Dining with the Literary Stars

By Janet De Neefe

For The Bali Times

UBUD ~ Let’s face it, I am surely one of the luckiest gals in the world. Being able to combine two of my greatest passions, food and literature, under the guise of a profession is a sublime treat and one for which I am eternally grateful. It was only the other day that a friend from Melbourne and I were chatting. “Janet,” he said in a somewhat serious tone, “when are you going to find yourself a real job, so that you can be as unhappy as the rest of us?”

So apart from wearing a well-worn village chef cap and being a self-proclaimed, non-Balinese doyen of Balinese food, I am also the torch-bearing director of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. Why am I telling you all of this, I hear you ask – or yawn?

Hospitality has always been my raison d’etre. Nothing makes me happier than sharing home-cooked food and opening up our old teak doors to visitors from all over the world. And in recent years, our restaurants have become the culinary playground of the writers who have been appearing at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival.

I remember Michael Ondaatje, the celebrated author of The English Patient, dining at both our home and Casa Luna in 2005. It was our second festival and Michael was the undisputed star. He and his lovely wife, Linda Spalding, had arrived a week before the festival began, so we had plenty of time to roll out the Balinese red carpet and wine and dine this charming couple.

For months before Michael’s arrival in Ubud, I was jumping up and down on the spot, literally, in excitement. All my children, including Arjuna, then aged 6, knew the name Michael Ondaatje and were constantly apologizing to their friends about my sudden outbursts of glee. Picture my eldest daughter Dewi, then 12, rolling her eyes like a teenager and telling her friends, “Mum is all excited cos that guy who made that film is coming here … yeah, it’s embarrassing!”

You might remember that our 2005 festival commenced only a week after the second bombing. So the memory of this event will always remain close to my heart. We all bonded in the face of this unexpected tragedy and I have remained friends with Michael Ondaatje to this day.

But getting back to food. Michael and his wife shared many meals with us and he was especially fond of our Indonesian dishes – something to do with the fact that he grew up in Sri Lanka. On one occasion we served Smoked Duck and he waxed lyrical over the full-bodied flavor of this perennial favorite. We discussed the cooking process in depth and he loaded up his plate with a generous portion. It was only a few weeks ago in Bali that we had celebrated Hari Saraswati, which is rather like a sacred Smoked Duck feast and one that my family and I love. Saraswati is the Goddess of wisdom and education, so, twice a year, a day is set aside to honor her divine attributes. On the day after Hari Saraswati, called Banyu Pinaruh, we all tuck into a delicious breakfast of yellow rice and a selection of colorful side dishes to soak up the wisdom of the Goddess and pay homage to Bali’s precious ducks (in lieu of a swan) as the heavenly transport that bears the multi-skilled, multi-armed Goddess Saraswati. And there is no better way to do this than via the cosmic powers of a well-cooked meal. So do yourselves a favor, set aside a day and prepare yourself a precious meal that will do wonders for the mind, body and soul.


Smoked Duck

The mellow fragrance and flavor of freshly made coconut oil is the crucial ingredient for a delicious smoked duck. Cooked for eight hours, the tender, gently seasoned flesh almost melts in the mouth. It is delicious with yellow rice but also with salad greens. It can be baked in the oven or even barbequed instead of smoked in tree bark.

Serves 4:

1 whole duck

3 teaspoons tamarind

2-3 teaspoons shrimp paste

1 tablespoon sea salt

1/3 cup coconut oil

3 teaspoons kecap manis

5 salam leaves

2 staghorn sprigs to speed up the cooking process (optional)

2 1/2 cups water

coconut tree bark or oven bag, string

Spice paste:

8 small shallots

12 cloves of garlic

4 large red chilli, seeds removed

5 medium chilli

5 bird’s eye chilli

6 candlenut

2 tablespoons ginger

1 ½ tablespoons turmeric

2 tablespoons galangal

2 tablespoons kencur

2 teaspoons whole black pepper

1 teaspoons whole white pepper

1 tablespoons coriander seeds

¼ teaspoons freshly ground nutmeg

1 teaspoons ground sesame seeds

½ teaspoon ground cloves

2 tablespoons palm sugar

Place the whole duck in a large bowl. Rub with half the salt, shrimp paste, tamarind and two tablespoons of the coconut oil to break the bones and soften the meat, for approximately three minutes. This is rather like massaging the duck. Set aside.

Place the spices in the container of a food processor and blend to a smooth paste. Put the ground spices in the bowl. Mix on the side with 1/2 of the remaining oil, the remaining salt and the kecap manis. When it is thoroughly mixed, add all the oil.

Push a tablespoon of the spices down the duck’s throat. Add the salam leaves to the remaining spices in the bowl and push into the duck’s cavity. Rub the skin with a thin layer of spices.

At this point, the duck is wrapped in coconut tree bark. You can use local tree bark, an oven bag or a terracotta pot. Wipe the tree bark with a clean cloth and place a sprig of staghorn on top. Place the duck on top of this. Place another sprig of staghorn on top of the seasoned duck. Tie up one end of the tree bark securely with bamboo twine. Pour the water into the package and tie up the other end. Alternatively, place the duck and half the water in an oven bag or in a terracotta pot. The staghorn of course, is optional.

The smoked duck is then cooked under a terracotta lid, surrounded by rice husks and burning coconut fiber. It takes at least eight hours and the slow cooking process yields wonderfully aromatic, delicious, tender meat. Alternatively, place in a pre-heated oven set at 180 and cook for one and a half hours covered or set the oven to 120 and cook for four hours. You can even allow the duck to crispen in the oven but removing the lid for the final 30 minutes. The duck can also be cooked in a pressure cooker and if all else fails, you can use chicken instead.

Finally, for now, Michael Ondaatje jotted down these words about our 2005 festival.

“It was, and is, and hopefully will always be a wonderfully intimate festival. I have made great friends of writers and readers, heard exciting talks and eaten meals I did not know existed. Thank you!

Matur Suskme

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