A taste in search of a makeover
It’s a famous story in the marketing of horticulture.
Yang Tao look like the droppings of a large and unfriendly herbivore from the Triassic Age. The skin is hairy. Dissecting is probably best left to veterinary surgeons.
When imported into New Zealand last century as Chinese Gooseberries the response was restrained. Then an advertising spark reckoned the Bard may have made an error. The answer to the question ‘What’s in a name?’ is not a rose. It’s Kiwi Fruit.
Chinese Gooseberries morphed again, this time because they look like the indigenous flightless bird’s chick. Or did so to a marketing guru sorely in need of an ophthalmologist.
No matter. Kiwi Fruit resonated. For once the normally business-savvy Chinese lost out to the entrepreneur growers of NZ who are now just behind Italy as the world’s top producers.
A similar makeover may be needed for tape if the traditional Indonesian snack based on fermented cassava is to find an international market and rise to its producers’ ambitions.
Western vocal chords should rhyme tape with caffé latte, but that’s unlikely. Instead they’ll make it sound like a pre-digital recording medium, or even worse, a stomach parasite.
Not the ideal name outside the Republic where the products include cakes and individually-wrapped bars of candy, which the British call ‘sweets’. So maybe Java Bites might be the answer.
“We’d like to expand and start exporting,” said Anwari Dufri, a partner with his wife Junaidah in one of the home industries of Sumberpinang. The village is about ten kilometers outside the East Java city of Jember.
“We were getting some help from the government under its small business program but that’s stopped. So we just make to order and sell locally.”
Anwari was a lawyer and his wife an economist; the couple quit professional lives to create a business and jobs for their neighbors.
Now they stir, squeeze and wrap. Mind-numbingly laborious, but financially worthwhile. With two modern cars and a daughter at university studying history, business is OK – but could be better.
Iffat Amalia (right) who runs a separate home industry, though part of the same extended family, found an outlet in Hong Kong.
“Unfortunately sales were slow and the tape expired on the shelves – so we lost that market,” she said. “Tape is famous in Java, and Jember villages make the best. Distribution is difficult; we only get known outside this area when visitors take home presents.”
Returning travellers who value their reputation must conform to a strict Indonesian cultural practise – providing oleh-oleh [presents or souvenirs] for family, friends and neighbors.
This is the market tape manufacturers rely on, so package their products in easy-carry plastic bags, cardboard boxes and besek, woven baskets where cassava chunks are wrapped in banana leaves ready to fry. Prices hover around Rp 18,000 [US$ 1.35] for 500 grams
Iffat worked as a midwife until she married into a family of tape manufacturers. Here she learned the secrets of cleaning, boiling and shredding the tubers, adding a white commercial yeast and nursing the sometimes temperamental fermentation.
Mixed with sugar and flavors - durian is the most popular, but strawberry and chocolate also go down well - tape feels and tastes more like a sweet fudge. The only off-put comes with the cakes, which tend to be heavy and occasionally include long fibers.
After delivering 60 babies Iffat turned from reproduction to production, employing six staff.
“I handle the quality control, though I can’t push too hard otherwise they’d walk away,” she said. “There are tuber washing and cutting machines but these need capital; workers do the job much cheaper.”
Her knowledge of science is limited to human biology: “I’ve learned everything about tape from my mother-in-law.”
In the West ‘hand-made’ is a selling point for niche markets suggesting sustainability and care. Like ‘exclusive’ and ‘executive’ the term is a synonym for ‘expensive’. Though not in the Sumberpinang home industries where production is entirely manual.
“Cleanliness is critical,” said Anwari (right)whose business is run in a house where the rooms are for making food and living. “All utensils are scrubbed and dried; any speck of dirt, soap or oil could foul the process.”
Anwari doesn’t have a website or e-mail address, making overseas contact difficult. Nor does he list the ingredients, a requirement in certification-crazed Western nations.
All the tape producers encountered by The Jakarta Post appeared fit, slim and energetic, which is a thoroughly subjective testimonial. Somewhere there’s an idle laboratory researcher in need of a Nobel Prize by determining whether tape is good for you.
Another manufacturer has taken a furtive step towards wider selling by advertising in English that his product is processed hygienically, though his other claims are suspect:
‘Function as to heat of body an [sic] to launch circulation of blood, healing pimple and refine husk.’ So if pimples bother, heart no longer pumps or husks hurt – try tape.
Food for the poor
The South American plant cassava was introduced into Indonesia by the Dutch, probably in the 19th century. Although a fine source of carbohydrate it gained a reputation as the poor person’s rice, a famine food.
That’s unkind for we know that cassava has fed humanity for more than 10,000 years and is rich in calcium and other essential minerals.
The spindly plants grow from cuttings. They rise to about two or three meters and produce a plump, tapering edible tuber. Cassava thrives in dry country, so an ideal food source in drought-prone lands. It can also be used to make alcohol, including a Brazilian beer, which to most connoisseurs’ horror is served warm.
Tapioca starch ground from the tuber is widely used as a thickener in Western recipes. Making anything edible from cassava is a job for the knowledgeable or scientifically trained.
The roots contain cyanide which needs to be soaked out. Otherwise a taste could be a terminal experience.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 30 November 2015)