Sunday, May 10, 2009

Some like it hot The guts and glory of Balinese food

With its unique culture and natural beauty, Bali is Indonesia's undisputed shining star on the international map.

Its cultural attractions are considered second to none, its people are venerated for their friendliness and resourcefulness and its resorts are the stuff that dreams are made of for even the most jaded sybarite.

But while artists, anthropologists and tourists flock to its shores yearning for the exotic, that hunger does not extend to the local cuisine. Part of that has to do with its lack of recognition, except as vaguely understood "food of the Gods" for its special status in religious ceremonies. And save for babi gu-ling (roasted and spiced suckling pig) and satay lilit, Balinese food remains relatively unknown even within Indonesia. In the huge melting pot of Jakarta, there are, of course, Padang, Sundanese and Manadonese eateries aplenty, but it's hard to find a Balinese restaurant.

This is not to imply that Balinese cuisine lacks flavor or is limited in scope. With careful use of spices including garlic, ginger, chilies, turmeric and coriander, and without as much coconut milk as in other Indonesian cuisines, the dishes are a full-on experience for culinary adventurers up to the task.

Writer and restaurateur Janet DeNeefe aptly compares the Balinese cuisine of her adopted homeland to the frenzied kecak dance, boasting sharper, more pungent flavors than the sweeter food of neighboring Java.

"It's really got guts," she told me several years ago. "There's no dilly-dallying, but it's vital, like a shot of energy."

The potential to bring Balinese food to the waiting world was not lost on Novi Kusuma. An avid practitioner of meditation, Bali is one of her favorite retreats. During one meditation course, the fragrant smells of spices being crushed and pounded wafting from the kitchen below inspired her to open a restaurant back in Jakarta.

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