Indonesians love their kerupuk, but just what arethese time-honoured snacks made of?
I AM SURE THAT AT SOME TIME OR you have all received a “You know you’re Indonesian if...” or a “You know you’ve been in Indonesia too long if...” joke list via email or on your Facebook page if you’ve already been living here a while. These humorous lists always include a few references to some of Indonesia’s quirkiest eating habits – such as the ever-popular snack of kerupuk (crackers).
Nobody can eat kerupuk like an Indonesian can and no nation can boast as many varieties of kerupuk as we can. We eat the stuff for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and snack on it at anytime in between. We eat kerupuk as it is, or crushed and sprinkled on top of our food, or fold it into our porridge. And we also enjoy it with a little dipping sauce. We demand kerupuk when the waiter has forgotten to place some on our dining table and we enjoy it not only for its taste, but also for the satisfying crunch that the stuff makes when chomped on. And in between bites of kerupuk, we delightedly get our teeth stuck into some keripik. Take these two items away from us and we would be a very, very angry nation indeed. Put a ban on rempeyek and only the Javanese would be upset, but if you proscribed against kerupuk and keripik, then you’d have a revolution on your hands.
I recently tried to come up with some clear definitions of kerupuk, keripik, and rempeyek, and it proved to be a difficult task, to say the least. Even when I tried to define these three staples as “snacks made from...” my descriptions sounded all wrong, as the huge number of varieties of these ever-ubiquitous food stuffs makes them deserving of more than just snack status.
Kerupuk are generally made from starch (mainly tapioca) with the optional addition of a little fish protein, and the closest synonym in English would be cracker. Keripik are generally made from sliced root vegetables (or fruit and vegetables), which are then fried. The anomalies in this definition are keripik paru (which are made from fried cow’s lung) and keripik ceker (made from boneless chicken feet). There’s also another wildly popular subset in this category that are made from melinjo (gnetum gnemon in Latin), and we call these emping (Barack Obama is a fan!). Rempeyek, on the other hand, is made from peanuts, anchovies or shrimp, and starch. All are equally delicious, of course!
So how are kerupuk made exactly? Simple; the most basic kerupuk are made from tapioca starch with a little salt, MSG, and food colouring thrown into the mix. Mash all of these ingredients together until it becomes dough like, steam it, slice it thinly, dry it under the sun until its water content drops almost to zero, and then deep fry in hot oil. In a few seconds it will expand like popcorn as the water bound in the kerupuk turns to steam. The cheapest kind of kerupuk is cooked not in oil but in sand and we call this stuff kerupuk melarat (literally: low-income/penniless crackers). In Jakarta and Surabaya, this stuff is also known by its other disgusting name: kerupuk upil (snot crackers).
A good quality kerupuk should be made from decent quality tapioca starch and fish protein – the most popular varieties are seafood, fresh-water fish and prawn. The proportions of protein and starch used also affect the quality and the taste of the resulting kerupuk. My grandma taught me that the secret is to use 1:0.75 ratio of proportions (0.75 is for the protein). How the stuff is made is pretty much always the same though - mash up the protein until it becomes a paste, and then mix it with tapioca flour, seasoning and water to make a dough. Steam it, slice it thinly, sun dry it, and deep-fry it whenever your kerupuk addiction starts to nag. Sadly though, more and more producers these days are to starting to us fish flavouring as opposed to real fish meat.
Perhaps the most famous kerupuk of this kind is kerupuk udang (prawn crackers), which are pretty much omnipresent in warung (food stalls) selling many different kinds of sustenance, from nasi goreng (fried rice) to nasi rames (mixed rice) and soto ayam (chicken-noodle soup). Kerupuk ikan (fish crackers) from Bangka, kuku macan (literally: tiger’s nails) from Samarinda, and kemplang from Palembang and Lampung are all made from white-flesh fish, which makes for a pleasant aroma and a umami-type taste. Kemplang can be fried but the best stuff is always grilled.
Two anomalies are rengginang, which is made from sticky rice and famous in the Tasikmalaya and Garut areas (similar is intip from Central and East Java), and rambak, which is made from cow or buffalo skin (also known as kerecek in Jogja and Solo, kerupuk kulit in Bahasa Indonesia or jangek in West Sumatra). Making rambak is a challenging and labour-intensive process. You need to remove the hair from the skin, clean it again in water, cut and sun dry it, and then fry it…twice (first in low-temperature oil and then in high-temperature oil). I’ve seen how people make rambak several times and I am convinced that the first frying stage is much more art than science. And I tell you, rambak is most excellent with a cool mug of beer!