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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Bali Dining - Fire and Spice

Rice terraces, Ubud

 Indonesia’s thousand-mile string of islands arcs across the globe like a sword slung from the earth’s equator.   Near the bottom of the curve, at the confluence of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, sits Bali.  A Hindu island in a Moslem archipelago, Bali has been washed for centuries by waves of cultures from China, Southeast Asia, and India. In the 1500s the Portuguese and Dutch arrived, the latter ruling Bali and the rest of Indonesia until World War II.  And in the age of the jetliner came visitors and expats from Europe, North America and Australia.

All of these influences can be seen in today’s Balinese cuisine. Curry from South Asia, cassava and chiles brought by the Dutch and Portuguese from their South American colonies, snake bean and bok choy cabbage from China, and French and Italian dishes from the modern global village.

Traditional Balinese cuisine is based on rice harvested from the luminous green staircase terraces that dot the island.  Flocks of brown ducks waddle through the paddies, eating insect pests and fertilizing the fields until they wind up on the table.  Lacking the Moslem prohibition against pork, the Balinese raise the art of roast pig to perfection.  Local people favor small, simple roadside restaurants called warung.

Many visitors stay in large international hotels such as the Intercontinental on Jimbaran Bay. In an effort to make guests from everywhere in the world feel welcome, this hotel’s restaurants offer a staggering array of cuisine, from Italian to Japanese.  The breakfast buffet in particular is a world on a steam table.  I bypassed fragrant heaps fried eggs, sausage and warm pastries to try my first Japanese-style cold-noodle-and pickle breakfast when we arrived on the island.  But I was also introduced to Indonesian specialties like bubur injin, a tapioca-like mixture of charcoal-black rice and palm sugar.  At another hotel, the Oberoi, we dined on glistening fresh sushi and French chocolates.  Both were first-rate, but the Balinese Chardonnay bore a remarkable resemblance to Pine-Sol, grapes being one of the few fruits that fail to thrive in Bali’s tropical climate.  Much better were the platters of local snakefruit.  Its scaly skin feels exactly like that of a garter snake caught by a child, but its crunchy sweet pulp is distilled essence of equatorial sun.

Restaurant at the Bali Oberoi, Seminyak
We soon grew anxious to move beyond the hotel scene and eat in a real Balinese warung. One of the most famous is Ubud’s Ibu Oka, where locals and visitors start lining up early outside the old wooden hall for the 11:00 AM opening.  Inside, staff are slathering the final coconut-milk bastings on four suckling pigs that have been stuffed with spices and roasting on spits since four in the morning.  Once the doors open the throng pushes inside and crowds up to the battered teak tables. The staff take shouted orders and bring heaping plates of steamed rice and slabs of butter-soft meat, each topped with a tile of roasted pork skin lacquered to a deep cinnabar color and shattering like porcine peanut brittle.

Warung Ibu Oka, Ubud
But our best experience of Balinese dining was the simplest of all. Just down the beach from the Intercontinental’s sleek restaurants is a row of ramshackle fish warung. Every afternoon a savory aroma of coconut-husk smoke drifted through the frangipani trees surrounding the hotel’s swim-up bar.  We resisted temptation for a few days, put off by the whizzing traffic on the road to these restaurants and the noisy aggressive touts accosting any potential customer who made eye contact.  But eventually we succumbed, picking one of the warung at random.  For the equivalent of $15 total, we were escorted to a rickety candlelit table in the sand just above the quietly lapping waves of the Indian Ocean.  The waiter brought platters of freshly-caught grilled fish, heaps of rice, and frosty mugs of beer.  Local children laughed and darted between the tables, touts waved at tourists down the beach, and the Southern Hemisphere stars came out. We dug our toes into the warm sand, sipped our beer, and soaked up a truly Balinese experience.
View toward seafood warung from Bali Intercontinental

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