Food is the real spice of Bali life
Arriving at the central market in Ubud shortly after 9am, it is already uncomfortably warm, the promise of a scorching day heavy in the air.
Women walk purposefully, balancing baskets of produce on their heads. The noise of the traffic on the busy nearby road — that urban Balinese symphony of honking horns and the whirr of scooter engines — mingles with the sounds of commerce, of voices calling, chatting and bargaining as money and goods change hands.
Stepping from the air- conditioned comfort of the car, we’re greeted by Nyoman, our guide for this morning’s tour of the market. The tour will serve as a prelude for the main event of the day, a cooking class which will take place in a nearby village.
Clad in thongs, a sarong and a Hawaiian print shirt festooned with the image of Corona beer bottles, Nyoman is enthusiastic in introducing us to our classmates, a mother-and-sister duo from Sydney. “We will be a family for the day, ” he says, a broad grin on his face.
Our “family” assembled, we set off to look around. Most tourists who have visited Ubud will be familiar with this market as a place to buy the usual Balinese souvenirs — sarongs, wooden curios, canvas bags emblazoned with the declaration “I (heart) Bali”—– as well as super-cheap vanilla pods. At this time and earlier, though, it is almost exclusively the preserve of locals, who come to buy food every day. Most people don’t have refrigeration at home, so food must be bought each morning and cooked immediately.
The area around the entrance to the market is given over to women selling components for the offerings which form such a central part of Bali’s unique brand of Hinduism.
Typically, these consist of little squared-off trays made from palm leaves, filled with shredded fragrant pandan leaves, brightly coloured flowers, sticks of incense and morsels of food — everything from a few grains of sweet- smelling coconut rice and bits of fruit to miniature crackers and individually wrapped Mentos lollies.
Many local people will present 25 or more offerings at the temple each day, Nyoman says, and enterprising stallholders sell plastic bags stacked with pre-made versions — kind of spiritual value packs for the time poor — alongside all of the elements to make your own.
Inside the market, it is hotter and noisier, dogs barking, people chatting, the scent of incense jostling with the less pleasant odour of rubbish. Nyoman shows us some of the vegetables for sale — long green and purple eggplants, skinny green snake beans which can grow up to a metre in length, corn cobs, cassava roots, bunches of water spinach and other greenery. Then there’s the fruit, including green mangoes, plums which resemble small potatoes, exotic-looking snake fruit and durians, and bananas of varying sizes — there are more than 10 types in Bali.
We give the meat section a wide berth but linger at the spice stalls, where Nyoman shows us the lumps of palm sugar, wads of vanilla pods and cinnamon sticks, blocks of peanut paste and bags of candle nuts. I note that a generous bag of saffron is 20,000 rupiah, or less than $2.
From the market, we drive out of town, pulling over on a high, relatively flat section of land. Around us, terraced rice paddies spread out in every direction. We’ve seen the fresh produce at the market, so here we’ll learn about that other essential element in Balinese cooking, rice.
Each family has its own paddy, Nyoman says, and will typically grow all of the rice it requires. Standard white rice takes three-and-a-half months to grow; red and black rice for sweets need a bit longer. Nyoman tells us that from about the end of December, the rice plants — lushly green during our visit — will start to turn yellow and be ready for harvest.
The top part will be picked by hand and then banged to extract the rice, which is then dried for a couple of days. Ducks are brought in to eat any fallen rice and the eels which live in the paddies, while also providing natural fertiliser, before ploughing is done with the help of a cow, water buffalo or a tractor, what Nyoman jokingly calls “a Japanese plough”.
Seedlings are propagated and then planted, all on a single day, and then the crop must be weeded and tended until it’s ready to harvest again. Three crops of white rice are typically grown each year, a remarkable output facilitated by subak, a system of co-operative canals and channels so distinctive it was World Heritage listed by UNESCO last year.
From the paddies, it’s a short drive to the village of Laplapan, where Wayan Subawa as his wife Puspa, the proprietors of Paon Bali cooking school, welcome us into their home. “We will be your friends in the kitchen, ” Puspa beams.
It’s hot by now and Wayan gestures for us to sit in the shade of the pavilion at the centre of their compound while Puspa fetches us a citrusy welcome drink. As we cool off, our hosts tell us a little about their family, their daily life and their home.
We learn that each of the three is connected and integral to the culture of the Island of the Gods. Local culture places a deep importance on family and extended groups of relations live together; as Wayan puts it, “in Bali, no one lives alone”. His ancestral family home is actually elsewhere in the village, but he was adopted some years ago by an elderly childless couple who lived here with their menagerie of dogs. Such adoptions are, he tells us, relatively common in Bali, where it is vital to have heirs to perform the necessary religious rituals after your death.
Local tradition also dictates that the wife moves in with her husband’s family when they marry. Puspa and Wayan have been married for 20-odd years — and very happy ones at that, I’d wager — but Puspa tells us she was initially reluctant to wed, not wanting to leave her own family. She finally consented when Wayan achieved what she calls a “Bali MBA”— that is, got her pregnant. “Happy wife, happy life, ” he advises us with a hearty laugh.
With so many people living in a typical Balinese home, good communication and a sense of order are essential. Adults of the family gather each evening in the central pavilion to discuss any issues that have arisen during the day; problems cannot be allowed to fester.
The traditional compound-style homes are laid out in a hierarchical fashion over three levels, with the most important structures on the highest level — the main gateway to the eastern side, the family temple to the north-east. Then there’s the number-one bedroom, where the highest-status members of the family sleep (usually the grandparents), with other bedrooms behind this, followed by the cooking areas and so forth to the rear.
Wayan proudly shows us the spot in front of the main bedroom where his children’s placentas were buried after their births in keeping with local tradition. This will ensure they always return home to their parents, he says.
By this stage, we’ve been joined by a small group of American tourists — the rest of our “family”— so it’s time to start cooking. Puspa takes charge, joking and laughing, calling everyone “sweetie” and “honey bunny” as she instructs us to chop and pummel the various ingredients at our stations. We all get a go at crushing a mixture of shallots, garlic, candle nuts, chillies, shrimp paste and various spices with the biggest mortar and pestle I’ve even seen, called a lesung. This mixture forms the base gede, or basic yellow sauce, which will be used in most of the dishes we are preparing.
Then we move on to the actual cooking. Here, too, everything is remarkably interactive — everyone gets a turn cooking at a series of portable burners set up for our benefit, with Puspa directing us to add different ingredients at various stages. The only thing we don’t do ourselves is cook the satay sticks, which we’ve prepared by moulding a chicken mince mixture on to chunky bamboo skewers — Nyoman cooks these for us on an open grill fuelled by coffee wood.
Just as we finish cooking, the clouds burst and rain begins to fall. Soon the garden will be filled with cool, ankle deep water. We take our seats with the rest of our “family” on a raised pavilion and feast: a starter of mushroom and vegetable soup followed by chicken in coconut curry, the satay chicken skewers, gado gado (vegetables in peanut sauce), coconut and snake bean salad, tuna steamed in banana leaves, fried tempeh in sweet soy sauce and coconut-scented rice. It is all delicious, and made even more so by the role we have all played in preparing it.
Puspa and her kitchen team move on to preparing dessert for us — bananas in palm sugar syrup — while Wayan hovers, topping up water glasses and proffering Bintang beers.
Delicious as the food is and convivial though the company might be, eventually it’s time to leave to make the slow drive back through the flooded street to our hotel. Our group was one big Balinese family just for one day — but what a day it was.
Paon Bali Cooking Class at: paon-bali.com.
© The West Australian