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Memo to Self: No Jengkol

June 04, 1997|CHARLES PERRY

Samuel Johnson famously said, "He was a brave man that first ate an oyster." But what about the people who first ate jengkol beans and bongkrek--and then kept on eating them? Either jengkol and bongkrek are incredibly tasty or the people were incredibly hungry.

Jengkol beans, considered a delicacy on Java, have to be soaked and fermented before you can eat them. In the process, they develop a sulfurous aroma which becomes part of the body odor of the happy eater.

Of course, you could say the same about garlic, but aroma isn't the real problem. Most of us would object more to the fact that jengkol beans cause acute kidney pain. "In spite of these disagreeable side effects, which are observed rather often," reports a book titled "Toxins Naturally Occurring in Foodstuffs," "the jengkol eaters will consume their beloved beans again the following season."

Stomach upset is one thing; acute kidney pain would seem to be another. But people figure that if you like jengkol, that's the price.

As for bongkrek, it's a coconut product fermented with the fungus Rhizopus oryzae. But there's a danger that several bacteria present everywhere in Indonesia may get the upper hand on the fungus. One of them, Pseudomonas cocovenenans, produces a couple of poisons, including bongkrekic acid, which causes violent and inevitably fatal hypoglycemia--glucose injections will prolong life for only a number of hours. Bongkrekic acid even kills the fungus that ferments the coconut in the first place.

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