It is a festival day in the town of Ubud – how lucky we are to be here on a festival day! But Bali-veteran friends roll their eyes – ‘every day is some sort of ‘festival’ day!’ they say. The roads in central Ubud are closed for preparations, so we go around, circuitousness comes to be a recurring theme in Bali, but always a pleasing one…
As the moon cycles, so do the festivals on this Hindu island outpost. Frenzied preparation marks the lead-up to a celebration, big or small. Offerings to the Gods are made, flowers, fruit, and roasted meats. Holy garments are starched, special hats prepared, and temples decorated in fabric – black and white check, bright white, and gold. A kind of dress-up box assortment of cloth, haphazard to the untrained eye, wrapped around pillars, strung from roofs, tied around trees and blowing prettily in the breeze.
Each feature has its significance though, and there is certainly no shortage of enthusiasm for explanation. But, listen carefully as you might, the merry-go-round of meanings turns incomprehensibly, and enlightenment inevitably manages to evade!
As for the festival ceremony itself, the main event towards which everything builds? Well, you’re very welcome to attend, entreated even to do so. The offerings are beautiful, pyramids of flowers and food, the songs, colours, sights and sounds, are nothing short of spectacular. But as for better comprehending what all the fuss is about?! In Bali, sometimes, it’s just the thing to go with flow…
The ubiquitous little flower offerings, for instance, arranged on woven reed rafts, and placed on around at every entrance… ‘Such a pity,’ I think, ‘that these lovely things get trodden on all day and end up in tatters.’ But the flowers are mostly fallen frangipani, collected from the ground beneath the trees, and it’s in the nature of flowers to fade after all – so what if their moment of glory as offerings is brief – it’s definitely beautiful.
Similarly so, the daily offerings of food. ‘What a waste!’ screams my mind. But then I didn’t know that it’s all taken home again at the end of the day to be cooked and eaten. Gods can eat with their eyes, the Balinese reasoning runs, but there’s no avoiding that people need to eat with their mouths!
But speaking of food – when do we eat exactly? There are no mealtimes here in Bali, no breakfast, lunch, or dinner! Food is bought fresh at the market at the beginning of each day, and prepared first thing – stewed chicken, vegetables, rice, and sambals. And all this gets eaten when? Well, you eat it when you are hungry of course, when else?!
And so everyday, everything starts afresh, a life-cycle in miniature – growth, beauty, abundance, decline – or, as the famous Balinese fire-dancers perform it, the daily battle between the white monkey and the red – between, good and bad, life, and death!
That the cliff-top temple where the fire-dance takes place is actually populated by both good and bad monkeys is, of course, a particularly Balinese irony. The good monkeys sit scenically on temple roofs, the setting sun providing an irresistibly photogenic backdrop. But then, the bad monkeys have a particular penchant for stealing spectacles, so damned if you manage to see the good monkeys doing their thing at all!
Tchat, tchat, tchat, tchat tchat, tchat, tchat, tchat – tchat, tchat, tchat, tchat, tchat, sing the fire-dancers, their song echoing the last laughs being had by bespectacled monkeys, high in the trees.
Which brings me, full circle, to the most circuitous matter of them all – the nature and uses of kecap manis. I am attempting to impress our hotel chef with my (not vast) knowledge of Indonesian cookery when I mention kecap manis…. ‘Hmmm, never heard of it,’ says our chef, shaking his head. ‘Kecap manis!’ I repeat, ‘Indonesian soy – it goes in everything – it makes the nasi goreng brown, the satay sauce sweet-salty!’ Still, a ‘nope,’ from the chef, smiling wide, apologetic for sure, but remaining firm with ‘no idea, sorry.’ I’m baffled, maybe it’s not an Indonesian ingredient after all…
Then, a glimmer, ‘do you mean kecap?’ he says? ‘Kecap manis?’ ‘Yes, yes, that’s what I’ve been saying this whole time!’ ‘Sure, sure’ he says, ‘kecap manis,’ he’s smiling, nodding, laughing now, ‘that stuff goes in everything!’ Maybe it was my pronunciation, maybe it's just Bali!
And so we both smiled, and nodded, in understanding and confusion, and then cooked a meal. Two of the dishes that we prepared are reinterpreted below. The third dish, a kind of breakfast dessert, or a dessert-for-breakfast, depending on how you like it, is my nod to Bali, and its gracious, wonderful, sensible, confusion.
