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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fire fire

Between pulling long hours at work, and having some kind of tropical flu ravage My and Colette’s insides, I haven’t really had the resolve to sit and write anything here. But much has happened.

First of all Colette is here, and loving it. I believe her first words on the subject of Bali were “I don’t want to go home….” All in all it is hard not to be drawn a little bit, at least in the beginning, to the magic of the place. She is still horrified by the motor bike driving, both riding on the back of mine and the idea of riding her own one day.

We witnessed our first taste of traditional Balinese ritual and ceremony this morning. We were invited and told to wear white shirts and a sarong which would be waiting for us.  The ceremony was to celebrate the changing of the moon. It was a fire purification ceremony for the karmic soul. Many things were thrown into the fire… coconut tree wood, petrol, floral water, coconuts, coconut water, flower petals, leaves containing prayers, mud… Apparently the ceremony is rarely performed now because of an out of control fire that happened years ago, presumably harming a lot of people. It is easy to see why, the fire sparks at you and fills you up with thick wet smoke until you can barely breath. By the end your karma is supposed to be neutralized in a kind of rebirth. There is a lot of cracking and drinking of coconuts, as well as bathing of heads in floral water. The ceremony was also a lot of monotone singing/chanting of om shanti and other prayers, as well as constant bells and blowing of conch shells. The final music was played on a harmonium and hand drum. All in all it was a little perplexing to my outsider self, especially given my willful lack of religious experience. I really enjoyed the trance, zone out element of the music and chanting. I almost wish I had just an audio recording to experience. Other than the music, the most interesting thing was how much it reminded me of every other world religion at different parts of the ceremony. Though more colorful, it shares much in common with the singing , the incense, and water themology present in the catholic church, as well as certain musical cues present in old judaism. The further you travel, the more everything stays the same. I think in the future I could really stand to be more of an observer, less of a participant. I find the rites of others unbelievably fascinating, I am just not sure I care to awkwardly place myself into the middle of them when I am so clearly not a believer.

As I said previously, I have been pulling long hours at work. The deadline has come closer, and I have begun to do lots of tastings and dinners for well known food writers and taste makers on the island. The scene for that is strange here. All of the people writing on food and hospitality in Bali are either American or Australians who have been here for a while, as evidenced by their leathery wrinkle tans, cosmetic work, and demeanor fitting of orange county, USA. It is kind of funny that these people judge paradise and those servicing it. I still can achieve no reputable supply chain for the restaurant with the way in which business is done here, so we will more than likely keep a staff member to drive to the store every day and fill gaps left by unreliably food distributors. So, to anyone planning to start a restaurant in Bali, the food is amazing…..if you can get it in your hands.

Speaking of food here, it is all about coconut. Coconut is in everything. Food, religious observance, construction, fuel. They use the leaves to build roofs and make religious offering boxes, they use the flower and its syrup to make sugar, they use the wood to make statues and tools, they use the husk to make fires for ritual and grilling food, and of course they eat and drink the young coconuts every day. We had the opportunity to take a hike outside of Ubud recently with our new friend Michael. It is a short but amazing trail that goes a long a very high ridge between two river valleys. The whole area is covered with coconut trees, as is all of Bali. On our way back down the trail a heavy set, one eyed, loin cloth wearing, Indonesian version of quasi modo jumped into the path ahead of us bearing coconuts. He proceeded to crack the coconuts for us to drink, and scrape the flesh into our hands to eat. He introduced himself as Ketut, one of only four men’s names in Bali. After we had tasted some of the fruits of his labors we were very ready to move on and away from his awkward demeanor and disruption of our pleasant hike. When the time came to charge us, he offered a ridiculously high price, despite the fact that he had originally presented them as a friendly gift, which is not a ridiculous notion considering the Balinese kindness frequently stretches that far. When we protested and offered him a more fair, but still inflated price, he proceeded to tell hilariously implausible stories of his grotesque self climbing 50 foot coconut trees way down in the valley just to bring the fruits to us. Ha. It is not frequent that you find these traps and dishonest people in Bali, but every once in a while there is a Ketut with his coconuts lurking around the bend. We ended up putting a few bills under his coconut knife and taking off.

