Foods of paradise (to my chef friends)

I have been meaning for quite some time to write on the subject of the food here. I have been putting it off until I actually experience more of the food in question. I have been so involved with creating a western restaurant experience (fine dining, new york style) for western guests, in a foreign land, that I have had really had to put in my own extra curricular effort in order to understand what makes the food in Bali. I have been asking lots of questions, tasting lots of food, and trying to understand what motivates the Balinese in the kitchen.

The food here is excellent, but it does not change much from day to day. There are certain ingredients and customs held on high, and rarely do they suffer an attempt at reinvention. That being said, the food here is incredibly lively in a way that always excites the palette. The food is tropical, exotic, spicy hot, fragrant, and simple all at the same time. Normally at meal time in Bali you will find 60-70% of your plate covered with rice. Now most people eat white rice, but originally the Balinese grew mostly red rice, which is excellent, and infinitely more nutritious. Many Balinese now suffer from diabetes, thanks to poor quality, refined white rice. There is also excellent black rice, but that now is relegated only to sweet black rice pudding. After rice the plate is often made up of the classic vegetable side: a mixture of any combination of bean sprout, local water spinach, yard long beans (an asian variety of green beans which reach up to 1 yard in length) , or other green vegetables, which have been blanched and cooked with fresh grated coconut, chili, ginger, and kaffir lime leaf. There is almost always tempe (cultured soybean cake), and in rare cases tofu, either made with spicy Balinese curry, or fried crispy and served with tomato sambal. Sambal is to Bali as “salsa” is to Mexico. Sambal, like salsa, translates just to sauce, fittingly so as it is the obligatory sauce accompaniment to well, everything. It is usually one of three varieties: tomato, sweet, or hot chili. All of the sambals start with fried shallot, garlic, hot red chili or sweet pepper, turmeric, aromatic ginger or galangal, and often candle nut. They are simmered and crushed into a paste. For non vegetarian sambal there is usually shrimp paste, which seems to be more revoltingly odorous here than anywhere else I have come in to contact with it. Anyhow, sambals are delicious in their own right, and are often the only accompaniment to rice, especially at breakfast. This typical plate of food would generally be prayed over, and then eaten within minutes with the use of fingers only, from a banana leaf plate which will later be discarded back to nature. In the typical showing of Balinese hospitality and grace, there is always someone smiling and offering me a fork at mealtime, knowing that I am not the initiated.

Other Balinese favorites you can go to eat? Satay is excellent, and in Bali it is either vegetarian (tempe, vegetables, eggplants) or fish skewered on lemongrass and grilled over a fire which burns coconut husk. The lemongrass which is the skewer and the coconut of the flame add fragrance and muskiness to the delicately spiced food. The seasoning is often varied, but I have tasted ones with Balinese cardamom (it is it’s own spice altogether), ginger, and kecap manis (soy sauce sweetened with palm sugar). Another seemingly simple dish, yet satisfying Bali soul food, is Cap Cay (pronounced Chap Chai). It is really just stir fried vegetables with garlic and soy sauce, but in Bali it is sautéed in the wok with extra virgin coconut oil, which again transports it. If you are curious, try this method:

Heat 1 Tablespoon extra virgin Coconut Oil very hot in a wok.

Add 3 Cloves Sliced Garlic, as much sliced chili as you like, and ginger if you feel, sautee one minute until cooked fully.

Add Chopped Bok Choi, Red Pepper, and any stir fry vegetables you like, sautee on high heat until veggies are beginning to break down.

Add soy sauce to taste, a teaspoon of coconut milk if you have it, and a few spoonfuls of vegetable stock if needed to deglaze the pan. Simple, but good, serve with rice.

Another method to try is for Pepes, another classic Indonesian dish. Typically it is fish and aromatics mashed together, filled into a banana leaf wrapper and grilled over burning coconut. This is my vegetarian version. All of these ingredients would be available in a good asian market…

2 Kaffir Lime Leaves, sliced paper thin

3 Cloves Garlic, minced

2 Red Thai Chili, minced, or as much as you like

1 inch Minced Ginger Root (peeled)

½ inch Galangal Root, minced (peeled)

1 inch Fresh Turmeric Root, minced, or ½ teaspoon Dried

2 inches Lemongrass, minced very fine

1 Small Shallot, minced

1 Teaspoon Salt

2 Tablespoons Coconut Milk

Juice half of a Lime

¼ teaspoon Ground White Pepper

1 Tablespoon Dried Coconut

1 Large Package Tempe

Banana Leaf (often sold frozen in asian markets)

Method: Grind all ingredients to a paste in a food processor. Stuff about ¼-1/2 Cup of mixture onto a banana leaf segment, and wrap into a package. Grill or fry on both sides until outside is blackened and inside is cooked through. They are also good steamed. Serve out of the leaf with rice.

For my chefly knife fetish I have come to the right place. The other day I bought these hand made knives (picture below) on the street from the craftsman for less than $20 US for the set. Everyone in Bali is an artist in their daily life, I swear it. Even utilitarian objects are made for joy.

Much like joy, every day in Bali is also filled with spirits. My day was filled with one too many the other day. When I came in on Wednesday morning to work, my kitchen counters were absolutely covered with a nasty, dirty, child’s footprints. When discussing the matter with the security guard, and everyone else on sight, they informed me that it was the restless spirits on the property. In turn, we would need to make an offering to make sure it would not occur the following day. I told them ok, as long as we could in turn finish building the wall to the kitchen. Although I do not doubt the higher likelihood of the spirit plane being more present in such an intentionally sacred place as Bali, I also know how much joy it would have brought me as a village child to run wild on an unsuspecting chef’s kitchen counters J. And so we will pursue both possibilities with equal candor.

It is not just spirits which require careful diplomacy. I have also been learning interesting things about the politics of business here. For example, it was vital that we reserve a certain portion of our hiring for people who live in the banjar (village), as per the village chief. We will also fix the roads in the village and create a trash and recycling removal solution. Truly a small price to pay for what we get to borrow in exchange. I have also just been informed that the village elder, who is also considered to be one who sees ethereal things, has had a visit from the diabolical spirit children. Apparently they wanted to apologize. Go figure. I hope you enjoyed the food discussion, which is barely even begun, and enjoy these photos that I was finally able to extract from my mystifying camera. Over and out, N


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Filed under Ingredients of Note, Life in Bali

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