09 September 2011

Kudus again

I posted an article on the town of Kudus before, focusing on its reinvigorated batik industry. Today's Jakarta Globe featured a travel piece on Kudus, Jepara, and Demak, all in Jawa Tengah (central Java). If Michael and I ever have time for a leisurely trip to some of the sleepier parts of this island, we'd definitely try to get to Kudus and Jepara. We first came across Jepara when we bought this assemblage of old wood, crafted there, at Pasar Raya, so I wasn't surprised by the description of wood carvers in the article. Jepara is also the birthplace of the national heroine Kartini, whom I've also mentioned in a previous blog post.

Strange to see this picture from our early days here in the apartment. That shelf at the back of the sofa is no longer so elegantly (and unintentionally) minimalist.

Back to the newspaper. Below is the travelogue, followed by another article I came across when googling that will help us choose what to eat in Kudus if we get to make this journey.

Journey to the Cradle Of Javanese Islam
Tim Hannigan | September 08, 2011

 Menara Mosque in Kudus was built in 1549, by the Muslim holy man Sunan Kudus. The mosque has long since been rebuilt, but the red brick clock tower, courtyards and split gateway are original, and hint at the earlier Hindu architecture of the Majapahit Empire. (JG Photo/Tim Hannigan) Menara Mosque in Kudus was built in 1549, by the Muslim holy man Sunan Kudus. The mosque has long since been rebuilt, but the red brick clock tower, courtyards and split gateway are original, and hint at the earlier Hindu architecture of the Majapahit Empire. (JG Photo/Tim Hannigan)

Smooth, white walls rise on either side of the narrow alleyway, the stonework cool to the touch. Small birds flit back and forth across the thin strip of blue sky above, and women’s voices echo from hidden courtyards. The alley makes a sharp turn to the left and the blank wall is punctured by a window with carved wooden shutters, but I can make out nothing through the darkness within.

I am lost somewhere in the Kauman, the old Islamic quarter of the Central Java town of Kudus, but only the glimpse of a blue becak rattling through the intersection at the end of another alley proves that I am still in Indonesia.

Far from the usual ramshackle openness of the typical Javanese kampung, this is a private world, where domesticity turns its back to the street behind bleached stonework. There is a hint of the Mediterranean and the Middle East about this place, recalling the area’s historic connection along Indian Ocean trade routes to far-flung lands.

East of the seething Central Java, Semarang, the coast abruptly bulges northward around the isolated up-thrust of Mount Muria. At the southwest foot of this ragged, 1,602-meter mountain stands a triangle of towns — Demak, Jepara and Kudus. Today this is the ultimate backwater, overlooked by the tourists and history buffs heading south for Yogyakarta and Borobudur. But in the 16th century, it was the anteroom of Islam in Java.

Clambering onto my motorbike, I head out along the highway from Semarang to explore this enigmatic area and to hunt out the hints of its history.

It takes some time to find my way out of the maze of Kudus Kauman and back to broader streets, but it is cool and quiet in the shaded alleyways, and this is a fine place to get lost. Eventually, I emerge on the lane that leads to the famous Menara Mosque, built in 1549 during the region’s heyday.

Although the rivers have now silted up and pushed the coastline away from Kudus and neighboring Demak, these were once among the most important ports of northern Java. Traders from China, India and Arabia arrived here, bringing with them new foods and new ideas.

Foreign Muslims had probably settled in these towns as early as the 14th century, but it wasn’t until the end of the 15th century that the region gave rise to Java’s first Islamic kingdom, Demak.

By the middle of the 16th century, this new power had superseded the crumbling Majapahit Empire, and pushed its influence deep into the hinterlands.

Kudus was part of the core Demak territory and a hub of its Islamic identity. It is the only town in Java with an identifiably Arabic name — Kudus is a corruption of al-Quds, the Islamic name for Jerusalem.

Despite its proudly Muslim identity, there is evidence of an older pedigree at Menara Mosque. The original elements of the mosque are lost beneath modern olive-green paintwork. But the surrounding courtyard walls and the tiered clock-tower are strikingly different. They are built of weathered red brick, rising in tapering columns — the style is unmistakably that of the Hindu temples of Majapahit.

