Feeding The Nation



Words by Theodora Hurustiati

Typical Indonesian dishes have many layers of flavour and texture in one bite. They involve a balanced combination of savoury, sweet and sour, with a touch of heat provided by sambal (chilli paste). But we still tend to feel that our meals are lacking something until we’ve added a crunchy component, usually through kerupuk. It’s that crackling sound while we munch our food that seems like music to our ears and gives the sensation of a complete wholesome meal.

Kerupuk is a savoury cracker usually fried made of mainly tapioca (cassava) flour with a wide range of added flavours, from garlic to soy beans, chilli to MSG, aromatic herbs and, most commonly, shrimp and fish. It’s the nation’s favourite snack, and Indonesian supermarkets dedicate aisles specifically to these crackers, fried and ‘raw’. Although, in my opinion, nothing beats the sight of kerupuk bags in rows at traditional markets, their vibrant colours and various shapes simply a work of art and a feast for the eyes.

Do not mistake kerupuk for their close relative keripik. The latter are similar to chips and they’re usually made using thinly sliced tubers, fruits or vegetables without any addition of starch – such as banana, durian, jackfruit, cassava and spinach. Simply put, when you can still distinguish the ingredients through the form, then they’re keripik not kerupuk.

The process of making kerupuk is quite straightforward, but it requires a lot of patience. First, the main source of flavour needs to be pounded to a fine consistency, traditionally using a mortar and pestle, and then added to the tapioca flour and kneaded into a smooth dough. Afterwards, the dough is pressed through stamps for the flower-like discs of kerupuk or shaped into cylinders before steaming. Successively, the cooked ‘logs’ are left to cool and to firm up slightly for a few hours, and then sliced into really thin ‘petals’. Finally, they’re spread onto bamboo mats and left to dry under the scorching sun for a few hours to a couple of days. At this point, the dried ‘raw’ kerupuk are ready for storing and, eventually, for frying. In industry, all these steps are done by machines and the drying process happens in a low-temperature oven.

Now, the frying part is quite tricky: the oil needs to be at the perfect temperature, not too hot nor too cold. For best results, some suggest frying kerupuk in two steps, first in tepid oil then in hot, to allow it to puff up to its full potential. I’d suggest frying only a few crackers at a time since they expand to double or even quadruple their original size. Be careful: this takes only a matter of seconds! They have to be removed from the oil as soon as they stop expanding. The fried kerupuk can then be kept in an airtight jar for a couple of weeks before they start to lose crispness, although they never usually last that long!

There are countless varieties of kerupuk throughout the Indonesian archipelago, and they aren’t always fried. In Sumatra, the famous kerupuk kemplang from Palembang or from neighbouring Bangka and Belitung islands – made of tenggiri (mackerel) – are usually grilled over charcoal and are slightly thicker and larger than other varieties. Kemplang are usually sold already cooked, along with a small sachet of sambal terasi chilli sauce with shrimp paste. Another Bangka and Belitung delicacy is getas – ‘snappy’ crackers – named for the sound they make when you munch the bite-size kerupuk balls.

Another method for cooking kerupuk is roasting them in hot sand, just like they do in Kediri, in East Java, which is known fo rkerupuk pasir (sand crackers), aka kerupuk melarat (poor crackers) because they aren’t fried with costly vegetable oil. In contrast, an expensive version is kerupuk udang (shrimp crackers), originally from Sidoarjo, also in East Java. They are much appreciated in Indonesia and are now manufactured in many modern factories. They are possibly the most exported type of kerupuk, especially to the Netherlands, where Indonesian food is an integral part of the country’s culinary scene.

Another Indonesian favourite is kerupuk putih (white crackers), also known as kerupuk kampung (village crackers) due to their modest price. They are usually sold in warung,street-side kiosks, and displayed in colourful square tins, bearing the name of the company that produces them. Periodically, agile vendor swith enormous tanks skilfully attached to tricycles, stuffed with hundreds if not thousands of kerupuk, are sent from the factory to tour the kiosks and refill the empty tins.

Kerupuk putih are associated with fond memories for many Indonesians as most of us, as children, have likely taken part in a lomba makan kerupuk, or kerupuk-eating race, during National Independence Day celebrations on August 17. My grandparents once told me that the tradition is meant to commemorate the difficult periods and struggles Indonesia had to undergo to gain its independence, when even eating rice with a piece of kerupuk, a pinch of salt and sambal was a luxury. For some, the humble kerupuk putih has becomes a fruitful business, as in the case of Sari Udang in Depok, West Java. Founded by Pak Kusnadi in 1980, the factory now employs 38 people, and its crackers are delivered to all areas of Jakarta and its hinterland.

Being easy to prepare with relatively low-cost ingredients, kerupuk are often produced by stay-at-home mothers to provide extra income for their families. They usually produce simple crackers like rengginang, made of dried cooked rice, gendar, thinly sliced pounded cooked rice, and opak, from pureed fresh cassava, seasoned with chives and chillies.

Other types of the snack include kerupuk bawang (garlic crackers), which commonly garnish nasi goreng (fried rice), bubur ayam (chicken and rice porridge) and ketoprak (rice noodles, soybean sprouts and tofu salad with peanut dressing). They’re usually very colourful, varying from white to rose or tinted with bright yellow, green and pink rinds. Meanwhile, gado-gado (steamed vegetables coated in peanut sauce) is usually completed with emping (smashed melinjo – Gnetum gnemon paddy oat crackers, with a slightly bitter aftertaste).

One of my personal favourites is definitely kerupuk rambak, made with cow or buffalo skin. First it’s boiled, then cut into small pieces – strips or squares – before being dried completely and then fried to a puff. If cattle skin isn’t bizarre enough, adventurous foodies might want to look for the unusual kerupuk bekicot, made with snails, or kerupuk jengkol, made with Archidendron pauciflorum, the stinky bean much loved (or hated) by many Indonesians.

Nothing is too odd in the quest for unique and new flavours. Even unappealing ingredients can be transformed into addictive fluffy, crisp crackers in the creative and skilled hands of artisans. I’ve left out dozens of types, as there are just too many to list in these pages. Varieties will no doubt continue to expand, and we will be seeing and hearing a lot more about this hugely popular Indonesian snack internationally in the future. My wish is that, one day, kerupuk will be as popular as potato chips.

From Flavours Colours July 2018

Theodora Hurustiati

Theodora Hurustiati is a chef and food writer based in Italy. Born in Jakarta to a multicultural family, she embraced diversity from an early age, and uses her love of food from around the world as a way to bring cultures together – as she did with her former column, Taste Bud, for The Jakarta Post. Her proudest culinary achievement was when she cooked Indonesian nasi tumpeng at the United Nations office in Vienna, Austria.