Bali : The Flavour of the Moment

Bali : The Flavour of the Moment

Bali : The Flavour of the Moment

Bali is a kaleidoscopic assault on the senses. It immerses you in dazzling colour, intoxicating fragrance, boisterous music, and flavours that dance elegantly across every receptor on your tongue. But what hit us even more strongly than any of these sensory impressions was how deeply Balinese food is rooted in culture and living tradition. (The three recipes at the end of this article are our own personal takes on traditional dishes we learned to cook at the Casa Luna cooking school in Ubud.)

June 25, 2015 | Text David Rollins Photography Rob Lee

Bali : The Flavour of the Moment

Bali is a kaleidoscopic assault on the senses. It immerses you in dazzling colour, intoxicating fragrance, boisterous music, and flavours that dance elegantly across every receptor on your tongue. But what hit us even more strongly than any of these sensory impressions was how deeply Balinese food is rooted in culture and living tradition. (The three recipes at the end of this article are our own personal takes on traditional dishes we learned to cook at the Casa Luna cooking school in Ubud.)

June 25, 2015 | Text David Rollins Photography Rob Lee

I have a Mason jar on a shelf in the kitchen, half-full of the darkest black pepper you can imagine. It was bought at the market in Ubud, in the centre of Bali, from a woman with one of those impossibly creased apple-carving faces, at once ancient and cheerful. She sold me three pounds of spice – an assortment of peppers, white cardamom, kencur, clove, and nutmegs the size of ping-pong balls. These spices are more to me than souvenirs. They’re tiny pieces of the island itself.

The first sight of Bali is from the air, on a plane from Java, where I’ve spent four days travelling to look into the mouth of an active volcano.

From ten thousand feet, two things are visible: thousands of rice paddies (an appropriate vista, as rice is so central to the cuisine and culture of Bali) and the distant peak of Gunung Agung. I’m lucky to see the mountain from the air. It’s remote. And even if you travel to the northeast of the island to see it, it’s likely you won’t, as it’s often shrouded in mist.

My first meal is a rendang of duck and lychees, in Seminyak. It’s thrilling to find a rendang so quickly and easily – it was recently named the ‘most delicious dish in the world’ by Saveur magazine. It tastes like curry, in the sense of meat-stewed-in-spices, but what spices? Clove seems dominant, the smell of clove is coming from somewhere – everywhere – else.

The divine clove

Kretek, cigarettes made with a blend of tobacco and cloves, are a national obsession in Indonesia, and the sweet scent of their smoke hangs everywhere in the air. My driver from Java, where most kretek are made, tells me that the demand for kretek is so high that while for centuries this part of the globe was the world’s main supplier of cloves, Indonesia now must import them to meet the demand for kretek. “We sometimes put them in the temple offerings,” he explains. “So even the gods here are addicted to cloves,” I suggest. “Well, no. These offerings we make every day are not just for the gods. The demons also get hungry, and must also be fed.”

My demon is hungry for a cocktail, so I carefully feed it a few mixed with a ginger beer brewed from fresh, local ginger. Ginger is a flavour to us in North America, but in Bali it is also a medicine, and a whole family of spectacular flowers. Ginger blossoms of varying shapes, sizes and colours are everywhere. There are pendulous red ginger flowers dangling all around my outdoor shower at the hotel – so impressively large – explicit reminders of a flower’s evolutionary function.

 

Intriguing answers

For several days in Ulu Watu, the southern tip of Bali, I’m fed by Madé, the cook in a tiny resort I seem to be sharing with only two other travellers, and thousands of invisible frogs. She’s the first of three cooks named Madé I met on this trip – in Bali, there are a limited number of first names, and the one you get is determined by your birth order. For days I eat nothing more (and want nothing more) than Madé’s renditions of three of the simplest and most satisfying of Balinese dishes: gado-gado (mixed vegetables with peanut sauce), mie goring (fried noodles), and nasi goreng (fried rice).

 

There are also krupuk, shrimp-flavoured puffed rice crackers that look like pink Styrofoam chips, and taste like the sea. And there’s fruit with every meal: pineapple, mangosteen, rambutan, melon, all of it so fresh and intensely flavoured it seems artificially enhanced. Most intriguing is salak, the snake fruit. It has a scaly skin you peel off to reveal what look like translucent, clustered cloves of garlic. They have the texture of lychee, and the flavour of electric pineapple.

