Food with Attitude

By William J. Furney
The Bali Times

I ask the chef at the Italian in Jimbaran where we are dining this evening to throw together for me a chili pizza – tomato sauce topped with at least 20 chopped-up fiery pieces of heaven. He obliges, and soon enough the  sizzling dish arrives, and swiftly blows my head off.

Just the way I like it.

A few days later at a Japanese on Sunset Road, I ask for enough wasabi to last the restaurant the entire day, and delve into sensory overload.

Once you’ve had a taste of sensuous Asian food, you’ll never look at Western fare quite the same way: it’s bland.

On the rare occasions I travel West, I never leave home without a triptych of sambal, and with no sense of timidity, eagerly whip it out in restaurants, or at the home dinner table, to add to a dish.  I, like many expats who have become inured to spicy food, cannot live without chili sauce. Along with a host of pungent condiments, it’s the spice of life.

Detractors say sambal was invented to make peasants’ insipid food – rice, tempeh, tofu – more palatable and interesting, but I don’t agree.

In eateries here, I make a point of asking serving staff to make my menu choices  “as hot as possible,” and even my Indonesian friends are aghast.

Just over 10 years ago, having dinner with a British friend at a warung in Flores, I asked the waitress to make my nasi goreng “the hottest in the world.” She duly obliged, and boy was it good – so volcanic that I ran out of the restaurant to cool down.

I’m on an unending search for the hottest chilies, and recent gobblings of imported jalapeños severely disappointed. But on a weekend-morning breakfast on the west coast of Java, at a hotel in Anyer (where a close Jakarta friend is as I write, and reports that her oceanfront digs are looking decidedly disheveled, though she can park her car right in front of her villa – I urged her to take a trip to Krakatoa, on the horizon; anything for an eruptive experience), some years ago, I downed one of those innocuous-looking tiny green things that was so toxic I couldn’t breathe for half an hour. Just the ticket!

When over a decade ago now I first arrived in Jakarta, I couldn’t quite take in the sambal-as-ketchup replacement at McDonald’s. That was the genesis of my culinary reeducation.

As we know, tastes in the West are far milder, and more delicate. I asked my sister Suzanne in the Irish capital Dublin what she makes of the fiery sauce. A frequent visitor to Indonesia, including Bali, which she adores and where she and her intended plan to spend their honeymoon later this year, she said sambal is akin to salt and pepper in Western nations.

She’s talking about white pepper, which I dread, as it only makes me sneeze and I abhor its chalky taste; I opt for hearty ground, black peppercorns.

But on the rare occasions Suzanne did consume sambal, she said she it was overpowering.

“Personally, I found it to be very strong and it does tend to overwhelm the flavor of the food,” she said.

“While it goes well with rice and fish dishes, my concern with it is if chefs use it during the cooking process to mask bad-quality food or plain bad cooking.”

Oh, what a cynic. Even the growing zoo members at my house love sambal on their food, including dogs and monkeys, but not the turtles or fish.

But Suzanne doesn’t detest it.

“It is stronger than the spices we use here [but] I don’t hate it. Having said that, I did get a shock the first time I tried it as it was hotter than anything I have had before. After getting used to it, you can easily develop a taste for its strong flavor. I like to mix it into my rice when served with fish.”

Well, that’s something.

Garlic is another of my gastronomic treats; I devour it, and have casketfulls around the house, not only to ward off demons (as if) but to invigorate health. When recipes call for a clove or two, I with wholehearted gusto chuck in a bucketful, and delight in eating the tear-shaped pearls raw – it’s a wicked, guilt-free buzz.

Garlic-breath? No problem. It – like chili and wasabi and all their adventurous cousins – adds to the passion of life.

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