Before We Begin…

By Janet De Neefe
For The Bali Times

UBUD ~ Greetings from Ubud. I am thrilled to be joining The Bali Times team and will be writing a weekly column about the cuisine of this fabled island, peppered with a dash of culture.

So let me tell you a little about myself. Bali has been my home for more than 20 years. During this time, I married my husband, Ketut from Ubud, and together we have produced four beautiful children (yes, I know every mother says that!). A few businesses have been born in between, including a couple of restaurants and a cooking school. My story was eventually bound into a book. Enter Fragrant Rice, a memoir of my life in Ubud with recipes – maybe you have heard of it.

Each week I will share with you deliciously honest recipes, interwoven with tales of Balinese life and traditions, as well as stories from those people in Ubud who have made a mark on the culinary face of this town. I will be shedding a soft, fuzzy light on Balinese food and culture in all its gilded finery.

In my cooking classes, I constantly repeat that Indonesian food is one of the most exciting cuisines in Southeast Asia and one that is alarmingly misrepresented. I must admit that I am a self-confessed Ambassador for Indonesian Food and am passionate about the culinary brilliance of the archipelago and in particular the cuisine of my beloved home, Bali.

Food and cooking is as much about pleasing loved ones as it is about understanding other cultures. It offers a glimpse into the soul of a nation. Balinese food is sheer comfort food: a banquet of pleasure created by dedicated mothers, the masters of innovation and resourcefulness. It is also the language of a people who share their homes and hearts with generosity and kindness. There are very few places on earth where the people are as genuinely warm and friendly, where they open their doors to any visitor. In the words of David Attenborough, the Balinese are “one of the most generous, friendly and talented people on earth.”

Within the lines of this column, I will also communicate the spirituality of eating and sharing: rules for living and obtaining happiness. Cooking is not just about recipes. It’s about developing an understanding of food and its relationship with one’s body. There is wisdom in nurturing the soul and maintaining good health. It comes back to honoring the land that feeds us and acknowledging all that the earth provides us. In Bali, the Goddesses of the Earth, who represent rice, market gardens and so forth, are constantly paid homage to and showered with offerings. The spirit of the offerings are a celebration of life and a respect for the vitality or life-force of food. I like to think of it as the breath of a seed that grows within us. While the Balinese philosophy of food cannot be wholly taught, it can be gently conveyed in the cuisine, as delicately as warming coconut milk.

Balinese cooking, as in daily life, is all about maintaining balance and harmony, and I believe food is as much about aesthetics and careful preparation as it is about flavor and texture. Balinese cuisine focuses on fresh, seasonal produce and health-giving spices while offering many exciting vegetarian options. As it is said in the Bhagavad-Gita, “…a harmony in eating and resting, in sleeping and keeping awake; a perfection in whatever one does…” This is surely the secret to longevity and inner peace. I don’t mean to preach cosmic advice to the reader, but I think it is true that nowadays people are seeking a deeper, more honest relationship with food. The increase in organic products in supermarkets and the Slow Food movement is surely a testimony to this fact.

I am not a trained chef. My qualification is that I am purely an observer or what I call a village chef. My experience is first-hand, gathered from more than 20 years of working side-by-side, literally, in rustic home kitchens – tasting, eating and laughing over mud-brick ovens filled with the smoke of burning bamboo and the scent of coconut oil.

I will endeavor to keep each recipe as simple as possible, and steps to create them to a minimum. Remember, cooking should be a joy, not a chore. Within each recipe, I will walk you through the ways of using and mastering exotic ingredients to overcome any spice phobia you might be harboring. Delicious Balinese-inspired meals can be prepared quickly and easily while retaining their integrity, the color of their skin. Glorious pastes can be created in seconds with the aid of a faithful food processor in contemporary surroundings, and a well-worn wok is just about all you need to cook up a luscious feast.

Each week, I will bring a hint of a Balinese kitchen to the reader (heaven forbid, I hear you say). But there is nothing more pleasing than a meal cooked with the simplest intentions – to serve the ones you love. A bowl of steaming rice, a luscious curry, a salad and a sambal is all you need to nourish the soul. Cooking is the language of love and mothers. I guess it begins with breast-feeding. Say no more.

Once upon a time in a sunburned country called Australia, I used to be a schoolteacher. Here in Bali, under the shade of mango trees and coconut palms, I continue to follow my former profession by seeking knowledge and sharing what I have learned, in the humblest sense of the word. My years on the Island of the Gods have been a continuous feast for the soul. In short, an inspiration. So take my hand and join me on this culinary journey.

And finally, I wish to thank William Furney, editor of The Bali Times, for having faith in me and offering me generous space in this elegant publication to kick up my cooking heels and run free.

As we say in Bali, selamat makan.

Matur suksme.

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment, The Island

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