 

The Balinese believe that humanity shares the world with many unseen spirits and forces.

There’s a small library of books in my bungalow in Ulu Watu, and I pore over a memoir by an Australian woman who’s made Bali her home. She’s opened a string of restaurants in Ubud, where I’m headed in a few days. Janet De Neef’s insight into local customs and ways of eating answers several questions. Why do I never see Balinese families eating together? Because they eat alone, and frequently in silence, out of respect for the vital force contained in each grain of Balinese rice. Amerta – Sanskrit for ‘that which is essential for life’ – is aroused in the rice by cooking, and nourishes the spirit in the same way that the rice itself feeds the body. Thank you, Janet. Can you please also explain – what are these little baskets of rice, flowers, fruit and candy that I see everywhere?

The Balinese believe that humanity shares the world with many other unseen spirits and forces, and that these must be nourished and kept in balance at all times. Much time is spent every day creating offerings for these spirits. Ready-made offerings are also for sale at the market – the stands that sell them are an incredible sight, and a huge altar at the market is completely covered in them. The simplest take the form of a tiny square of banana leaf with a few grains of cooked rice, the most elaborate are built in woven baskets mounded with fruits, flowers, cakes, coins, candies, incense, and yes, cigarettes. But rice, at the very least. Without rice, it’s not an acceptable offering.

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Connected to the source of life

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Rice is such an important part of the Balinese diet – representing on average more than 50% of daily caloric intake – that its cultivation plays a central role in island life. The entire network of rice paddies in Bali is connected by the subak, a natural system of irrigation that originates on the sacred mountain of Gunung Agung. Engineered over a thousand years ago, this unique system of irrigation is completely sustainable, and is owned and managed collectively. The subak joins not just every rice field on the island, but provides a direct and ancient connection for every Balinese to his or her most basic source of physical nourishment.

In Ubud, I immediately search out Casa Luna, Janet de Neef’s cooking school, and spend a day learning about the preparation of traditional ‘feast’ food. What the Balinese eat from day to day is prepared at home in the morning, and sampled throughout the day, whenever hunger strikes. It’s called nasi campur – essentially steamed rice with little bits of seasonal vegetables, seasoned meats, sauces, and condiments.

Cooking in Ubud

The class is led by another Madé, a woman who can’t speak without smiling, and who’s full of a mischief I’m starting to recognize as distinctly Balinese. Madé introduces us to the key flavours of Balinese cuisine, and helps us prepare a meal of traditional feast dishes, including a gorgeously spiced chicken satay roasted over coconut husks. The star of the show, however, was a large rice steamer, fitted with a conical basket woven from reeds. Its hourglass shape is distinctly feminine. “The silhouette of Dewi Sri, goddess of rice,” Madé says, flashing her evenly filed teeth.

Ubud’s market is in the very centre of the city. In fact, the city seems to radiate from it. It’s smaller than I expect at first sight, but packed with merchants of spectacularly varied wares. There’s basically anything a house needs to run from day to day, and most households shop here every day. Many women have breakfast here, a bakso (meatball soup), a little nasi campur, or bubur hilat hitam (black rice pudding).

It’s here I understand how thin the line between medicine and food is in Bali.

I ask about a series of proffered concoctions and am told they’re tonics (jamu) made to stimulate energy and health. I sample one made with kencur (resurrection lily), a rhizome that looks like a miniature ginger root and has a sharp, resinous flavour like peppered eucalyptus. “Good for your lungs,” I’m told. In a few moments, my sinuses are clear for the first time since arriving in this time zone, so I buy some powdered kencur, and as much other spice as I think I can smuggle across the Canadian border without incurring a fine.

A limited-time offering

On my last night in Bali, while pacing around outside a restaurant, deciding whether or not to go in, I accidentally crush a small cluster of offerings on the sidewalk. I later recount the shame to a friend who lived in Bali for twelve years, at a time when the only phone on the island was at the airport, and you had to wait for the satellite to be directly overhead to make a long-distance call. She comforts me with a deliciously Balinese smile: “An offering, like the hibiscus flowers you see everywhere in Bali, is only meant to last for a moment.”