Leaving the old town behind, I head back to the modern part of Kudus. Today, cut off from the sea and no longer functioning as a port, Kudus makes its living from cigarettes. Millions of Indonesia’s hallmark clove-laced kretek cigarettes are churned out by factories here each year, and an aroma of cloves and tobacco lingers over the town.

But it is lunchtime and I’m after other spices, so I pull up at Pak Denuh restaurant, a narrow, open-fronted eatery on a roaring roadside, which, I have been informed by locals, is the very best place to try soto Kudus.

The town’s best-known specialty is served up in a chipped white bowl, but the first mouthful is a delightful surprise. The soup is rich and creamy, with base notes of cumin and turmeric that, like the white alleys of the Kauman, make me think of lands on the far side of the Indian Ocean.

After a second helping of soto Kudus, I head back to the road and bear east along the main highway, before branching north at Pati for a long loop around Mount Muria. Like Kudus, Mount Muria’s name shows a link to the Holy Land: it is thought to be named for Moriah, the mountain on which Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son. The road streaks through bowls of green farmland and rears over outlying ridges, carrying me to the sleepy little town of Jepara, where I stop for the night.

Today, Jepara is the quintessential provincial Javanese backwater, with a grid of tree-lined streets where the rattle of the becak still rules over the roar of the motorbike. In the soft morning sunlight I wander along the riverside, where brightly painted fishing boats are unloading the night’s catch.

Greater fleets once sailed from this harbor. In the 16th century, Jepara was a maritime city-state within the bounds of Demak. It had links across the Java Sea to the Malay states of Sumatra and the Southeast Asian mainland and on three occasions sent armadas to attack the Portuguese outpost at Melaka.

Today, however, Jepara is best known in the folklore of Indonesian nationalism as the home of Raden Ajeng Kartini, the daughter of the local regent at the turn of the 20th century, now celebrated as a proto-feminist and nationalist heroine.

Jepara’s other claim to fame is as “the city of carving.” According to local legends, the art of woodcarving, practiced here and in Demak, was introduced by a Chinese craftsman, Ling Sing. The locals clearly took to the trade with gusto; as I head out of town I pass dozens of workshops where men sit chiseling away, cutting intricate designs into the timber.

From the carvers’ workshops I begin to make my way back toward the busy streets of Semarang. Flat rice fields stretch on either side and the outline of Mount Muria retreats into a yellow haze.

There is a final stop to make, at Demak itself. The onetime powerhouse of Java is a somewhat shabby stop-off on the main highway. By the end of the 16th century, the star of the Demak state was burning out and before long, the hub of Javanese power would shift to the southern heartlands as the Mataram kingdom rose.

Today few visitors would come to Demak were it not for its mosque, said to be the oldest in Java. It stands on the edge of the central square, roofs rising in three-tiered tiles.

I park my bike, pick my way to the edge of the courtyard and sit to watch the steady stream of pilgrims. As the anteroom of Islam, this whole region is a place of pilgrimage, studded with the tombs of holy men and warrior queens. This mosque is the most sacred spot of all — for some traditionalist Javanese Muslims, seven pilgrimages here amount to one journey to Mecca. But like the other places I’ve visited on my journey, the three-tiered roof hints at temple architecture and links beyond the bounds of orthodoxy.

This whole corner of Java, the onetime cradle of nascent Islamic power, I realize as I make my way back to the road across the hot tiles, is in truth a strange mixture, spiced like a bowl of soto Kudus with flavors from China, India, the Islamic world and, of course, from Java itself.

Article #2:

The Culinary Riches of Kudus
Tash Roslin | May 26, 2009

 Pak Selamet preparing his famous sate Kerbau

Most Indonesians know Kudus, a midsized town in Central Java, for its two native products: kretek (clove) cigarettes and the famous soto (soup) Kudus, which can be found throughout the country. This town, however, has a plethora of culinary traditions that are almost exclusively known only by residents. Lining Kudus’s streets, beside billboards and banners advertising kretek cigarettes, are ordinary eateries and food hawkers that preserve and practice these legacies of taste, which are largely unknown to outsiders.

Kudus is less than 50 kilometers east of Semarang, about an hour’s ride by bus. The town itself is not so large as to make exploring on foot impossible, but you can uncover its culinary secrets via other means as well, one of the most popular being the becak (three-wheeled rickshaw).

