Pickled

These days, pickles are impossible to find in Jakarta.

Imported food has been scarce for about six months—ever since the melamine scare and subsequent recall of melamine-enhanced foods. For those of you not familiar with the melamine-milk food horror, it seems melamine— the same melamine from which the indestructible flowered tableware of my youth was made—can be, and in China was, used as a protein enhancer in milk, and products made from that milk. Brilliant idea, right? WRONG. Come to find out, the body doesn’t process melamine the way it processes the normal cow-produced milk protein. Instead, it solidifies—imagine what a plastic cup tossed into a blazing campfire looks like. And those melamine globs clog the system. Which is extremely painful and harmful to bodies—the smaller the body the more painful and harmful. Babies died, others became seriously ill from ingesting these melamine-enhanced milk products. As a result, many foods made in China, in which melamine was used—including Milky Way candy bars and M&Ms—were recalled.

What does this have to do with pickles? Well, purportedly, the Indonesian government took this scare seriously. As I understand it, (translation, what a guy I met at a party who works in the food-importing industry here, told me) is that the government is scrutinizing the labels on all imported food—case by case, can by can, jar by jar. As a result, down on the docks, warehouses are stuffed with imported food rapidly approaching their expiration dates that are in line to have their labels scrutinized, and grocery store shelves are empty—well, not exactly empty, Japanese-made products have been moved into the empty spaces and/or the few Western-import items available, think “olive oil,” have been arranged in creative designs that take up loads of shelf space.

Now, the thrilling, super agent, sneaky secret part of all of this is that apparently, if you know the right people, at the right stores, you can get some imported products. At Caswell’s Mom, a decadently expensive boutique grocery specializing in imports ( a box of All Bran $11 U.S; a can of Rotel, $5.00), the clerk slipped me a computer list as I was checking out, and instructed me to “let her know if there was anything on the list I wanted.” (She may have winked, slyly.) I confess, I took a look at the list, but declined. Not as a matter of principle. The items listed were mostly fake cheese, processed fast food, and nitrate-packed pork products. On another pre-Christmas grocery run to Ranch Market, my “usual” grocery, I was waiting to get my “free parking” pass when a sales associated asked if I had been to the “secret room” (her words). I shook my head. “What is in the secret room?” I whispered. “Things you expats like,” she said. “Imported food…alcohol...” I was tempted to take my turn in the secret room. But I was more worried this might be a sting operation or that there were hidden cameras. Besides, my bring-your-own grocery sacks bulged with freezer items and I had already called Aan to fetch me, so I said “next time.”

Curtis joined me on the pre-New Year’s run to Ranch Market and, with the shelves so empty, we had time to kill, so I told Curtis about the “secret room” and asked him if he wanted to see it.

Curtis is not usually game for shady activities. Maybe it was the absence of pickles (we had come there looking specifically for them), or our lack of a social life, but for whatever reason, Curtis agreed to join me. I flagged down a sales associate and asked about the “secret room.” She gave me a puzzled look. I rephrased the question, explaining more and including hand gestures. “You know, the room in the back…with the bule food….things from America…alcohol…” She shook her head. Either she really was totally clueless about the room or she was a well-trained sleuth. I wanted to go with “clueless” and ask another associate—Curtis went with “another one of Kelly’s imagined adventures” and pulled me to the check out lane.

So, today, Rusnati and I are making pickles. Yesterday, I sent her to the traditional market to buy 15 kilos—about 30 pounds—of cucumbers and ice. Last night, I flipped through my recipe files for my pickle recipes. Yes, I have made pickles before. But, before, I made them for fun, not out of desperation. Not with the thought in the back of my mind that, if they were good, I might be able to supplement my fun budget with proceeds from pickle sales--think small jar $5 or $6 U.S, when the stores stocked them. The 15 kilos of cucumbers had cost Rp 50,000, about $5 dollars. The bag of ice cost almost that much.

Rusnati and I commenced chopping about 10:00 this morning. I sliced the cucumbers: discs for lime pickles; lengthwise slices for sandwich-sized bread and butter pickles; spears for dill pickles. (Curtis hates, hates, dill pickles. But our friend, Alex, has been jonensing for them for some time now…I wonder how much he’s willing to pay for a jar?) Rusnati chopped the stinky stuff—onions, peppers, and chilies.

Aan is in on the pickle-making project, too. His job: find canning jars. I gave him two examples: one pint-sized jar and one quart jar. I gave him explicit instructions to find “exactly the same kind,” and to call—before he bought—if he has any questions. He left at 9:47. It is now 3:45 in the afternoon. He has called 3 times: once to ask if the same jars, in a different brand name were okay. “Do they have the two-part lid?” I asked. “I need the one flat, round disk that fits on the top and the other, ring that twists around. “Yes, he assured me.” The lids have 2 parts…but they only have the large size jar.” “Fine, great!” I assured him. The next call was from another store. They had jars, but the top was different. “Do they have two-part lids, like the other ones?” I asked. “The neck is different shaped,” Aan answered. “But, do they have the two-part lids?” I asked again. “The lids are only one part and the top is shaped differently,” he responded. The third call came about 30 minutes ago. Aan had been to several other stores--he listed them all--and no luck. “Could he go to these other stores?” he asked, listing more, very far away stores. “Was Mrs. Going anywhere today?” “Don’t worry about me,” I said, “go and find the jars. Good luck!” Aan laughed, “Good luck”…

As the cucumbers are cut, the ends and not-good-for-pickles pieces go into the relish bowl. I’d made relish before too, but not the Indonesian way. Relish is made from these cucumber left overs mixed with onion and peppers—either sweet or hot—all of which is chopped to bits, teeny-tiny bits. I had a lot of time to think about that teeny-tiny bits bit while chopping all those bits. About 10 minutes into the chopping, after having tried and failed at using the blender and nut chopper to mince the veggies, I decided that I am not a big fan of the Indonesian way. Mincing vegetables by hand is a time-consuming, repetitive motion injury waiting to happen.

Once minced, relish bits have to marinade in brine for at least an hour. (Pickles marinade longer: overnight for some, 4-6 hours for others, and longer.)

As I write, the timer is ticking away. It is set to go off 30 minutes from now. Then it will be time for the next phase of relish making: draining, cooking, jarring and sealing the relish made from those teensy-weensy, teeny-tiny bits. Hmmmm if you think about the time and energy we will expend on in this relish, let alone the pickles…maybe $5 per jar is not out of line.

As for the pickles, there are 5 enormous bowls of precisely sliced, marinating cukes waiting, wanting, willing to become pickles and relish. However, what happens next all depends on Aan… Are there jars in that “secret room”? Or on the “special products” list? Or are they stacked in some dock warehouse waiting to be checked for melamine?