Speaking of Ketut, if I have not mentioned it already, there are only four names per gender in Bali. For men, Wayan is a first born child, Made is next born, Nyoman is third born, and Ketut is fourth born. Ketut means something to the effect of “lid” in Balinese. Apparently after your fourth child, you really want to put a lid on it. I have also heard that many women desire to be with a Wayan in order to be with the man who will have all of the inheritance. If you have five children, you will need to start back at Wayan all over again, so it is complicated. I do not yet know all of the women’s names. There is Kadek and Ebu I know for sure, but the rest I am still learning. The women in Bali are more modest and shy in general and I do not have a lot of vocal work interactions with them yet. The security guards at work mistakenly think I am a Wayan child and when I roll into work they always call out to me “Halo Wayan Neal”. I don’t have the heart yet to tell them that I am a Nyoman.

Today is my one day off (I really need to restructure the work in this kitchen….), and I believe we may finally be enjoying the beach and maybe checking out some more of the fine restaurants in Bali. I have lots of great pictures, but my new camera is still a mystery to me for now, so until I figure it out…. Enjoy until next time. N

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monsoon.

For the past three days the sky has been dumping inconceivable amounts of rain on Bali. It is supposed to be fully into the dry season, which according to the locals never varies time wise, but the volcano in Iceland seems to be interrupting world weather patterns in addition to being an irritating road bump on your European vacation itinerary. And so riding my wee little motor bike to work takes on a whole new level…. poncho on, face mask down, avoid the lake sized potholes that have now become actual lakes. The rain here feels hot and kind of like it will tear the roof off your house after a couple hours. You can barely hear yourself talking to someone next to you it is so loud. It is stunning in its drama, and the dogs run even more crazily than usual into the street, agitated without a place of shelter. One Balinese man I work with says that he only listens to music in the summer when there is no rain.

The dogs in Bali can be frightening or charming depending on the day. As I said before, they are always in the street, usually copulating, if not fighting. Sometimes you will see a small pack of mutts with the odd designer dog trailing behind, running wild. Apparently there is a group here trying to round up all the puppies at the beach, where the parents drop them off for good, in order to spay and neuter them to combat the problem, and hopefully temper the rabies issue that has been growing the past year or two. We have one really cool mother dog who hangs out real mellow on the property where I work and looks after her little puppy, which looks nothing like her. Milkman’s baby? I missed getting a photo of the pup, but I got a pic of the mom keeping her cool on the porch… There are also chickens everywhere in the street. Often times you will have to steer your motor bike around a mother hen walking her babies across the road, or a rooster doing the dance of manhood. A couple of days ago I came upon a group of old men betting on a cockfight in the middle of the road. My moto scared the cocks off sending everyone running to control them and get the game back in order. In addition to the mildly disturbing cockfighting circuit, there are also a number of little shanty shacks that house pool tables or alternately, ping pong tables. Maybe if I stay long enough I can get in on a game or two.

Last night, in the name of research, my employers took me to the Oberoi. The Oberoi is really the first fine hotel and restaurant to be on the beach in southern Bali, and is considered to be the best example of classic Bali style and fine dining. With two hours notice the executive chef prepared us a 12 course tasting menu that was pretty perfect. Quite a special experience. My favorite was the tableside coffee wood smoked artichoke heart with coconut-heart of palm salad. Yum. Service in Bali is in a league of its own in terms of being gracious, attentive, and almost invisible. I’m not totally sure how to fit myself into the Balinese working style yet though. It is common place here for people to borrow your things, stick their fingers in your food, and spend much more time diplomatically discussing than hustling. This is the downside of the relaxed life, the challenging workplace.

Today I spent the morning scootering and walking around Ubud, checking out the shops, markets, and cafes. My new favorite thing in Bali is fresh turmeric juice with lemon and honey. Really a treat. I ate some weird Bali fusion cuisine for brunch, which deserves no mention here, then went into a row of jewelry shops.  Bali is a country of crafters, and the shops here are pretty amazing. The baskets, the batik, the metal smithing. It is also a country of copiers. It is amazing, you can give a book to a copy house, and days later they will hand you back a perfectly aligned, bound, black and white copy of your original book. There is also a series of bootleg shops that look completely identical to the originals (such as dolce and gabbana, ralph lauren, etc.) right down to the advertising on the wall. It is theorized by some that even though the store and the company is a bootleg, the clothes are the same product; most of them are made in Indonesian sweat shops anyway! So the  bootleg is only kind of a bootleg anyway. Interesting….

In response to a request for more pictures of my actual self enjoying Bali, I have put here an embarrassing photo myself doing my best cop impression. Over and out!

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infinite jungles and rice paddies.

