The crispy, fried snack chips known as emping often win over visitors to Indonesia. On a trip to Jakarta in 2010, former U.S. president Barack Obama declared them enak ("delicious"). Every batch of these savory snacks begins as a humble cluster of fruit hanging from the melinjo tree. Looking a little like a miniaturized mango, the fruit's juicy appearance belies the slightly bitter seeds inside. But a little heat and a lot of handiwork transforms these nutty-looking seeds into Javanese gems.
Crafting emping is a lengthy labor of love. Makers begin by removing the seed's bright outer coating, revealing a thin-skinned nut that, once "sand-fried" (literally heated in hot sand), can again be peeled to reveal an oval inner seed. Moving quickly, the emping-maker carefully smashes each warm, naked nut with a wide-headed hammer to create a flat disc. Sun-dried on a bamboo tray, the discs are then ready for the fryer, where they puff up like another fried Southeast Asian favorite, krupuk.
Although Indonesians mostly enjoy their emping simply salted, the chip can be prepared in a variety of ways: thin or thick, plain or salty, sweet or spicy. Markets sell ready-to-eat flavored chips as well as dried, flattened discs that one can fry and customize at home. In addition to snacking on emping alone, diners also enjoy the chips as a textured topping on traditional dishes such as lontong sayur or as a crunchy side to other Indonesian favorites such nasi goreng (fried rice). No matter how you choose to enjoy your emping, be sure to take a brief moment to consider the amount of effort that went into producing this versatile flattened, fried seed.