The bean battle for Indonesian palates
A robust multi-million dollar bid by Western Australian lupin growers to penetrate Indonesia’s tempe (soybean cake) market is taking a long time to ferment. Duncan Graham reports from Sanan, Malang’s famous home industry kampong.
More than two years ago an Australian trade mission sat down in Jakarta to a serve of tempe. So what? Only that the meal used lupins, not soybeans imported from the US. Media reports on the VIP lunch claimed the product was ‘expected to become commercially available in Indonesia in coming months’.
Those months are a long time coming. Despite extensive university research and promotion the Australians still have to convince Indonesian tempe manufacturers that lupins are the future.
“The taste is different, and whether that’s good or bad depends on the individual,” said Mohamad Isman (pictured above), treasurer of Malang’s 500-member Primkopti Bangkit Usaha (boosting business Co-op) while running through a parade of Australian politicians’ and bureaucrats’ names in his visitor’s book.
“The problem is that lupin tempe is hard and doesn’t absorb water (prior to cooking at home). I haven’t tried it but that’s what our members say. Research is good, but it’s word-of-mouth that’s important in Indonesia.
“Whether we start using it or not depends on many things, such as the continuing availability of soybeans and the price of lupins – which we don’t know.”
The lupin bulk price in WA is AUD$355 a tonne (Rp 3.5 million). The world price for soybeans is fickle, currently around US$570 (Rp 5.47 million), but the industry is predicting a hefty jump.
Strangely soybean sales aren’t taxed – lupins are at 10 per cent, a problem for traders. When the WA push started lupins were quoted at 20 per cent cheaper than imported soybeans.
Close to East Java, underpinned by an active 22-year old Sister-State relationship, are WA grain growers who have topped 750,000 tonnes of lupins annually though the forecast this year is below 300,000 tonnes, mainly for stockfeed. They produce 80 per cent of the world output.
More lupins would be planted if there was a stable higher-price human food market.
WA is a big state with few people that has to export to survive. East Java is a small province with a huge and hungry population, importing to live. A win-win fit? If only.
In what Indonesia claims is a bid for food self sufficiency, the government has been rapidly ring-fencing so many imports that this month (Jan) the US filed a complaint at the World Trade Organisation. Australia may join the dispute.
Assuming these quicksands can be crossed, and that sour soybean traders don’t start a political or smear campaign against a rival product, lupin tempe still has to pass the toughest tests of all – manufacture and taste.
“There’s no doubt that technical support is required to help tempe makers achieve the correct process, just the same as with any new never-seen-before product,” said David Fienberg, managing director of Australasian Lupin Processing.
“We’ve completed many technical trials in and around Jakarta and in Surabaya. We’ve developed a simple, easy-to-use recipe which makes a very good tempe. The taste is good – if not better – than soybean tempe.”
Most trials have involved a mix of lupins and soybeans. A de-hulling and splitting plant has been built in Perth using processes so secret access was denied to The Jakarta Post.
Mr Fienberg said a training program would be run among the nation’s tempe producers starting around May emphasising that lupins are drier, safer, have higher health values and come de-hulled.
However Mr Isman said this was no advantage because the beans still had to be boiled. “The prices are not so significant,” said Mr Isman, picking stalks out of the American soybeans.
“The Co-op board has yet to make a decision but I think that as long as soybeans are available from the US we’ll continue to use them. At this stage I don’t see the benefit. Taste is everything.”
Founding President Soekarno once abused his fellow citizens by calling them soft and smelly, like tempe. Better if he’d called them healthy and energetic, because tempe, the protein of the poor, keeps the nation fit.
If there’s steam swirling out of the windows and doors and smoke puffing out of upstairs rooms you’re in one of East Java’s most industrious kampongs. Residents keep their houses open on Jalan Sanan and its capillary lanes for ventilation and the busy coming and goings.
Odor? Not as evident as the heat and certainly not unpleasant.
“We are blessed by a good climate and a long tradition to produce Indonesia’s best tempe,” said Mohamad Isman. Unlike many Asian foods tempe originated in Java, not China.
Jalan Sanan is Malang’s Success Street and everyone seems to be occupied in producing the food that’s sustained Indonesians for at least five centuries, grading, boiling, stirring, slicing, processing and delivering.
Many tasks, such as packaging, could be done by readily available machines but families fear this would throw many out of work.
Every day up to seven tonnes of soybeans are delivered in 50 kilogram sacks, carted on motorbikes, pedicabs and hand carts out of the Co-op warehouse through narrow alleyways and tipped into gas-fired vats.
This is home-industry central and centuries apart from modern factories. Muscles, not mechanics, do the value-adding work
Depending on the beans’ quality they wholesale for around Rp 7000 (US$0.66) a kilo. About a million tonnes a year are imported. So far Indonesian farmers haven’t managed to produce the quality or quantities required, or sustain supply.
In the last few years the cooperative has worked to upgrade hygiene, though several men were openly getting their nicotine fix under signs prohibiting smoking. The mash is no longer trodden, but the dark cooking rooms are mainly untiled, smoke-blackened concrete.
It takes about four days to boil, cool, drain, press with a fermenting agent, usually hibiscus leaves, and ferment in shallow boxes covered by pinholed plastic.
Marketing has improved, with innovative products like keripik (fried slices of tempe) flavored with chilli and other sauces. These deserve to crush potato chips as the snack of choice with a cold drink come sunset.
Jalan Sanan (left) is lined with shops offering presentation packs of multiple varieties, ensuring visitors have a local speciality for their folks back home.
But the bulk of the produce goes to markets around East Java, the raw tempe transported overnight to keep cool, and sold in grey cheese-like slabs. Buyers finger it for firmness; if it crumbles when cut it’s from a bad batch.
Over-fermented tempe turns black and looks repulsive to all but the true connoisseur.
Once in the kitchen it’s sliced and deep fried after soaking in spice-laden water.
Although long considered village fare tempe is now making an impact overseas, particularly among health conscious vegans seeking a natural product with high nutritional value. Boosters claim it has anti-bacterial qualities and assists in preventing diabetes. Lupin tempe is now available in some Australian shops and on the menu at a few restaurants.
Though not yet in Indonesia at your local market or roadside stall.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 28 January 2013