I’m consoled. And for the moment, although it’s disappearing quickly, I still have some of Bali in my pantry. I press my nose deep into the jar of pepper from the market in Ubud and inhale not just pungent pepper, but the full fragrance and feeling of Bali. The pepper is still not completely dry, and its oily wetness conjures the deep green of the ancient moss that covers the Monkey Forest. The pepper smells like the earthen floor of the market. Like temple incense. And like the wet volcanic soil it grew in – the ancient black that gives life to the flowers and fruits, the spices and roots that lend Bali its deliciously ephemeral flavour.

 

Gado-Gado with
Peanut Sauce

makes about 1 cup of peanut sauce

FOR THE GADO-GADO:

200 g per person/serving, of a selection of the following:

  • steamed green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, asparagus
  • raw cucumbers, snow peas, tomatoes, bean sprouts
  • fried tofu or tempeh
  • boiled eggs

FOR THE PEANUT SAUCE:

  • 2 tbsp. peanut oil
  • ½ cup blanched and roasted peanuts (unsalted)
  • 2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1 small shallot, roughly chopped
  • ½ cup natural peanut butter (smooth)
  • 2 tsp. sambal oelek
  • 1 tsbp. kecap manis (or soy sauce)
  • 4 tsp. lime juice
  • 1 keffir lime leaf, torn (or zest of half a lime)
  • ¼ cup coconut milk
  • warm water

INSTRUCTIONS:

1. Heat the oil over high heat in a heavy frying pan, and fry the peanuts until they are a warm golden brown, about 3 minutes. Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. The peanuts will continue to cook when you remove them from the heat – don’t let them get too dark in the pan.

2. Fry the garlic and shallot in the peanut oil, just until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

3. Add the peanuts, garlic, shallot and remaining ingredients (except for the warm water) to a food processor and process on high speed until mostly smooth, with some small peanut pieces for texture. If necessary, loosen the sauce with a little warm water. More than 2 tbsp. of water will begin to discolour the sauce. Serve alongside the gado-gado.

Balinese Chicken Satay

makes 8 skewers

  • 2 pounds chicken breast tenders, or whole breasts
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 tsp. sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp. kecap manis (or soy sauce)
  • 2 tsp. sambal oelek
  • 1 tbsp. turmeric powder
  • 2 large garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 1 small shallot, roughly chopped
  • 1 three-inch piece of ginger, roughly chopped
  • 1 tbsp. coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp. grated nutmeg
  • 1 two-inch piece of lemongrass, minced
  • 2 keffir lime leaves, torn (or zest of one lime)
  • 1 tbsp. lime juice
  • 1 tbsp. palm sugar

INSTRUCTIONS

1. If using whole chicken breasts, slice them into long pieces for threading on skewers.

2. Combine the remaining ingredients in a food processor and process for about 20 seconds, or until the marinade is mostly smooth, with some small chunks for texture.

3. Coat the chicken with the marinade and refrigerate for 2 to 4 hours. (Longer than this can over-tenderize the chicken.)

4. Soak 8 wooden skewers in water for half an hour. Thread the chicken onto the skewers, and grill at 450° F for about 8 minutes, turning every couple of minutes.

Black Rice Pudding

makes 8-10 servings

  • 1 cup black rice, soaked for 4-6 hours, rinsed frequently
  • 1 can full-fat coconut milk, plus more for garnish
  • ½ cup water
  • ½ vanilla pod (preferably Tahitian)
  • 1 pandan leaf (optional)
  • ¼ tsp. fine salt
  • 2 tbsp. palm sugar (or raw sugar)
  • coconut flakes for garnish

INSTRUCTIONS

1. Drain and rinse the rice.

2. Combine all ingredients except the sugar in a medium sauce pan, bring to a gentle boil. Reduce to minimum and let simmer, partially covered, until the rice has absorbed most of the liquid and is quite tender, about 30 to 35 minutes. (The rice should not get mushy.) Remove the vanilla pod.

3. Add the sugar, and stir to dissolve and combine. Serve the rice pudding with extra coconut milk and coconut flakes as a garnish.

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