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The paradise destination of Bali has grown so much as a destination that it can feel impossible to keep up with the genuine and unique soul of the island's cuisine. One woman who knows more than most however about real Balinese food is 27-year-old Maya Kerthyasa.
The half-Balinese and half-Australian journalist and food writer is endeavouring to record Bali’s huge array of culinary traditions, in some cases before they disappear altogether. Whilst writing her first book, she has traversed the island finding recipes and ingredients, tips and techniques from countless towns and villages which illustrate the remarkable diversity of flavours and produce.
Kerthyasa lives in Ubud in the centre of the island, the royal capital. Indeed, her grandfather was an elder at Ubud Palace while her grandmother held the very significant role of royal cook. She is still cooking today, probably in her 90's, but no one knows for sure as she was born before people could read or write.
Kerthyasa told Fine Dining Lovers about some of the key aspects of Bali's cuisine which visitors very rarely get to discover.
The religious importance of food
"A lot of recipes going back centuries were given to us from the Hindu gods and translated into dishes - tells Maya - They’re not written down. That’s why we cook complex and labour-intensive meals and give cooking so much love and attention. We also believe that the energy put into offerings for the gods will translate into good karma."
But what about the Balinese traditions? "Women cook at home, but ceremonially it's men and when there's anything to do with meat - Kerthyasa says - They often fuel good times with arak or rice wine. For ceremonies, cooking is often communal, with a lot of people cooking together. It's a big time for Balinese people to socialise. We make rice and fruit based cakes for people while waiting to pray, cassava and tapioca flour steamed in banana leaves, sweetened with palm sugar giving it a very distinct flavour and texture."
The importance of spice - and intuition
Then, Maya goes indeep in the ingredients. "What ties all the ingredient together is spice, the backbone of Indonesian cooking - che tells - People think there are a handful of spice pastes, but every cook, kitchen and village has their own way of using spice. There are no rules, everything depends on your palate and what your family likes to eat. When people are grinding a spice paste or mixing a salad they won’t taste what they’re cooking, they’ll smell their hand and know if it needs salt, candlenut or whatever. It's intuition and knowing your ingredients."
The symbolism and culture behind rice
"Rice is a very important food and a divine crop. Every rice field has an altar to Derieri, the goddess of abundance, fertility and rice. Farmers take daily offerings to her. Most rice was introduced as it grows faster and real heritage rice was much slower. Heritage rich has a subtle perfume to it and is defined by its medium grain. White rice is considered the best, red rice is considered less sophisticated. You never keep rice for more than a day and there's no culture of leftovers because there was no refrigeration. You also don’t leave anything on your plate, there's the notion that food is precious comes from times of struggle and hunger that have dictated some dishes."
Finally, she adds with a laugh, one thing all Balinese share is a love of food - and a tendency to be very honest about someone else's cooking. "If food doesn’t taste good, people let you know – there 40 words for something that taste good ‘jaen’ - and 50 words for things that don’t!"