I have been quite busy the past few days. Trying to set up a commercial kitchen in a foreign country without use of the language is a challenge indeed. Today I spent the day driving around to kitchen supply stores, supermarkets, and open air markets to find ingredients and equipment. We may be almost set up now. In the midst of this shopping adventure we took a break at a local Warung (cafe) on the side of the road for a lunch of chap chae, stir fried local vegetables and tofu in kecap manis (soy sauce sweetened with palm sugar) with, as always, plenty of rice. The warung was high up on a hill with an open air bar seating, overlooking the rice paddies and garden where all of the food was grown. We got a tour of the tiny property from a crazy Australian man who was living on the property in a shack, doing tests in organic rice productivity. The land had two cows, the urine of which was turned into urinol fertilizer, the back end was turned into manure, and the cows also plowed the rice. The water to irrigate was taken from a local creek and filtered by strategic water weed planting. The human toilet waste was composted into a plot of land which was growing special plants for the cows to eat. It goes in, it goes out, it goes in, forever. It was a cool little self sustaining agriculture project.

I have been riding my motorbike to explore a lot more. The motorbike is key here. Roughly $1 for a liter of petrol and you can go miles through the jungle and around the hairpin turns of Bali. I used it today to haul back my five gallon water jug and strange assortment of groceries. It is interesting what finds its way into a grocery bag, when you’re in such a foreign land. Mangosteens, delicious melons and weird hairy fruits, weird green vegetables I do not fully understand, the freshest spices on earth, Javanese chocolate with cashews and ginger, peanuts, and slightly soured tofu.  How do I make a meal with this? All of the tofu here smells mildly like it is rotten to my nose, but I have had it in so many meals now, and been assured it is fine by the Balinese. I think it is just Bali style to have pungent vinegary tofu. Now, I am starting to like it. With the grocery receipt they gave me Durian fruit flavored candies. What a cruel joke. If it wasn’t bad enough to sell a fruit that smells like rotting gym socks, they had to improve upon it by making a candy out of it? Maybe I will finally learn to like Durian while I am here. … Maybe.On another note, beer in Bali is no dream come true, but they do have one half way decent microbrew called “Storm” beer that I have enjoyed imbibing once or twice.

I’m still trying to figure out what best characterizes the Balinese people, as I have experienced them so far. What stands out most is an overwhelming humbleness. Everyone seems to carry themselves with graciousness and kindness. It makes sense that so many people worldwide want to come here. Never would you find yourself cheated by the price of something in a shop or at a market, or unable to find a friendly face when you are lost and confused. There is also a dignity to the Balinese way of life. The government is a mess, and the streets are in disarray, but still the people will sweep them and trim the bordering grass out of pride of place. People engage on a daily basis with their families, their community members, and their belief systems.  It’s no secret as to why this is alluring to western people whose lives have often become more formulaic and devoid of spirit, love, honesty, peace, and community. As wonderful as it is here, it also attracts a lot of new age people who want to lose themselves in someone else’s cultural identity, in an effort to find their own. It seems strange.

Everyday as I ride to work, I pass by two distant (and active I am told) volcanoes, through jungles, and past rice fields. When the rice is picked, they burn the fields. Fire is symbolic of purification here, and there is always something burning in Bali. Trash burns in the street, coconuts burn for offerings, and rice fields burn for soil rejuvenation. There is always a fragrant fire smell everywhere you go, which I have grown to love. It perfumes the thick humid air like a natural incense which mixes with the constant smell of agriculture and slightly soured coconuts. I tried to take pictures to recreate this whole magical experience, but it was impossible. Enjoy these photos anyhow until next time. N

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holy day offtime.

Yesterday was a holy day in Bali, and thusly I was mostly stranded at home. I don’t own my own motor bike yet, and no driver would come to pick me up on what is one of the most holy days of the year in Bali. Although, their most major holidays are actually twice a year. I don’t have any idea how anybody keeps track of the infinite religious rites that are required to be performed. The offerings at my house were even more elaborate today, and there were many chances to see the gamelan orchestras parading through the streets in all of their best holiday whites….

Stranded as I was, I decided to take a walk to explore my neighborhood. There is no sidewalk, so you have to walk in the road or in the ditch/creek (which I would not do, for some that is the water they wash their dishes and children in, and who am I to put my feet in it?).  I wanted to check out the numerous warungs (street cafes) and mini markets selling strange food stuffs, fruits, clove cigarettes, baskets, batik, hindu statues, and other random goodies. As I passed the cafes spilling out with young men on holiday there were lots of yells (jeers?) of “Hello!” and “Wussup” followed by raging laughter. I have read a “hello” is another nickname for the “bule” (foreigners). However, it would be impossible to know if you were being made fun of because the Balinese are always laughing and joking anyways. The world may never know. What I do know, is that Bali is full of the gnarliest little feral dogs. Today several of them followed me a ways viciously barking and testing my faith. The warnings were true, they are all bark. Phew.

