Yesterday (late) morning my family was sitting down to have our current favorite meal of Banh Mi and my parents were discussing the soon-upon-us arrival of my uncle, aunt, and cousin who will be staying with us the rest of the summer while on sabbatical from Indonesia. Since my aunt and uncle will both be working at the university where my dad works for their sabbatical they will be needing to bring at least one meal for during the day during the week and Banh Mi is an excellent option.
Apo, my paternal grandmother, was asking about some of the ingredients and then there was also a subsequent discussion about Vegenaise, which we prefer over mayonnaise for most things. My Apo, being oddly minded about western food products that look to her like they might contain any dairy products kept getting all perturbed over us having to use it in any recipe we would be serving to any of our Indo friends and relatives. Being me and knowing exactly why she would think it was an issue I asked her if she thought it had cheese in it. Her response is “I know it has cheese in it!”.
My mom, ever the crusader for the west in our household, went and grabbed the bottle and assured her there was no such ingredient in it to Apo while I laughed at her paranoia that there is cheese in everything she isn’t familiar with. And I should carify here at “cheese” in Indonesia is pretty limited and the only kind you will see regularly are the “cheese by-products” just as blocks of Kraft “Cheddar” (of the poorly named American “Cheese” variety) or Velveeta if you’re fancy. There’s also a very strange stigma attached to this very narrow concept of cheese in our Indonesian circles which I’m sorry to say is not only cultural but also partly religious.
Apo, now thrilled to learn that Vegenaise was no longer going to kill her took a spoon and tried a bit and absolutely loved it. She’s now planning to put it on a lot more of her food. I pointed out that a lot of the things that she claims not to like because it has cheese in it she used to like before she found out there was any cheese in it. For instance we’ve had to tell her that Paneer is an Indian tofu so she’d try it because when we started to say it was a form of cheese she started scraping it off of her plate before we could even finish explaining.
The whole thing wasn’t helped by my dad who said “There’s no cheese in it, only milk”. My mom and I just about died and there was a sudden riot in the kitchen. My mom proceeded to yell out all the ingredients on the label to better inform the rest of our family just how misguided they truly were.
Another thing my Apo claims to hate is chocolate. For some reason she will get up on her little soapbox and denounce the stuff but will make herself a cup of hot cocoa nearly every winter morning saying it’s not really chocolate or some other such nonsense. She is a little more lenient on the chocolate issue than the whole cheese thing but I know she actually likes both as long as you don’t name them or point it out.
My other grandma also has an aversion to chocolate. She also doesn’t have sugar or salt in her house. While my grandma isn’t a strict vegan she does cook vegan at home, a fact that used to drive my grandpa absolutely bonkers when he was no longer able to do his own cooking. He’d be a good sport and eat her tofu scrambles and carob pudding sweetened with dates but whenever asked if he wanted us to bring anything when we came over to visit he usually asked for some sort of red meat. Well he’d ask my dad specifically since my mom’s a pescatarian.
While there can be several connections made between my grandma’s cooking abilities and her being British I should point out that she grew up in Burma (now Myanmar) and India and spent very little time in England before moving to America where she worked for the British Consulate in DC. At 92 years old, her ability to still do everything herself is impressive. Most of her food, however is not.
One particularly horrifying memory that still haunts me to this day is of a Christmas my family had come to the US for when I was little. We went up to my uncle’s house in West Virginia and everything was going great. Me being the only child/grandchild/niece had a little something to do with that.
I’d done everything right from trying to stay up late for Santa to not getting in the way of my uncle and Gpa playing Mario Golf and I was ready to attack that mountain of presents like nothing else on earth mattered. There was only one problem: I’d woken up late and as a result had slept in until lunch time.
Of course, they had saved me some of the nice breakfasty foods (although I can’t remember what they were today) but it also meant that I had to include some of the lunch foods into my meal. This included my Gma’s coleslaw. I don’t know what she put in that coleslaw but to this day I still refuse to eat anything that even resembles coleslaw. I remember it having raisins in it, too, and from that day on I also refused to eat raisins.
With my little kid logic I’d eaten everything else on my plate and had even offered to eat more of whatever they gave me as long as I didn’t have to eat that coleslaw. My grandma told me I was to sit there at the counter and finish the coleslaw and that I wasn’t to leave that spot until I did. With a little more clarification I also found out that meant I couldn’t open presents until I’d finished eating it either.
I tried just sitting there and hoping they’d forget about the whole thing. I tried hiding the coleslaw somewhere else and claiming I’d eaten it. I tried feeding it to the dog and the cat but no luck. Even my Gpa came and tried to plead my case (since I was crying at this point) but to no avail.
