Asians and cheese do not pair well.
While conducting research and development at Room4Dessert in Bali for a new dessert menu, I aged a wheel of camembert with house-made amaretto distilled from salak seeds.
The office above the kitchen was the only space to store my project in a “cave-like” temperature, since this was the only room with an air-conditioner.
The camembert ripened quickly. The rind developed a light-orange tint and the interior was fast approaching a liquid state. And the smell.
Being raised in a Western country helped me develop a palate and nose that didn’t discriminate against barnyard ripeness, so every time I opened the box, I inhaled deeply and began to long for cheeses I could never find in Indonesia.
My staff, on the other hand, did not have as much of a mature reaction.
The moment the door swung open, sleepy eyes from the previous night’s service would widen in shock once their olfactory senses were alert to the smell. Hands to nose in less than a second. A muffled scream in less than three. I could have timed it with a stopwatch.
Needless to say, the office — usually a traffic jam of bodies and movement — was undisturbed when I was working with cheese.
So when I heard there was a village in South Sulawesi voluntarily making cheese, and had been for generations, I had to see for myself.
The origin of the cheese’s name comes from the Dutch.
During the 19th century or earlier, while the Dutch occupied Indonesia, they came across the village of Enrekang in South Sulawesi. They were homesick for cheese, and when they saw it being made fresh in this village, they jumped at the opportunity to buy it and said, “dangke,” or thank you.
As far as the research says, this is the only place in Indonesia that produces cheese. And it is still made in small batches, because there has never been a food company who could solve a particular riddle concerning an interesting detail about dangke.
How does milk curdle to become cheese? Typically, with an animal-based enzyme called rennet. But any liquid with an acidic pH can do the job as well, such as vinegar or lemon juice. For the village of Enrekang?
Papaya contains an enzyme called “papain” and there is a higher concentration of it when the fruit is green. Village cheesemakers harvest an unripe papaya, peel the skin into a bowl, and, along with the fruit, pour water over it and let the ingredients soak. This enzyme-infused liquid is then used to curdle the milk for dangke.
As I watched the process, I thought how remarkable it was that this village was using papaya in an unconventional manner. Without science or technology, the people of Enrekang discovered the acidic elements of papaya and applied it to cooking centuries ago. It is discoveries like this that reinforce my kitchen philosophy to challenge myself to seek alternative uses for ingredients, no matter how familiar they seem.
I was also astonished to observe how the locals mold the cheese into coconut shells that were never washed after years of use. Much like Sister Noella, the Cheese Nun and her wooden barrel, the shells had developed a white residue on the interior — a biofilm of lactic acid teeming with healthy bacteria that aided in the cheese-making process. My impression that this technique originated in Europe was shattered on this early March morning in rural Indonesia.
The finished dangke looked like ricotta, but when I took a bite, it was more chewy than expected, due to the papain-enzyme and its reaction to the milk proteins. The locals prepared dangke either by pan-searing or frying thick slices and serving it with sambal. It could have been easily mistaken for halloumi with its texture and high melting point.
And the riddle?
To this today, no one has been able to determine the concentration and amount of papain that the Enkerang cheese-makers use. The locals never use measurements and pick unripe papayas at random, yet every batch they make is successful. However, chefs I know who have attempted to make dangke cannot do so consistently — the milk fails to curdle.
How about you?
The following recipe is a working recipe, meaning it is meant to take adjustments based on your results. Any animal milk can be used, and a raw version would be best. Once papain-enzyme water is made, it can be used for 3 to 4 days when stored in the chiller.