Sate Lilit Ayam – Balinese Chicken Satay
Like all things Balinese, there is an art to constructing the perfect chicken skewer. I may not quite have mastered it, or at least this is the message I took from the bemused head shaking of our chef come-satay-instructor. But then, who knows what exactly should be made of this!
In any case, a pinching motion, I’m told, is the best to get the minced chicken to stick to the lemongrass skewer. When I tried again at home, it was easy enough, so perhaps I exaggerate the artfulness – certainly it’s easier to make satay on nice thick stems of lemongrass, than on spindly bamboo skewers – easier, prettier, and a lot tastier too.
(Makes 12 skewers)
- 500g minced chicken
- Juice of 1 kaffir lime
- 50ml coconut cream
- 3 tablespoons of shredded coconut – toasted
- 12 stems of lemongrass (to form skewers)
/ Bali Spice Paste
- 1 shallot
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 small bird’s eye chilli
- 4cm piece of galangal
- 4cm piece of ginger
- 2 stems of lemongrass
- 1½ teaspoons ground turmeric
- 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
- 3 tablespoons peanut oil
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- Salt & pepper
/ Peanut Satay Sauce
- 150g raw peanuts – peeled
- ½ a large shallot – chopped
- 1 clove of garlic – chopped
- 1 red bird’s eye chilli – chopped
- 2cm piece of galangal – chopped
- 1 tablespoon of brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons of peanut oil
- Juice of ½ a lime
- 120ml water
- 2 tablespoons of white sugar
- 2 tablespoons of sweet soy or kecap manis(!)
Start by making the spice paste as this will be used to marinate the chicken.
Roughly chop the shallot, garlic, chilli, galangal, ginger, and two of the stems of lemongrass (use the white part only). Heat 2 tablespoons of peanut oil in a heavy-based pan, add the chopped ingredients along with the whole coriander seeds, and ground turmeric, and fry everything together until the onions are softened and the spices fragrant (up to 6 minutes).
Remove from the heat and sprinkle over the brown sugar, stirring to combine this with the spices. Then transfer the contents of the pan to a food processor and blend until you have a paste.
Now return the paste to the pan along, with another tablespoon of peanut oil, and fry over medium heat for a further 3 minutes, or until the paste is fragrant and beginning to colour. Remove from the heat, season with salt and pepper, and allow it to cool.
Mix the cooled spice paste into the minced chicken along with the coconut cream, toasted coconut, and kaffir lime juice. Place into an airtight container or cover, and refrigerate over night, or for at least 5 hours, until you are ready to use.
Meanwhile, make the peanut sauce by spreading your peanuts onto a tray and roasting at 180°C for 6-8 minutes, or until golden in colour. Do keep a careful eye on progress as you do so – the nuts can go from being pale to burnt in a matter of minutes due to their high oil content.
Next, fry the shallot, garlic, chilli, and galangal until soft, adding the brown sugar after 2 minutes, and stirring frequently to prevent the spices burning.
Transfer the mixture to a food processor, along with the roasted peanuts and blend until you reach your preferred consistency – still with some crunch, or completely smooth, as you like it.
Place the blended mix in a clean pan, then add the water, caster sugar, and soy. Place over a low-medium heat and simmer until the sauce thickens to a nice consistency. Finally, refrigerate the sauce until you are ready to use.
To make the satay skewers, pinch up a small ball of the marinated chicken and work the mince onto the head of the lemongrass stem, tapering it to meet the stem at the bottom. Squeeze along the length of the meat to ensure that it is well cohered to the lemongrass and evenly distributed all around. Continue to make up the remaining skewers in the same way.
When ready, fire up the BBQ or heat a cast iron grill plate until very hot and place the skewers on to cook. Carefully turn these when necessary so that they brown evenly on all sides and are cooked through.
While the skewers are cooking, warm the peanut sauce, either in a pan, or in a microwave, and then serve this along side the satay when done.
Pepes Ikan – Fish in Banana Leaves with a Raw Chilli Samba
This dish uses the same basic spice paste as the chicken satay, so make twice as much at the outset, or even a few times as much, and freeze the extra. By the time you’ve collected all the ingredients, and endured the (considerable) chopping, you’ll be glad you did!