A good hour and a half later my grandpa coached me through the art of eating my Gma’s coleslaw by putting enough salt on it to down out the weird sweet taste that was engaging my gag reflexes and just getting it down as fast as possible. Eventually, the deed was done and I lay my head down on the counter in exhaustion and defeat and told me mom I needed a cup of eggnog. Stat.
Because of food-memories like this I had a lingering distaste for food my Gma made. The fact that she cooks vegan gave me a very false sense of what it means to be vegan and what vegan food means. Of course, as I got older I learned how to mask this distaste in front of my grandma but my Gpa and I always washed whatever she gave us down with a “proper” dessert.
Apo retired and moved to Haiti to live with us when I was 9 years old, and my brother was 1, and over the years she has taught me to be less dubious of the concept of vegan foods. She does occasionally cook eggs but most Indonesian foods that don’t involve meat (which can easily be substituted in almost all cases) are devoid of dairy.
So for anyone that think vegans eat a lot of tofu, this is often true. For those who feel bad for people who eat a lot of tofu, please, don’t. We’re all doing really great over here. While I still have a HUGE issue with people who try to adulterate my artfully created dishes and drinks by saying “Oh this could be made vegan by doing [blah]” or “If you only removed [Blah] and replaced it with [*expletive*]” I can easily say that I like vegan food, especially tofu.
How I remember making Tofu as a kid:
Tofu is easy to make. My parents brought large sacks of dried soybeans with us to Haiti and every Friday night was Tofu making night. The beans had been soaked the whole day if not since Thursday night
First you teach your kids how to count and measure.
Using a really good blender (or vitamix if you can) measure out 1 part soybeans to 3 parts water and blend until it looks like soymilk.
Put Soy-Water liquid into a large pot and repeat last step until you have a lot of it in your pot. I’m sorry but as a 9 year old my skills and sight measuring weren’t so good but I do know we would make at least 4 to 5 sets of the soy-water mixture. If you’re actually going to experiment with them just use a large pot and see how it goes the first time.
Heat up you soy-water but do not boil it. There’s should probably be some stirring involved because I remember it burning on the bottom once. Because we used a vitamix to blend everything together there were often larger pieces that just didn’t liquefy in the process. There will also be a sort of foam that appears on the top of the mixture while it’s cooking. You want to skin this off with a strainer or something. You can throw it away but sometimes Apo (once she came to live with us) would use these solids and make fritters with them.
Add in a couple spoonfuls of epsom salt and stir.
At this point the tofu should begin to coagulate. Once this has occurred take the pot off the heat and begin filling your containers. We used these tallish rectangular plastic containers that fit into one another and made holes in the bottom of half of them. You put a cheese cloth in the bottom of the container with holes, fill it with the coagulated tofu mixture from your pot while letting as much of the water drain out as possible. Once you have a good amount of the solid pieces in your container (about 1/3- 1/2 full) you fold the cheese cloth over the top of the mass to cover it and then put a container on top without holes.
Then they put a cutting board on top of it and had me sit on top to compress the tofu into a block. You need to push out as much water as possible. And also, don’t forget to do this over something the water can drain into otherwise you’re you’re going to have a mess all over your kitchen. If I remember correctly, we used a large bucket with a cutting board laid across the top, the straining/presses on top of that, and then the second cutting board on top of which I sat.
Note: If you do not have a small child at home you can probably do this over the sink with two cutting boards and just press down on it.
What you end up with is fresh, homemade, and still warm tofu. We usually took at least 2 blocks and cut them up, drizzled a little kecap manis (an think, Indonesian, sweet soy sauce) and just eat it.
For anyone who hasn’t heard of this type of Soy Sauce before, it is magic. I grew up with this stuff and it’s used in so many, many, Indo dishes. Here’s one you can make with all your fresh tofu that Apo makes and is one of my A-List comfort foods:
- 2-3 cloves of garlic sliced
- 3-4 blocks of extra firm tofu (if you’re buying blocks in the store they are probably smaller and you might need more. DO NOT USE “Silken Tofu”)
- 2-3 tablespoons (it’s all to taste really)Kecap Manis
- 2-3 teaspoons of Soy sauce
- Heat about 1/4 inch of oil in a frying pan on medium-medium high heat.
- Cut tofu into smaller pieces. The best way is to cut the block in half and then slice across.
- Fry the tofu in batches gently until the skin becomes a light brown. Set aside to drain and discard most of the oil.
- Using the remaining oil cook the garlic until it smells really good but before they start to brown.
- Add in your fried tofu and stir quickly.
- Add in Kecap Manis and soy sauce (amounts can vary depending on how much tofu you actually have and also on how much “sauce” you want with your tofu)
- Cook for several minutes.
- Serve with fresh jasmine rice.