This Javanese woman was famous for her skill in making tempeh. What she produced was firm and tasty, made from 100 percent large soya beans.
The two room apartment near the campus smelt of soya beans. Its sharp aroma was trapped inside by tightly closed windows. In winter the occupants were strictly forbidden to open the windows because the water in the plumbing could freeze and burst the water and gas pipes, and their seals would anyway get blocked with ice and be difficult to close again.
The steam from the boiled soya beans in the big saucepan spread through the apartment. The cooked beans were laid out to dry in trays lined up on the dining-room table, while the still warm newly-made tempeh was placed in open drawers. In the lounge room plastic tempeh wrappers were scattered on the computer desk, bookshelves and other household furniture, piled up with nothing in its right place.
In the corner of that messy lounge room, Mbak Tuning was putting books into a cardboard box. Then she took down from the wall a row of variously-sized frames containing family holiday shots—shots taken in front of Cinderella Castle at Disneyland in Florida; the gateway to Universal Studios in California, and on a boat under the Niagara Falls.
“Yes, indeed its time for me to go home,” whispered Mbak Tun, as she arranged frames in the cardboard box, which she lined with newspaper.
“Why are you going home? Are you being deported?” I teased one afternoon, when I came to her apartment to buy some tempeh.
This Javanese woman was famous for her skill in making tempeh. What she produced was firm and tasty, made from 100 percent large soya beans. It was praised and enjoyed. The tempeh was wrapped in 18 x 15 cm plastic sandwich bags. It cost three dollars a bag.
Mbak Tun shook her head. “You know Mas Din has finished his PhD.”
Hearing this filled my eyes with happiness. “Wow, congratulations!”
But then I heard her restrained voice, its forced tone: “If I had a choice I’d just stay here, developing the tempeh business…”
“I’m sure your customers would be pleased if you didn’t go home. And I could still enjoy your home-made sweet and spicy dried tempeh. So then, there’s no need to go back with him.”
“If Mas Din goes home then I must go with him. You see, I got my visa because my husband had a scholarship. But I’m really sad I must leave this quite profitable business of mine,” whispered Mbak Tun, wiping her teary eyes.
Mbak Tun described herself as a simple village woman who just happened to get lucky from tempeh. Since she’d become a woman, she joked, the first time she earned money from her own hard work was by selling tempeh in a foreign country, and even this she’d discovered by chance.
“When I lived back home I relied on my husband’s civil service salary. I spent every day at home, keeping the place tidy, taking care of the children and, once in a while, attending arisan 4) at the sub-district head’s office. All of this I accepted without complaint. I thought: yes, this is what my life is supposed to be. It turns out life’s nicer when you can do something and earn some money, ya,” she explained.
Six years ago, Mbak Tun and her daugher arrived in Montreal, following Mas Din who had arrived over a year earlier. The first months were a very boring time for her. Her husband was at campus until late at night. Her daughter only came home from school around 4 pm. Mbak Tun, who was used to visiting or being visited by family or neighbours at any given time, felt lonely with no-one to talk to, nothing to do, nobody visiting.
“I used to look out for supermarket flyers selling cheap food. You have to understand that my husband’s scholarship money was very inadequate. Most of it we used to pay the rent on the apartment,” Mbak Tun explained.
One day in winter Mbak Tun had a craving for tempeh. She was bored of her regular menu of beef, chicken, pasta, fish, cheese, canned food, and so on. A friend told her she could get tempeh from the Indonesian Embassy co-op store in Otawa, located 2.5 hours away by car. Or, if she was lucky, she could get tempeh at the Korean-owned oriental store. With snow fatting in thick layers, Mbak Tun walked to the oriental store. She was fortunate that there was one packet of tempeh left.
“The tempeh smelt of sesame seeds; it didn’t taste right to my tongue” said Mbak Tun. She felt compelled to go searching on the internet about ways to make tempeh and then asked someone to send her the yeast from back home.
When the yeast arrived, and with her heart pounding, Mbak Tun made tempeh. She washed, soaked and dried the beans, scattered the yeast and set it aside, following the directions she had read on the internet.
“At first my tempeh was a failure. My soya beans actually rotted. The second time half turned out well but half were moldy. It wasn’t too bad as I could fry half the batch. The next time I failed again. Until finally—Ahamdulillah—I could eat tempeh whenever I wanted.”
Initially she only made tempeh for her family to eat. Then she brought oseng tempeor tempe kering to potluck dinners held by the Indonesian community. From there people asked for her telephone number and ordered raw tempeh and her other tempeh products. News of her tempeh-making mastery spread from mouth to mouth in Asian and vegetarian circles, and amongst those shifting to health foods.
Several months later, Mbak Tun was flooded with orders!
The small apartment quickly turned into a kind of tempeh factory. Mas Din was given the task of shopping for sacks of soya beans. In between his thesis-writing I once saw Mas Din helping, squeezing the boiled soya beans to slip off their skins. Meanwhile Mbak Tun was piercing plastic bags with tooth picks. Together they put the beans into the plastic.
The proceeds of her business helped her family economy and enabled her to take her children and husband on trips. “I could afford to buy a house and several hectares of land back in the kampong. If I could have stayed here another year I would have saved some more for business capital. But what can I say, I really have to go home. What else can I do…?” she said, standing akimbo as she gazed at all the things she had to arrange and take home.
“Do you think someone might want to take on my business?” she asked suddenly.
“I’ll phone my friends later. It’d be better if you gave a course first.”
