‘Asam Jawa’: Indonesia

In Bahasa Indonesia tamarind is called asam jawa. Actually, besides the tamarind trees producing sour fruits, trees producing sweet fruits of the asam jawa, or Tamarindus Indica Linn, exist. But the main connotation of the asam jawa tree is having sour fruits as gastronome and epicurean el supremo Suryatini N. Ganie explains.

These trees are now seldom seen along the main roads in big cities in Indonesia. Because being able to grow as high as 25 meters with a dense foliage, they are regarded to be dangerous for the heavy traffic flowing underneath as the branches grow over the road.

Though souring agents from fruits are many in Indonesia and differ from region to region, the asam jawa is one of the most used in may regions.

In Sumatra there is asam sunti originating from the sun-dried belimbing sayur or sour fruit.

As the asam jawa fruits deteriorate quickly, they will be already be properly packed when sold in supermarkets and traditional markets, though in traditional markets in small villages the tamarind pulp is still sold in a large container so that the buyer can take as many as he needs and pack them himself.

The common preparation of the asam jawa is called asam kawak. Kawak means old, so that literally asam kawak means tamarind fruits which have been harvested some time ago.

One of the methods of preserving is first discarding the pit and fibers and then sun-drying the fruit flesh. Then some salt and gula jawa are added, mixed thoroughly and steamed and cooled before packaging to avoid dirt.

And even prepared like that the tamarind has to be stored in a cool place. One of the islands renowned for its excellent tamarind is Madura, a small island off the eastern coast of Java.

A spice mixture in Indonesia where tamarind is one of the main ingredients, to give a dish that tangy sourness, is called bumbu asam garam and consists of salt, granulated sugar and tamarind paste.

Chicken, beef, water buffalo or pork can be the main ingredients. And in many kitchens in Southeast Asia — with Portuguese or Chinese overtones — the tamarind also plays an important role, because of their liking for sourish flavors. An example in some of the tamarind-spiced dishes in Singapore using a lot of tamarind powder.

The very distinctive flavor of tamarind can be added to many vegetables too. One of Indonesia’s best known sour-flavored soupy dishes hails from the kitchen of the Sundanese of West Java.

The dish is called sayur asam and is mostly served with a combination of a barbecued or fried chicken or fish, and also a small portion of fried salted fish, lalap, cruditees.

Spicing of the refreshing soup includes shallots, garlic, some red chilies, salam leaves, galangal and, of course, the tamarind water or paste which is added when the dish is nearly finished.

The East Javanese will add a handful of sinom (young light green colored, tender leaves of the asam jawa tree).

In Indonesia a tamarind tree is a multipurpose one.

The stem, leaves and fruits are very often used, not only for food but also for beverages and as an important souring agent in jamu, or traditional medicine.

The fruit flesh is also daily needed for syrups and to make preserved sweets or chutney-like pastes. There are also very specific regional foodstuffs made of the asam jawa.

In Weru, near Cirebon, they make a special dodol asem out of the fruit flesh. Made from the asam jawa pulp, fermented rice, or tapai nasi, and brown sugar, it is then cooked until thickened and cut into small pieces.

As asam jawa grows all over the archipelago, it has many regional names. For example in East, Central and West Java it is called asem. In Madura, acem (achem), celagi (chelagee) in Bali and camba (chambaa) in Makassar.

Suryatini N. Ganie