There has been a ton of interesting and great food so far. Staples in the Bali kitchen are fruits of all manner, fresh turmeric and ginger roots, tiny bright red shallots, tiny little garlic heads, key limes, spicy sambal chili sauce, and of course tons of rice (white, black, green, red, brown). Every single meal in Bali consists of 80-90-% rice (almost always white, except that the black rice is used in desserts). There are rice fields everywhere, and I will post the pictures of them when I can, they are quite beautiful for farms (althought I imagine they are akin to the repetition of our midwestern cornfields to the Balinese). Turmeric is really more heavily used here than I am used to, which is great, because it is such an amazing tonic for health and digestion and blood. Last night I drank fresh turmeric juice with wild Bali honey and lemon. The fresh coconut oil here is a revelation, and Borneo jungle honey is incredible. It is jet black and tastes deep, dark, and minty, like a good digestif liqeur.  Tempeh is also in many of the meals, fried crispy in small pieces, often in a sweet sauce. They sell fresh tempeh at stores and markets, often wrapped only in banana leaf. It is very fresh and obviously trumps the American stuff (it is native to Indonesia). And forget about olive oil, it is either not found, or so cost prohibitive for a mediocre bottle that you could find a better local ingredient. This is a bit of a challenge for me, relying so heavily on fresh Mediterranean ingredients to make my menus in the past.

Hopefully I will soon have some food and market pictures. I am still waiting to really get into my kitchen as they are putting the finishing touches on it right now. So far I have met with the other chef and the cooks and worked on menu design and sourcing, which is going to be all new to me! The supermarket might as well be planet mars. That is all for now, more soon. N

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First thoughts from Ubud/Sayan, Bali

I want to write regualar e-mails to everybody about what is going on here for me, but actually every day is quite full for me (do not read as stressful or fast paced…) so I will post some thoughts and photos here for everybody. I hope you enjoy.

So far Bali is amazing. I was picked up from the airport in a blurry whirl wind. In Bali, anybody who knows pays a customs police officer to bring you through the airport. It takes two seconds, they don’t look at anything, and it is kind of a ridiculous joke. After that a driver drove me to my house in Ubud/Sayan, which is a more peaceful, less touristy area near my workplace. Driving a car in Bali is mostly about hugging the center line and seeing who you can weave around like a maniac. Driving the scooters actually has less of a logical pattern, but I seem to have gotten used to the driving already. Everybody seems to know what they’re doing, and they also seem to be hyper conscious of the myriad dogs, chickens, cows, kite flyers, and old ladies wandering in the street, not to mention the potholes that are like small lakes. Anyway, my house here is on a beautiful river, which to the Balinese is considered highly sacred. The back yard is basically a wall of jungle. It is always alive with insect, frog, bird, and sometimes monkey noise.

Everything about my house is open to the elements, except my bed. But here even sleeping is done with the door wide open to catch the cool night breeze, in order to break up the oppressive, humid heat. I am typing on my couch, outside, with the company of lizards. My kitchen is outside as well. When I arrived at my house, there were offerings to the Hindu gods (primary religion of Bali), at various places in my house (such as on my stove and refrigerator, on various alters, and in front of my door). This is done on a daily basis here, and food is always put out as an offering before it is ever dined upon in Bali. When I arrived there were also hibiscus and orchids on my pillows and towels, fresh flowers in my room, and a stand of the most amazing mangosteens, passion fruits, and snakefruits on my table.

My impressions of the Balinese so far have been interesting. They are the friendliest, kindest, most peaceful people I have ever met. Their culture is intensely spiritual, and they regularly profess their lack of concern for money over their own happiness and sense of community. Everyone has made an effort to introduce me to their ways and culture, and to be very welcoming. They are eager to learn from new people on their island, and are very dedicated in their jobs. I was informed when I got here that to yell at the Balinese staff will never accomplish anything, that they will fold in on themselves and stop engaging with you. You always need to explain why you want to do something, and why it is a good thing to do, and then they will follow it through with you. This to me sounds like the most perfect situation I could have asked for.

That’s all for now, more soon. N

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