Food of Semarang, Central Java

Last week, I visited Semarang, Central Java with three friends, one of whom is Margaret Chan who was Singapore's foremost food critic.  She was also a former journalist, former actress and pioneer of the Singapore English language theatre, and currently a professor of theatre studies at the Singapore Management University.
Margaret wrote a great piece of the little known cuisine of Semarang, with photos from Victor Yue, another distinguished member and prolific collaborator in fields ranging from birding, heritage and Taoist temples. 
Margaret Chan: 
Four Singapore friends went to Semarang in July 2008. Our hosts, the generous, patient and knowledgeable Mr Zhuang and Mdm Luo took us on an unforgettable tour of the town.
The food of Central Java is Sweet, spelt with a capital 'S', make that SWEET, all in caps, for this one flavour dominates all else. So there is sugar in your stir-fried vegetables, sugar in the stewed meats, and sugar in the soup. The latter was particularly difficult to take to. I am thinking of the tom yam steamboat we had in the restaurant at Alam Indah, a motel on the hills of Semarang.
The Indonesians name steamboat shabu-shabu. In Thailand they call the same dish suki, for sukiyaki. This must say something; that Japan has bequeathed food terms to two Southeast Asian countries, I think it exoticises the DIY dish, giving excitement and panache to an essentially boil-your-meal- yourself experience.
But back to the tom yam steamboat at Alam Indah: The stock tasted like chillied syrup. Somehow the combination of sugar and spice did not translate to all things nice, for the meal went like this; fishball with syrupy soup, cuttlefish with syrupy soup, vegetables in syrupy soup, all washed down with spoonfuls of the same syrupy soup.
This is not to say that sugar ruined the food of Semarang for us. In fact it was the reason why we raved over some of the classic dishes we tasted. Sugar of course is the definitive ingredient of a sweet, which is like saying rice is a part of nasi goreng. But few of the sweets we enjoy in Singapore are blessed for that special flavour of gula jawa syrup – I mean the real thing, made from caramelized air nira the sap tapped from the inflorescence of the coconut palm. They stick a metal tube into the base of the spathe and collect the cloudy liquid that drips out; the method is not unlike rubber tapping. Boiled down to a thick golden-coloured magma, the air nira hardens on cooling into gula jawa. The latter is the source of much of the sweet in Jawa Tengah's cuisine, so that the flavour is not the straightforward sweet of sucrose, but is instead a wonderfully complex combination of lemak and manis; the translation of rich and sweet does not do justice to the taste sensation.

bubur sum sum and candil

We enjoyed gula jawa syrup best with bubur sum sum and candil. Bubur sum sum is a white paste made by boiling rice flour mixed with grated coconut into which is whipped coconut milk. The result feels soft and rather strange eaten on its own, but I can imagine quickly taking to the dish for it slithers down the throat in a most sensuous manner, and is as comforting as porridge eaten when one is ill and wanting food that nourishes without demanding much by way of eating as an exercise. For those wanting a bit more bite in their food, we have the candil, glutinous rice balls which make a chewy counterpoint to the slithery bubur sum sum. The taste and textures are best enjoyed when you have all three components in a spoonful; sensuous bubur sum sum with chewy yet yielding candil, drenched in gula jawa syrup. Mmmmm.
Gula jawa is also a crucial ingredient of gudeg which might be described as the definitive Jawa Tengah dish. Gudeg actually refers to a dish of young jackfruit boiled in coconut milk with aromatic spices, gula jawa and teak leaves. Just a smidgen of the latter is used, and it colours the gudeg a red-brown. By the way, teak leaves are stuffed into the cavity of babi guling, the roast pig dish of Bali.

see the top centre dish for the Gudeg

Gudeg is rarely eaten on its own, but with complementary dishes to make gudeg complete – that is a complete meal. The accompanying dishes include tau kwa (soyabean cakes) and eggs stewed in dark sauce and gula jawa (think Hokkien kong bak). Often a chicken curry is included in the list, but the key accompaniment, to my mind is the krecek (beef skin) in spicy sauce. Krecek is skin dried like kropok (crackers) which when fried puffs up into crispy, blistered morsels. These when stewed, become sponges that draw and hold in the stew so krecek make a juicy, flavourful textural food (you need all three adjectives to even begin to describe the eating experience).
Gula jawa also finds its way into a Lontong Chap Goh Meh, a dish that is specific dish to the Peranakan Chinese of Semarang. Lontong is rice cake, made by boiling rice into log-shaped cakes. The rice is poured into moulds. These are perforated aluminium tubes lined with banana. Cooked this way; the rice cools into logs coloured green on the outside by the banana leaves, which also impart an elusive but de rigueur fragrance to the longtong. Nowadays people have learned to make lontong by boiling rice in plastic bags – which robs the dish of its taste and romance.
Lontong is eaten as a filler; for example with satay or gado-gado, but it lends its name to a dish where the rice cake is eaten with a lodeh, vegetable stewed in spicy coconut milk gravy. This describes lontong Chap Goh Meh, except that the dish to qualify for the name should include some meat – usually chicken or beef. The latter, I suppose is a luxury that accounts for the name Chap Goh Meh, the 15th day of the first moon of the Chinese year, a time of celebration when houses are filled with guests. The dish is an easy way to serve a complete meal of staple, vegetables and meat in a bowl.

A takeaway Lontong Chap Goh Meh

In Singapore, good lontong is lontong served with serunding. The latter is grated coconut fried dry and heavenly fragrant with spices that include turmeric and onions. In Semarang, the definitive lontong Chap Goh Meh features kedelai, soyabean powder. The beans are roasted and ground finely. The powder lends the lontong a rich and deeper flavour – think how yong taufu soup will not be yong taufu soup without soyabeans in the stock. Where the gula jawa comes into lontong Chap Goh Meh is in a paste that might be described as a serunding lembab, moist serunding. The grated coconut is stewed with gula jawa syrup to make a dark paste. The entire lontong Chap Goh Meh experience is a meal in a dish which combines delicately scented but bland-tasting rice cake as a foil to a spicy coconutty vegetable stew made complex with soyabean powder and fragrant-sweet serunding.
The Chinese have been in Semarang since the 15th century, when local legends tell that Admiral Zheng Ho came visiting, leaving his ailing skipper in a cave. The skipper, while recovering, fathered a small community of Chinese who grew into the Chinese population of Semarang, officially described as a 2% minority group, and believed by the Chinese themselves to number 10% of the population, but exerting an influence on the cultural landscape way beyond the numbers. It seemed to us that temples were to be found on every corner of the streets of Semarang.
A dish that the Hokkiens have given to Indonesian cuisine is lumpia or loenpia. This is what Singaporeans will recognise as popiah. I have argued that the term describes the pancake wrapper; lumpia or loenpia (In the Philippines they also have lumpia) translates as lun pia, tough and chewy biscuit, just as popiah means crepes, or thin biscuits.
In Semarang you can ask for loenpia original (like KFC original) which is the fresh popiah as we know it, or fried into spring rolls. The filling is made with shreds of bamboo shoots (the way it is done for the best of Singapore-style Baba popiah) stewed with fermented soyabean paste and – what else? – gula jawa. Indeed it was sweet being in Semarang.

words by Margaret
pictures by Victor
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char said…
On lumpia and popiah. The Taiwanese has a simliar street food called 潤餅 (renping) which looks and tastes like the S'pore popiah. And if you think about it, 潤餅 pronouced in Min Nan (or Hokkien) does sound like lumpia. So there's good reason to believe that these 2 are the same thing coming out of the Fujian province.