“Teaching it is easy. The business is already running. The customers are there and the equipment’s complete. What’s important is putting your back into it and working hard,” said Mbak Tun.
Before I left her apartment, Mbak Tun told me to come by again the next Friday night. “I will be holding a combined celebration and farewell party, with a yasinan prayer reading. Don’t forget, ya…”
“What about the course?”
“The quicker it’s done the better, so you can help me pack and throw things out. How about it? The apartment must be clean before we go home.”
“Sure thing, Mbak. Before the yasinan, your apartment will be clean, tidy and no longer smelling of soya beans,” I promised.
“I’ve already told my customers that this is the last week I’ll be making tempeh. Oh dear, I keep thinking about what I can do back home. Surely I can’t sit around doing nothing again…?” Mbak Tun scratched her head restlessly.
Two days later, eight of us—six women and two men—came to Mbak Tun’s place for a tempeh-making course and also to help her pack. We agreed that making tempeh was not at all difficult. Yet, even so, only Asih was prepared to take on Mbak Tun’s business. Asih was the only one who didn’t yet have any children. The rest, although interested, still had young children who took up their parents’ attention in the absence of helpers like they’d have had back in Indonesia. Mbak Tun promised she would pass on her large saucepans and trays to Asih. She also gave Asih a list of her customers’ phone numbers.
As promised, on the yasinan prayer night two days before her departure, Mbak Tun’s apartment was completely free of the soya bean smell. Items not being taken home were passed on or thrown away. What she was taking home was already neatly packed in suitcases and cardboard boxes. All the utensils for the celebration night—the plates, spoons, glasses and bowls—were made of plastic.
The event was opened with a joint reading of the “Surah Yasin” from the Koran. After that, Mas Din said a few words of thanks and farewell. While he was still speaking Mas Din embraced the shoulders of Mbak Tun, who was sitting beside him.
“Really, my wife deserves to be given a doctorate. She’s sacrificed so much for my success. She’s the one who’s managed all the family affairs, helping me to buy books and clothes, taking us on trips, and buying a house back home from her money—the proceeds of selling her tempeh. Thank you, Tuning.” Mas Din kissed his wife’s forehead.
Together they invited the guests to eat dinner with its special menu of goat’s head curry made by Dr Din. There were also all sorts of delicious tempeh products: bacem, mendoan,oseng-oseng, sambal goreng tempe kering, sambal tumpang, and tempe buncis bersantan—all made by MbakTuning.
“I’ve already prepared tempeh kering for you and the friends who helped me clear up the apartment to take home. Without your help tonight my apartment would still be like a tempeh factory…”
“Have you made up your mind? Youhave no second thoughts about going home, Mbak?” I asked.
“After I thought it over, I decided it’s better to go home with my husband. What else can I do, I mean? Living here alone, I wouldn’t want that either.”
After Mbak Tun went home, I could no longer eat tempeh regularly. Whereas in the email she sent Mbak Tun bragged of how she could eat tempeh any time, cooked any way, without even having to make it!
“But my body’s starting to ache with nothing to do. Staying at home all day, or just sometimes going to arisan, waiting for my husband to come home. I’ve been thinking hard about going into business again. I’m hooked on the pleasure of earning money,” she wrote in another email.
But several months later, Mbak Tun stopped returning my emails. She had once mentioned that to send emails she had to go to the internet cafe, located quite far from her home. I hoped she was already busy with some new activity. I too had forgotten her tempeh, because the tempeh Asih made was just as delicious as Mbak Tun’s.
Then Marni from Yogya, who had come to take a summer school course in Montreal, called me. She told me Mbak Tun had sent me something. There was a batik table cloth, a package of rempeyek belut and some crispy, tasty keripik tempeh.
In her letter Mbak Tun wrote: “Now my body doesn’t ache any more. Every morning I go round the catfish and eel ponds. When you come home promise you’ll drop by my house, ya? I’ll serve you mangut lele and rempeyek belut. But don’t think I’ve forgotten tempeh just like that. It was tempeh that fired my money-making spirit. Helped by a few local women, I’m making all sorts of keripik tempe now. I sent you some; it’s cheese and black pepper flavored. I’m sure that people there will like keripik tempe and rempeyek belut. Would you be prepared to become my agent?”
I am sure that Mbak Tun was serious about her offer. So, okay, I’ll just send my answer via Marni, and send her back some smoked salmon and bagels—two foods she’s been missing.
arisan = Gatherings are held on a regular basis in Indonesia. They are attended by women, providing both an opportunity to socialize and a revolving credit facility
bacem = Sweet tempeh
keripik tempe = Tempeh chips.
mangut lele = Catfish in coconut milk
mas = Javanese term of address for males
mbak = Javanese term of address for a young woman
mendoan = Fried battered tempeh
oseng tempe = Stir-fried tempeh
rempeyek belut = Eel crisps
sambal goreng tempe kering = Spicy dried tempeh
sambal tumpang = Spicy coconut milk tempeh
Surah Yasin = The 36th chapter of the Koran
tempe buncis bersantan = Tempeh with string beans in spicy coconut milk
Ida Ahdiah was born in l963, is a former journalist turned fiction writer. Her short stories have been published in scores of national newspapers and magazines. In 1995, she penned Wartawan Cilik (The Little Journalist), a children’s novel. In 2010 her book, Teman Empat Musim (Four Seasons Friend), was shortlisted for the Khatulistiwa Literary Award. She also writes non-fiction pieces on family and parenting.