May 01, 2010

Asian Flavours Part Three: Bali - Island of the Gods

          The beautiful sights, sounds, smells and people of Bali

If Italy is my cultural and emotional homeland, the island of Bali is my spiritual one. On my fourth visit to the island, I am once again reminded of that. Statues of the gods everywhere – Shiva the Destroyer, Vishnu the Preserver, Ganesh, the elephant-headed son of Shiva and seemingly the most popular. Offerings wherever one looks – in the middle of the road; at the temples, big and small, that grace every village, building and home; atop a statue. Each one is a tiny random poem of love – a bit of fragrant rice, flowers, incense, perhaps a cracker – nestled in a miniature woven basket no bigger than a salad plate. All these elements blend to create an almost palpable air of holiness.

Offerings all around

A more elaborate gift.  Balinese women can spend up to one third of their time in devotional work, including preparing daily offerings to the gods

Balinese food reflects that complex blend. Combining Indonesian, Dutch, Indian, even Arab influences, the best of it has subtle but intense flavour at every bite – galangal, lemongrass, wild ginger, layered with kaffir leaves, fresh coconut and chili. Of course rice, served throughout the day, in dishes such as nasi goreng or for dessert as tape ketanAnd fruit - always fruit.

Ah, that fruit. Although not unique to Bali, the overflowing bowl of tropical fruit in my resort room still holds freshness that I rarely sample at home. My favourites are pulpy passionfruit and sweet cool mangosteen, the segments strangely resembling garlic cloves, in looks only. The fruit itself has a unique taste all its own, one that is hard to describe but impossible to forget.

Unappealing but utterly delicious passionfruit

The restaurant scene is international, reflecting the importance that tourism plays in Bali’s culture and economy. Italian, Thai and continental dishes mingle on the menu with chicken satays, spicy fried noodles and fresh grilled local fish. The common element for many restaurants is clearly in the design – the vibe is casual, the restaurants open wide to the balmy air, each with a cool urban decor.

We dine one night at Terazo, and the menu reflects the diverse tastes and sensibilities of the customers.  Me? I have an ice-cold Bintang beer, a refreshing gazpatcho soup and pork belly with cannellini beans. While roast suckling pig is a mainstay in Bali - babi guling - this pork has more of an Italian feel, scented with rosemary and garlic.  I don’t know if it’s typically Balinese but I do know that it’s delicious.

Icy cold local Bintang beer

Chilled gatzpatcho with lemongrass

Slow roasted pork belly with braised cabbage, cannellini beans, in a rosemary roasted garlic jus

A Taste of Bali

Several years ago we took cooking classes at the Four Seasons resort in Jimbaran Bay. This recipe has since become a standard appetiser at our house, especially at our holiday Open House, where a little taste of Bali makes even the coldest December day brighter.

Saté Lilit Bali (Balinese Chicken Sate)
courtesy of Four Seasons Resort at Jimbaran Bay

We are very lucky to live in a city where the exotic ingredients needed here are readily available. I have cited a list of mail order sources for the more obscure ingredients.

1 kg boneless, skinless chicken meat, minced (can use just breast or thighs or a combination of both)
3½ ounces shallots, finely chopped
1½ ounces garlic, finely chopped
4 pieces fresh small red chili, thinly sliced
4 tsp ginger, finely chopped
4 tsp galangal, finely chopped
2 tsp Chinese ginger (grachai), finely chopped

Chinese ginger, photo courtesy of Aromatics International

2 tsp fresh turmeric, finely chopped (or 1 teaspoon ground turmeric)
1 tsp white pepper, ground
2 cloves clove, finely minced
1 tsp nutmeg, ground
1 tsp coriander, ground
1 tsp white sesame seed, ground
Salt and pepper to taste
4 tbsp canola oil
36 pieces lemongrass, cut into 6 inch skewer lengths
2 kaffir lime leaves, finely shredded
2 oz grated coconut, unsweetened

1. Heat oil in a frying pan on low heat and sauté all the spices, except the lime leaf and coconut, until aromatic and cooked through. Remove from heat, cool and blend to a paste.

2. Mix the spice paste with the minced chicken; add lime leaf and coconut. Season with salt and pepper.

3. Take 20 grams of the chicken mixture and work around the lemongrass skewer; repeat with remaining chicken.

4. Grill the satays until cooked through. Serve with peanut sauce.

Makes 40 satay skewers.

Make ahead: The paste can be made ahead and frozen. The skewers can also be made ahead, grilled and frozen. Or the paste and chicken can be prepared the day before; do not add coconut to raw meat until just before assembly.

I'm also angling to get the recipe for krupuk.  These delicious and highly addictive crackers are served alongside drinks at the Four Seasons resort in Sayan. Watch this space!

The Sights of Bali

Bali is a sensory assault.  Everything is colorful - the amazing terraced rice paddies, the women with their elegant, feminine clothing, the food.  Best of all is the gentle and hospitable nature of the Hindu-practicing Balinese, who prize children, harmony and the earth around them in a way that is spell-binding.

The terraced rice paddies in Bali

Balinese children are considered sacred.  When a baby is born, its feet do not touch the ground for the first three months of life, to preserve the purity of the new soul that has been born to this base earth

Motor scooters are the most popular form of transport. It is common to see a family of three or even four astride a scooter - no helmets of course!

Balinese "dance-drama" features well-known characters from the deities and elaboarte costumes.  These masks are a readily available - and dramatic - souvenir of the island

Beautiful Balinese women gracefully carrying trays full of offerings

Temples everywhere

Cutting coconuts for the fresh coconut water

Even the "Do Not Disturb" sign is beautiful

After a brief and blissful sojourn in Hong Kong to reconnect with Richard before heading home (nothing like a long distance date to keep the marriage fresh!), I wind up my Asian travels, settle back at home and dream of vsisting Bali again some day soon.