The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Friday, October 28, 2005



To set the scene let’s turn to a better wordsmith and the opening of Macbeth, minus the toothless crones and blasted heath.

In their place Javanese maidens and a leafy street in suburban Surabaya. Across the road, a small orphanage. Next to that an Islamic kindergarten. Adjacent are ordinary middle class houses.

An in one a meat processing factory.

Home industries are the heart of entrepreneurial Indonesia; if any zoning regulations exist to prohibit business in urban areas they are certainly not being applied.

But Roso Bektiono’s enterprise isn’t just wrinkled tradesfolk in a backroom quietly carving handicrafts. This business (which in other lands would be labelled a noxious trade) roars. Literally.

At around 3.30 am, six days a week, motorbike couriers arrive with 200 kilos of quivering fresh-killed beef, straight from the slaughterhouse.

This is bundled into a big pot sitting on the banks of an open drain. For the next seven hours a lion-hearted kerosene-powered fire will cook the meat on the first stage of its transformation into abon.

You don’t know abon? That’s not surprising. It’s an expensive speciality, little advertised and unknown to the average cook. Connoisseurs of Javanese cuisine will have encountered abon and probably use it to embellish their main dishes.

Sometimes it’s promoted in supermarkets as ‘floss’. This is a misnomer. In most English-speaking countries floss is associated with a sugary confection often found at fairgrounds – while a flossy woman is not a tag any respectable female would accept. Dental floss is the hypochondriac’s toothpick.

Others label abon as ‘shredded beef jerky.’ Wrong again. Beef jerky is made from meat cut into strips and dried slowly in an oven or microwave. This food is an American favorite and carries imagery of wagon trails and tough cowboys chewing away their even tougher evening meal.

So best stick to abon – and return to the process.

After boiling off the fat the meat is put through a rotating drum armed with spikes. This teases out the fibres into long strings. The process is like the TV shampoo ads where robotic combs cascade through the gleaming black hair of white-skinned beauties.

Surprisingly this is not so difficult with brown boiled meat because the beef cuts are taken only from the sinewy legs of the beasts. Any fatty bits which have withstood the boiling are picked out by hand.

At this stage Roso’s secret ingredients of herbs and spices, along with sugar and salt are added. The recipe was passed down by his late mother, Murtini. She brought the family formula from Yogya when she moved to Surabaya 25 years ago to start making abon.

The next stop is most certainly from Shakespeare, though the three young women who round about the cauldrons go cannot be compared to the bard’s opening characters.

Nonetheless there’s plenty of double, double toil and trouble. The fire burns and the cauldrons bubble before the hurlyburly’s done. And heat so intense that any flies attracted by the smell, smoke and steam die at the doorway. The staff here get a real workout – no need for slimming salons after a day making abon.

When the shreds are well cooked in copra oil they are skimmed out of the vats and put in a crude press powered by a car jack to squeeze out the cooking oil. The packed meat is then teased apart in another machine.

Finally a couple of girls armed with ordinary dining forks sit alongside a wicker tray full of abon. Their job is to give the product a bit more of an airing by tossing it around a bit.

After drying the abon is packed in lots of 100 grams in a plastic bag. These retail at the gate for Rp 7,600. The price in nearby supermarkets is almost double.

“For every 100 kilograms of fresh meat we can make about 70 kilograms of abon,” said Roso. “It’s a popular product among Javanese and Chinese, and it can be used in so many ways.

“Some people like it on bread; others have it as a side dish, or add it to soups and omelettes. It’s very low in cholesterol – in the quarter century we’ve been selling abon I’ve never heard of anyone suffering a heart attack.

“When properly made, abon has a shelf life of a year and doesn’t have to be kept in a fridge.”

There are five small businesses producing abon in Surabaya. Roso also makes abon from chicken, while others convert horsemeat and fish.

The West Java agricultural research institute Institut Pertanian Bogor has conducted trials on making abon from marlin. The University of Riau has been experimenting on the suitability of other fish species to be abonised.

Although the history of abon is vague it was probably, like beef jerky and salted beef, developed while cooks waited for someone to invent refrigeration. In those days a steer had to be consumed in one sitting, so it helped if you had a big family.

Meat putrefies fast, particularly in the tropics. In most Western countries it’s chilled immediately after slaughter. It is also frozen – a process used as much to kill parasites as to preserve.

And the final question: What does it taste like? Give it a try. It’s more sweet than spicy, and you’ll never guess that it’s really meat.

(First published in The Jakarta Post, Friday 28 October 2005)


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