Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Once Upon a Yogurt: Part 1

I never really liked yogurt until I was forced to eat it for a period of time in the Far East when I was ill. There are moments when expats return back home when nothing, but nothing, tastes like it does overseas. We can only long for the impossible. This account illustrates both the reminiscence and the tale of how my love affair with yogurt began.


Vivid Memories & Local Indonesian Cuisine

A splendid day, the San Antonio sunshine filled the air making it the kind of Saturday that belied sadness and that invited smiles from strangers. As I sent my car through the car wash, I dangled my purse and smiled back at everyone.

A dark-haired teenage boy swung a drying cloth in the air and tucked it in his back pocket before he handed me my car keys. "Your car is done now, miss."

"Oh thank you," He called me Miss, not Ma'am. That deserved a tip! He took it and sauntered on to the next vehicle, whistling as he swung his cloth. He snapped his towel as another worker, and started a playful fight. Such lightheartedness...

I opened the front door and sat down to the recently-sprayed new car smell. Great! Where could I go next? The sun was shining. I had all the time in the world. I thought for a moment. Why not? Impulsively, I set out for Albertson's, the local grocery chain.

I strolled up and down the aisles and studied the food I could buy with more interest than usual. Ah yes, the dairy products. I browsed through them until I found what I had come for. There it lay where I always found it: white yogurt with live cultures. I checked the price and set it back down again. Maybe next time. I said the same thing each time I came. But deep down, I knew the price had less to do with it than the memories associated with the yogurt. In fact, to try to duplicate the taste seemed sacrilege to me. I longed for the fresh, cool taste replete with sun-ripened papaya just as I remembered it from Indonesia.

The memory had everything to do with my stay at Meryl, my supervisor's, ‘fortress on the hill,’ the nickname my colleagues and I had given her mansion away from the masses. It was a grand place with a wall surrounding it. She actually had a small plot of grass surrounding her home that contained exotic tropical fruit trees. When we arrived at the gate, Yadi, her driver, rolled down the window and rang a little buzzer outside. A gate boy swung the gate open for Yadi to drive the SUV through. Ju-ju, the maid, would then come to greet us, and take Meryl's bookbag from her weary shoulders. Dinner came a short time later after we freshened up. Someone-usually Meryl's husband-signaled meals by clanging an old-fashioned. six-foot gong which stood in all its brilliance in the freshly-swept hallway. I loved visiting Meryl, and on occasion, imagined what it would be like to live there. I'd eat fresh bananas every morning.

Unfortunately, Lydia and Frank, her husband, lived in the same house. Lydia and Frank were Meryl's daughter’s in-laws. Lydia, with her pursed lips and constant whining, rubbed everyone wrong. Frank was her dull, plodding husband. With his hair cut in block-style straight across his forehead and his flat-feet walk, the ridiculous image of Fred Flintstone always popped into my head when I saw him. The way he spoke, "Good mor-ning," in his even, monotone voice, tempted me to take on Barney's persona and respond, "Hi, Fred" in exactly the same way. Thank goodness, I never did. Frank and I taught at the same language school where Meryl directed. Apparently, Frank had recently retired from the Navy and needed a job. So, in a burst of nepotism and goodwill, Meryl hired him on. How she must have regretted it when she realized what life was like under the same roof as that couple! But to her credit, she never said anything about that to me, a lowly teacher. However, the tale of my time in The Fortress comes up later. For now, try to imagine my life in this exciting Far Eastern country I found myself in.

Ah, let me tell you about my culinary adventures in Indonesia...

When I arrived in Jakarta, the sights and sounds of street life beckoned me and most of this included tasting food one way or another. Satay ayam, skewered goat kabobs dripping with lovely peanut spicy sauce cost almost nothing. Kelapa muda, sweet coconut water served in the unripe shell, could be found everywhere. I sampled bakso, small round meatballs, noodles, fried rice, and Chinese food sold in tents on lunch breaks with my local colleagues. I thought nothing of it because it all tasted so delicious.

I also remember some petite square, green rice cakes – twice boiled -- filled with some sort of melted brown sugar and covered with fresh coconut peddled down our road, Jalan Salam, by a local tukang. We could hear the vendor coming. His cart boasted a whistle that sounded like a teapot filled with boiling water. In order to pay, I had to squint through the steam, then I would take the cakes he placed in a small plastic sack from his gnarled, outstretched hand and carry them back to the house.

Life was sweet for me at that time. Both my western and local colleagues formed friendships over that food in the roadside warangs, tents and stalls. I was young, unassuming, and newly-professional, up for all that came my way. At the rate I devoured the local food wherever I went– sweet, spicy, hot and cold, most of it not-so-hygienic -- it came to no surprise to anyone when my life of culinary street savvy turned the tables on me (so to speak!).


Read tomorrow's episode to find out what happened next!

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