A day exploring Central Java small businesses: tofu, batik, palm sugar & coffee

Making tofu

After visiting Borobudur Temple and Mendut, we wanted to see a little more of Central Java. I was particularly interested in seeing tofu production and the making of batik. Our hotel, Amata Borobudur Resort, suggested a horse-drawn carriage (an-dong) tour, but that sounded way too touristy to me…and I wanted to be able to return to the refuge of air conditioning periodically! My desire for creature comforts turned out to be the ticket to a really interesting day since a car allowed us to roam far afield and our driver wasn’t limited to the tourist “craft village” favored by the an-dongs.

Our first clue that the day was going to be something unique came as our driver roamed a neighborhood filled with small tofu makers, apparently looking at random for one that would let us observe. It was easy to spot the homes where tofu was being made by the piles of wood outside. The wood was fuel for the underground furnaces used to heat the vats of soy product. At his first stop, our guide was sent to another place further down a residential road. We waited as he went inside, then came back out to tell us we could go in. As we entered, a cat with kittens watched from a ramshackle space piled high with sacks of soybeans.

We walked past men working with huge, furnace-heated vats (see lead photo and video below) to watch women frying, straining and packaging tofu to be sold at a local market.

Frying tofu

With 8 or 9 people working, this turned out to be the largest business we’d see for the day. We weren’t expected, our driver didn’t seem to know anyone, and no one asked for any sort of payment. Nevertheless, we were made to feel welcome and tolerated with friendliness as we wandered and watched the activity and tried to stay out of their way. A man poured steaming liquid into a mesh then weighted it with a large stone, then a second man pressed this into a mold. Another man carried the rectangles of hot, molded tofu to a woman in another room who placed the rectangles on shelves to cool before yet other women cut, fried and sorted the tofu for packaging. It was hot, busy work.

Driving through more rural residential neighborhoods, we passed houses with large mats on which rice dried in the sun. Our driver questioned people on the side of the road before finding our next destination. We were surprised and pleased at the apparent randomness of our stops. Our driver obviously knew which neighborhoods specialized in certain activities, but had no “special friend” he was taking us to for a kick-back, the all-too-common experience with tour guides. The way he was going about finding places to show us gave things an authentic feel we appreciated.

Drying rice

Our next stop, a husband and wife-owned batik-making enterprise (apparently the result of one of those random inquiries by our driver to passers-by), Lumbini Batik House, was more geared toward visitors. The wife showed us their work in progress, then offered us a selection of patterns on small cloth squares to try our hand at batik making. She showed us how to use a special tool to go over the lines of the patterns with melted wax.

Making batik: Drawing outlines with melted wax

We made some mistakes and David dripped a spot on our project, so we improvised by elaborating the design and adding our initials. A young woman then dipped our cloth in a deep blue dye. The finished product wasn’t bad! Our hostess showed us around her lush garden, pointing out the fruit, bark and leaves that were used for dyes and offering us fruit to eat.

Offering fruit from the batik house garden

After viewing an adjacent shop, but not really wanting or needing to buy anything, we paid our hostess a small amount for her time and our project.

Our finished product.

Since we’d read and heard about Pawon Temple as finishing out a triumvirate with Borobudur and Mendut, we asked our driver to take us there. Pawon turned out to be a tiny “temple” with little to see. It was open to the public without fee.

Pawon Temple

Much more interesting than the little temple was a stop at the nearby home/workshop of a tiny lady who makes palm sugar.

The woven house of the palm sugar lady
Making palm sugar disks

With our driver translating, she showed us how she cooked the sugar in the half-light that filtered through the woven walls of her kitchen. Afterwards, she offered us tea and thick, crispy homemade soybean chips along with disks of her rich, still-warm palm sugar. The sugar reminded me of those semi-soft maple sugar candies found in Vermont and Canada. Delicious!

I felt like the Jolly Green Giant next to our diminutive hostess!

Our final stop was at a small shop a short walk from the sugar lady’s home. We’d tried luwak coffee before in Bali and really enjoyed it, so wanted to give a Javanese version a try. While luwak coffee — made from coffee beans “processed” through the digestive system of a luwak or palm civet — is billed as “the most expensive coffee in the world” and can reportedly cost $30/cup(!) in California, it’s not expensive in Bali and Java.

A tame “luwak” or palm civet. He’s nocturnal, so a little groggy.

We enjoyed our cup of joe, but found it to be not nearly as unusual or tasty as what we had in Bali. This was a pleasant stop, but by far the least interesting of the day. Oh well, we’d had much fun and were ready to head home to our hotel for a little late afternoon pool time and dinner.

Our driver cost us about $30 for the day, a value we were more than happy with.

Comments and questions are welcome!