The raw chilli sambal is fresh and colourful, but not so strongly flavoured as a typical sambal due the omission of prawn paste. I think that just a touch of fish sauce gives enough of a hint of this without being over-powering… But beware nonetheless, because what this sambal lacks in the way of prawn, it more than makes up for in the way of chilli! The fresh spicy flavours really work well with the grilled fish however, a kind of a chilli sambal-salsa!
- 4 fillets of white fish (snapper or grouper both work well) – skin removed
- 1 portion of Bali spice paste (ingredients & preparation as per previous recipe)
- Juice of 1 lime
- 4 banana leaves
/ Raw chilli Sambal
- 1 shallot – finely chopped
- 2 bird’s-eye chillies – seeds removed, finely chopped
- 1 kaffir lime leaf – thinly sliced
- Juice of one kaffir lime
- ½ teaspoon of fish sauce
- Drizzle of peanut oil
- Salt to season
Slice each fish fillet in half lengthways, rub with the spice paste, and leave to marinate for up to 6 hours in the fridge.
To make the chilli sambal, combine all the ingredients together, then drizzle over enough peanut oil to just lightly dress. Season with salt to taste. The sambal can be stored at room temperature until you are ready to use.
Prepare the banana leaves by trimming into a rectangular shape, approx. 25cm wide x 30cm long. (If your banana leaves are smaller than this, you’ll have to trim the fish to size as opposed to the leaf!).
When you are ready to cook, wrap the fish by positioning a banana leaf in front of you so that its striped veins run vertically away, then place two slices of fish into the centre of the leaf. Fold in the sides, first one, and then the other, so they overlap in the centre, and then secure each end closed with a toothpick to form a little parcel. Do the same for the other three fillets.
Grill on a hot BBQ or cast iron plate, turning the parcel over once to cook the other side. The fish should be done after 15 minutes, but take a sneak peek inside if you are unsure – the parcels tend to open up a little naturally whilst cooking anyway.
To serve, place each parcel on a dish, parting the leaves a little more to show the cooked fish. Don’t forget to spoon over some of the raw chilli sambal, if you’re brave!
Coconut Rice Pudding
I was going to write that Bali cured me of my life-long aversion to breakfast, but then I thought about it some more. It is not so much that I’ve been ‘cured,’ but more that my greedy side got the better of my averse side while standing in front of the incredible pick-and-mix tropical fruit combinations offered by the resort buffet! By the end of the trip, I had established my very favourite combination – hot porridge at the bottom of the bowl, bircher on top, added nuts, dried fruit, fresh fruit, passion fruit, and a dollop of yogurt just to the side (blueberry if possible), then milk on top. Delicious!
But after satay and grilled fish, muesli doesn’t really cut it, and so a breakfast-dessert hybrid began to take shape…
This warm coconut-y rice pudding has the texture of porridge, but the nuts and shredded coconut give a muesli-like crunch. Cinnamon and vanilla are comforting and dessert-y, while the variety of colourful fruit replicates some of the fun of the pick-and-mix. Adapt according to what you would like to see in your dream bowl of tropical muesli!
- 100g short grain rice
- 400ml coconut milk
- 250ml milk
- 50g caster sugar
- 1 vanilla pod
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 200ml double cream
- 1 mango – peeled and sliced
- 2 jackfruit – peeled and sliced
- ½ a dragon fruit – peeled and chopped into cubes
- Handful of longan – peeled, seeds removed
- 2 passion fruit
- Handful of almonds – lightly roasted and chopped
- 1 tablespoon of shredded coconut to scatter – lightly toasted
Combine the rice, sugar, coconut milk, regular milk, vanilla pod, and ground cinnamon in a saucepan, cover, and bring to a boil over medium heat. As soon as the mixture has boiled, reduce the heat to low, and let it simmer and blip along for 40 minutes, or until the rice is completely cooked and all the liquid is absorbed. Stir occasionally while cooking to help things on their way.
Once cooked, leave the rice to cool for 10 minutes…
Allowing you time to get on with the busy business of chopping fruit.
When you’re ready to serve, extract the vanilla pod from the rice. Place the pod on a chopping board, chop off one of its ends, and run a knife along the length to force the vanilla pods from the cut end. The seeds will come out as a little squiggle of blackness. Add the squiggle to the rice and stir through to distribute luxurious little vanilla specks through the whole pudding.
Next, add the cream to the rice and stir this through as well. The pudding should have a porridge-y texture, so top up with further cream if necessary.
Now, spoon into serving bowls and top with as much tropical fruit, toasted nuts, and coconut as you can manage!