A Spiritual Journey Into The Culinary World of Bali

By : Jonathan Copeland | on 2:08 PM April 17, 2014
Category : Life & Style, Food & Drink, Arts & Culture

BalinesefoodCover_FINAL.indd (Photo courtesy of Tuttle)

What a joy this book is! I love recipe books, but it’s short-lived; I enjoy the pictures for several minutes, read a few pages, and then my eyes glaze over. They are basically books to be used in the kitchen for one recipe at a time.

This book, however, is in a different class altogether and designed to be read in its entirety. It’s in its own sui generis category; it has recipes at the end of most of the twenty-one chapters, but it’s a book to be read from cover to cover, yet it could easily be read chapter by chapter, in any order, as they are all self-contained. Every bite-sized chapter is a flowing narrative from a well-stocked brain encompassing Balinese culture, geography and history, while not losing its main focus: food.

As you would expect from a scholar with a PhD in history from Columbia University, the subject matter has been meticulously researched, not from books and articles and other people’s work, but from actually being on the ground and in the markets and in the kitchens of Balinese families, where the Balinese themselves learn their culinary skills, hands on, passed down orally, manually and practically from generation to generation.

Vivienne Kruger has lived in Bali long enough to get it right. That’s no mean feat, as the subject has not been fully studied before.

Yes, there are so-called Balinese recipe books, most, if I’m not mistaken, written by foreigners, and heavily adapted. The dishes have not, until now, been systematically placed in their proper cultural context, which is extremely important for the Balinese, nor has there been any examination of the numerous varieties of each type of recipe, nor have they been given their true Balinese names.

This groundbreaking book is a pleasure to read, not just for its fascinating content, which I learnt a lot from, but for the exuberance, enthusiasm and originality of the language. There’s not a dull sentence in the book. You just can’t wait to read the next phrase.

There are eye-opening and jaw-dropping passages for the general reader as Kruger describes delicacies from the village of Tengkudak in Tabanan district — grasshoppers, dragonflies, eels and live baby bees — and explains how they are caught and cooked. She does not shy away from controversial subjects, such as eating dog and turtle. Parts of it are not for the faint-hearted, but other parts make you want to go out and join the participants, such as the Nusa Lembongan fishermen, who sail their outriggers at 5.30 a.m.

The author quotes Miguel Covarrubias, the great Mexican Bali observer of the 1930s, who wrote “The Wonderful Island of Bali,” and which has inspired all writers since, including myself and my co-author, Ni Wayan Murni, in our book “Secrets of Bali, Fresh Light on the Morning of the World.” There is, however, no bibliography, which I found strange at first. I can only imagine it’s a reflection of how original the subject matter is; there simply are no other sources.

The author in many, if not most, places mentions the prices of ingredients and dishes. This is interesting and helpful in giving an idea of the relative cost of goods, but it’s already out of date. I’m afraid that with Indonesian inflation currently at over 7 percent, and more for some items, the prices she quotes are on the low side. Furthermore, there are seasonal swings in prices. As every Balinese housewife knows, when a ceremony is approaching where, say, bananas are required to make the offerings, the price of bananas goes up. So, if the author quotes the price of pepper, just take it with a pinch of salt.

Throughout the book Kruger mentions Balinese and Indonesian words and sometimes discusses their derivations. It’s a Herculean task. I was intrigued to read that “satay” comes from the Tamil word for flesh ( sathai ) and that South Indians brought satay to Southeast Asia before Indonesia developed its own tradition. The book is full of interesting titbits like this.

I was hoping that there would be a glossary of all these words for future reference, but I can quite understand the publishers’ reluctance, as it would have doubled the length of the book. Perhaps an accompanying glossary for future publication would be worth considering.

The book contains 47 recipes in all, 11 of which came from Murni’s own restaurant, Murni’s Warung, in Ubud. Mr Dolphin of Warung Dolphin in Lovina also contributed a number of recipes. Kruger adds an introduction to each recipe, with a detailed and usually very personal commentary. I think my favorite, though, is from a village priest (pemangku), I Made Arnila of the Ganesha (Siwa) Temple in Lovina.

Holy Water from a sacred spring or river, or regular purified drinking water

Pour the water into a metal container that holds holy water (sangku).

Take small, bright pink bougainvillea flower petals from the offering trays around the central Lingga shrine (at a Siwa temple) and drop them into the sangku. This means that Siwa gives power. Fragrant, greenish-yellow blossoms from the Ylang-ylang, an East Indian tree (Cananga odorata) can be used instead of bougainvillea.

Light an incense stick and place it in the offering tray beneath the Lingga. The pemangku sits on the floor to pray or stands and recites three holy mantras for holy water:

Mantra Ganesha Mantra

Guru Gayatri Mantra

Mantra Durga

The pemangku distributes the fresh holy water to worshippers at temple ceremonies.

I don’t think many readers will be qualified to use the recipe for holy water, but I am sure most will enjoy this book enormously; I certainly did.

Jonathan Copeland is an author and photographer based in Bali.

Balinese Food: The Traditional Cuisine & Food Culture of Bali
By Vivienne Kruger
Published by Tuttle
288 pages

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