However, those with no Javanese language skills may have a hard, if not amusing time, trying to understand what the becak drivers have to say, as they all talk in a quaint Javanese patois and their command of Indonesian is often limited. That does not appear to stop them from talking once you are in your seat, however, almost as if they are trying to keep you occupied during the trip. This may well be a good thing if you are intent on learning the local vernacular to follow the tales of the town they weave. And with such a hot climate in Kudus, moving around by becak so that you can feel the air breezing past is really worthwhile.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, at least for the residents of Kudus. Morning is the time when the town’s variety of foods is at its greatest, so you would be best to wake up and start your gastronomic expedition early. That way you will also get the chance to enjoy a first breakfast before 8 a.m. and then a second one a couple of hours later.

Lentog , which is a combination of lontong (long rice cake) and slices of jackfruit in runny coconut milk sauce, is characteristic of Kudus and very popular for breakfast. Said to originate in the Tanjung area, this dish is now sold in several other locations as well, including near the Kudus Sports Hall (GOR Kudus).

Another good meal to start a day of feasting is opor ayam Sunggingan Pak Suroso, which is tender chicken and small slices of tofu in a coconut milk. The dish originated in a place called Sunggungan and can now be found now in the Ploso area.

A lot is already known about soto kudus, including how this soup incorporates elements of Chinese cooking (the use of fried garlic and koya powder as condiments) into the original Javanese-style soto. That said, soto kudus Bu Jatmi on Jalan Wahid Hasyim is considered a classic by the people of Kudus.

Typical soto eateries often offer a choice of chicken or buffalo , but Bu Jatmi only serves chicken.

But like in many other places, there are plenty of accompaniments for the soto and rice, like fried tofu and tempe, quail egg satay, perkedel kentang (potato pancake) and the all-time favorite rempeyek (Javanese crackers.)

The best foods in Kudus are sold out before noon, especially the town’s most beloved sate kerbo nusantara by Pak Min Jastro. Sate kerbo — buffalo meat on skewers served with peanut sauce, ketchup and sambal — is relatively easy to find, but this one, on Pertokoan Agus Salim, is legendary. Pak Min Jastro usually opens for business at eight in the morning and closes as early as 11, after serving throngs of starving customers. If you are late, you can find alternatives on Jalan Panjunan.

Among a line of aquarium fish sellers, you will see a large but inconspicuous banner: Sate Kerbau Pak Selamet. Wearing the satay vendors’ casual uniform — black peci (a rimless hat) and plain white top — Pak Selamet will tell you stories of his 30-something years in the satay business as he fans your order on the grill.

When it comes to lunch or dinner, a visit to Warung Sop Buntut Ibu Uky is a must. Open from noon until night, this eatery on Jalan Ahmad Yani serves a variety of dishes, from pecel kudus (fresh vegetables in peanut sauce) and soto kudus to the zesty pindang kerbo (buffalo meat in keluwak sauce) and its specialty, sop buntut kerbo (oxtail soup). The warung is owned and operated by Ibu Uky, who is an amiable woman who knows how to talk about food as well as how to cook it.

All of Ibu Uky’s dishes have something in common: her generosity with spices and garlic. One particular dish on the menu is a must: the garang asem ayam . Here, slivers of chicken, along with the small bones, young tomatoes, belimbing sayur and cuts of large chillies, are submerged in hot, spicy santan broth and wrapped in banana leaves. The fabulousness of this dish (and eating it in Kudus’s already sweltering temperature) may leave you drowning in your own sweat, but you can always ask for an extra portion of rice.

If you are familiar at all with Javanese cooking, you must have noticed by now that buffalo meat is often used as a substitute for beef. Buffalo meat is a bit leaner than beef, but also has a more meaty texture.

In Kudus, the tradition of eating buffalo that is said to have been around for more than half a millennium, born out of religious tolerance.

Legend has it that Sunan Kudus, one of nine prominent men who spread Islam around Java, prohibited the slaying of cows by Muslims during Idul Adha as a gesture of respect for Hindus. Before Sunan arrived, Kudus had been a center of Hinduism in Central Java, and to Hindus, cows are sacred.

In the evenings food hawkers become scarcer and scarcer in Kudus as the night deepens. As the streets empty out it is interesting to see the santris, young people who study at Islamic boarding schools, or pesantren , flood out into the streets on their bicycles. You may even wish to take this quiet opportunity to walk off a day of gastronomic discovery.


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