At Ceremony Time, a Feast Not Only for the Senses

By Janet De Neefe

For The Bali Times

UBUD ~ I always say that the best way to sample the finest Balinese food is during a ceremony.

Over the past month, Ubud’s young couples have been tying the knot at the speed of a thousand kerises.  Temple ceremonies have also been the order of the day, with many Balinese celebrating the return of their ancestors into the Sangah or family temple.

If you have ever ventured into a Balinese compound, you will notice that every household has its own temple near the front gate that includes a number of black-haired shrines, almost looking like rustic chess pieces with tiny doors.

It is here that assorted deities and ancestors live, lying somewhat dormant, until the ceremonies begin. Party time for the unseen forces and a food feast for us mere mortals.

Last year we held one of these ceremonies at our house in a bigger-than-Ben Hur extravaganza that meant at least 10 days of consistent work by friends, family and local community leading up to the auspicious day.

My husband only likes grand events, a little like the birthday parties I used to throw in my 20s in Melbourne (sigh!). A temple ceremony is rather like a temple birthday, in fact, and when it comes to the divine in Bali, no expense is spared. Let’s face it, who would be brave enough to skimp on details on an island that has cosmic forces lurking around every corner.

Preparations at our house included offerings-making, cooking and plenty of construction work, with our neighbors making bamboo altars, roofs, decorations and so forth, from morning until night.

For a self-confessed food nut, my interest is always centerd on the kitchen and the dishes being cooked each day. I find it so exciting to compare recipes between Balinese mothers and other Indonesians.

One sister-in-law is from Sumatra, the home of the legendary beef rendang, and it is such a treat to see her in action.

The magic these seductive village chefs wield with their masterful use of spices is so inspiring – sensual, in fact. I stood watching with awe as my sister-in-law whipped up a dozen dishes in less than an hour. Other mothers cooked their favorite meals in what could only be called a mega food-fair. With up to 100 people being fed daily, the quantities were enormous.

And the food kept pouring out of the kitchen, morning, noon and night. Steaming curries in all shapes and sizes – from yellow chicken curry to jackfruit curry, tofu with tempe and fragrant fish curries with coconut milk. Then came the stews. Some of my favorite Balinese dishes are the stewy, meaty ones that are drowned in a gentle, light gravy.

Meats such as pork, chicken, fish and beef simmered with gingers, lime leaves and lemongrass were prepared as part of the ongoing buffet. Other soupy dishes included green papaya, choko with peanuts, cassava leaves, tofu and even boiled eggs coated in a golden broth. Leafy dishes of fern, kangkung, sprouts, peanut leaves, kidney bean leaves and other unknowns were wok-fried with shrimp paste, mixed with roasted coconut, smothered with peanut sauce or simmered with gingers. I might add that ceremonial times are not a time to watch the waistline.

The day-to-day food is, of course, different to ceremonial food. This is when the most lavish, spice-bathed combinations are created, with duck and pork usually the stars of the show on the celebrated day. Babi guling, or Balinese-style suckling pig, is the perennial favorite and one that I find hard to resist, along with just about every Balinese I know.

Smoked duck is another tender, coconut-scented treat that has me purring with each mouthful, especially when it is eaten with yellow rice. Other heavyweights include lawar, a staple of ceremonies, that is an untamed mixture of steamed vegetables, roasted coconut, a dash of fresh blood, lashings of chilli and just about everything the animal ever owned – all chopped and shredded with gusto by the working men.

But it is the everyday food that speaks volumes. Steamed rice, a simple sambal or chilli seasoning, fresh seasonal greens and a humble smattering of seasoned meat. Even better when served in a banana leaf. Comfort food prepared from the heart by a mother’s gentle touch. Enak!

So, following is a Balinese-style curry I hope you will enjoy. Don’t be afraid by the list of ingredients. With the helping hand of a macho-like food processor, the spices can be whizzed into a luscious paste in a matter of minutes. And wait until you inhale that sun-drenched aroma while it is cooking. Sublime, to say the least.

Matur suksme

Kare Ayam

Yellow Chicken Curry

Serves 4

750 g. chicken pieces

3 tsp. tamarind   mixed with 3 tbs. water

4 lime leaves

2 lemongrass, bruised and tied in a knot

1 tbs. palm sugar

3 salam leaves

sea salt

2 cups water

5 tbs. oil for frying

1-2 cups coconut milk


6 red shallots                      5 cloves garlic

5 large red chilli                  2-3 bird’s-eye chillies

1 tbs. ginger or one thumb          2 tbs. galangal or 11/2 thumbs

3 tsp. fresh turmeric or ¾ thumb    5 candlenut

2 sticks lemongrass                 1/2 tsp. shrimp paste

2 tsp. coriander seeds              1/2 tsp. cumin

¼ tsp. nutmeg                       ½ tsp black pepper

½ tsp. shrimp paste

1.    Chop the chicken into curry-size chunks. I like to use chicken on the bone as it keeps the meat tender and prevents it from shrinking.

2.    Mix the chopped chicken with tamarind water and salt. Set aside while you prepare the spices

3.    Grind the spices in a mortar and pestle or blend in a food processor until you have a smooth paste. You can add some water to get the blade going if necessary. Seeds and nuts can be ground in a coffee grinder.

4.    Cut the lemongrass into a 10cm piece. Bruise and tie into a loose knot.

1.    Heat the oil in a wok over a medium flame and fry the spices in a sturdy manner with the lemongrass, lime leaves and salam leaves for at least one minute or until fragrant and glossy. It doesn’t matter if you fry it longer. Add a splash of water if it is too dry.

5.    Add the chopped chicken, sauté for two minutes until grey or half cooked. This will help the chicken fully absorb the flavors and stay moist.

6.    Add the water and simmer the chicken until it is cooked and most of the water has reduced.

7.    Add the final layer of coconut milk and simmer for a further three minutes.

8.    Check seasonings.

9.    Serve with steamed rice, topped with fried shallots.

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment, The Island

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