Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Balinese Food

Balinese food is so artful.  We’re back in veggie heaven, so there’s all the colors and textures.  And then there’s the perfect little pyramids or cones of snow white rice.  Our meals have been beautifully presented on carved wooden platters or banana leaves.

We’ve been trying to sample as many local dishes as we can, and there hasn’t been one yet that we haven’t enjoyed (although, I‘ll admit- we‘ve also been ordering comfort food from home, like thin crispy wood-grilled pizzas and iced coffees).

On the day we arrived in Ubud, we had lunch in a pretty shaded open-air room with a moat running around the edges filled with swimming orange and white goldfish.  The room was separated from the street by a wall of water droplets that trickled into the moat.  I was served a fragrant mound of stir-fried green beans with bean sprouts, shredded coconut and a scattering of tiny crunchy brown beans, flecked with slivers of spicy red peppers and topped with crunchy bits of tiny fried onions.


For another lunch, we sat in another open-air room next to a garden of ferns and palms centered around a fountain with an ivory statue of a multi-armed goddess.  Mohit enjoyed grilled chicken topped with a smoky sweet pepper sauce.  I had chunks of white fish mixed with diced green and red peppers steamed inside a banana leaf, flavored with coconut milk and curry spices and garnished with a squeeze of fresh lime.  Both of our entrees were served with sautéed cabbage, green beans, carrots, onions, and tiny green ferns.

For dinner one night we attended a traditional Balinese dance performance.  Live musicians played hand drums, wooden flutes, tinny cymbals, and an instrument that looked like a xylophone with bamboo pipes. The women dancers wore dramatic eye makeup, gold headdresses and purple silk sarongs.  The male dancers wore carved and painted wooden masks and layered costumes of red, gold, green, and magenta.


While we enjoyed the performance, Mohit ordered a mixed seafood grill; a platter arrived with two different kinds of fish, huge prawns, squid and octopus, all glazed in a spicy sweet tomato barbecue sauce, and served with a dipping bowl of fish sauce with slices of green onions.  We sat inside a private gazebo on an elevated platform, barefoot and cross-legged on cushions in front of a low table, our flip flops tucked underneath on the grass.  Bats swooped overhead in the fading evening light and a lizard ran under our table and across Mohit’s feet.

For another dinner I had the most delicious pureed pumpkin soup with chopped bits of tomato, flavored with coconut milk and shreds of Thai basil.  The soup was served with hot crispy sheets of prawn crackers.  Yum.  Mohit ordered fettuccine Balinese style.  The pasta was smothered with a thick yellow curry and studded with prawns and squid.  His favorite meal in Ubud was at a candlelit sidewalk restaurant, where he enjoyed a chicken curry that reminded him of his travels in Thailand.  

On our last day in Ubud we took an Indonesian cooking class at a restaurant in town.  The market tour that started the morning was uninspiring since the piles of vegetables, eggs, dried chilies, and buckets of unrefrigerated salted fish were being peddled in the back corridors of a dark musty concrete maze.  But the dishes we prepared resulted in our best Balinese meal yet.

First we made a spice paste (called Base Gade) which is a kitchen staple and is used to flavor a myriad of dishes.  We minced together shallots, garlic, chilies, and fresh turmeric root that stained my fingertips yellow when we cut it.  We added ginger root and another local root called galangal, which has a bitter, hot flavor similar to wasabi.  To this we mixed in shrimp paste, coriander, white and black peppercorns, nutmeg, cloves, cumin seed, sesame seed, salt, and a local oily nut called candlenut (because it will burn slowly like a candle if lit).  The whole lot was blended to a fine bright orange paste (traditionally, it’d be laboriously worked into a paste using a stone mortar and pestle), then stir-fried in sizzling coconut oil.

We mixed a generous portion of the paste and some palm sugar into minced pork meat, then molded handfuls of the spiced meat around bamboo sticks and lemongrass stalks (this kebab-type dish is called Sate Lilit).  We browned the meat sticks on a hot flat pan then plucked them off to eat directly.  They were salty and sweet and tasty.  We also used the Base Gade paste as a base for a chicken curry with potatoes and carrots cooked in coconut milk.

We steamed a mixture of water spinach, long green beans (a foot long each(!), but cut into smaller pieces), bean sprouts, carrots, and cabbage, then mixed in spicy stir-fried grated coconut, hot red and green chilies, shallots, garlic, and shrimp paste.  Flavored with a dash of salt, this was simple, healthy, and surprisingly flavorful.

My favorite dish was called Tempe Manis (or “sweet tempe”).  Tempe is a cousin of tofu, it’s a cake of fermented soybeans (but unlike tofu, the soybeans are still whole).  We sliced the tempe into thin wafers, then deep fried the slices in coconut oil.  I’m not usually a fan of anything fried, but when the resulting crackers were drained on paper towels, then mixed with a spicy sweet paste of palm sugar, sliced chilies, salt and pepper, the result was a nutty crunchy caramelized snack with a bite of hot pepper.  Delicious and like nothing I’ve ever tasted!

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