surrounding the square, muffling the sounds of traffic and whatever else.
Lights were on; you need lamps in Holland when it rains to drive away the gloom. And brightness adds cheer.

Later, when the rain lessened, we walked back to the station.
Henri and I let Suzanne use the only umbrella, resisting her demands that we all stay under it. The wetness was minor, and real men do not mind a little moisture.

Despite the long exposure to tobacco smoke, I could still notice the faintest hint of her perfume. How delightful, how feminine.

I wonder what would have happened if I had gone back in the eighties.
At that time it did not seem like such a good idea, and since then I have gotten acclimatized so thoroughly that leaving the Bay Area never even crosses my mind.
But I rather miss the weather, as well as the smells.
And above all, some of the people I knew.
Their fragrance remains strong.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.

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