The roots of our food | Inspired Bali

Just under a year ago I moved from the bustling Australian city of Sydney to Mongan, a quaint village in rural Bali.

I spent the 10 years before this moving around the world, cooking my way up the ranks in a number of fine-dining establishment kitchens.

It is surprisingly hard to live a holistic and healthy lifestyle in the hospitality industry.

Try asking a sweaty, bloodshot-eyed head chef for a longer lunch break so you can meditate.

Perhaps even more risky, try sharing with your vegan yoga classmate your excitement over plucking and de-boning a wild goose.

I felt torn between two very different worlds and begged the universe to take me to a place where I could cook and breathe in peace.

Through good old synchronicity and a leap of faith, I showed up in Mongan carrying only a backpack and a dream.

I came here to manage and cook for the newly opened Bali Silent Retreat, with a vision of creating a kitchen that would source most of our food in Bali.

Farmers’ markets with local produce are now very fashionable and popular in the West. Food labelled ‘organic’ or ‘all natural’ was once enough.

The new generation of discerning consumers wants more: they want to know the people who produce their food.

As I dined my way around Bali, I was stunned to discover that most of the top restaurants here did not feature much local food.

The carbon footprint and the cost was surprisingly high and, although the taste was heavenly, it simply didn’t fit with my values.

Once settled into my new job, located on a stunning four hectare property set amidst the rice fields, I set out to get to know the local farmer’s and gardens.

Igung, our head gardener, soon became a pillar of light – my personal Google search engine for all things local and delicious.

Perhaps more than he realises, Igung has supported me in understanding some of the social, spiritual and culinary aspects of Balinese culture.

Inspired by his relationship with all things growing and blooming, I was set to have the seasons dictate our modern, healthy menu.

One of the first things I learned was that Igung’s family always mix two types of  rice together: nasi merah (red rice) and nasi putih (white rice) to accompany their meals.

As a Westerner, I can’t even begin to grasp how important growing and eating rice is to Igung.

“If I don’t eat rice today, I will be very sad and hungry, Simon”, he once told me whilst glancing at our extensive buffet of food which did not include rice.

It’s safe to assume that rice production is not only geared to meeting hunger demands but is also a practice which may well be a cornerstone of Balinese life.

Rice shapes the landscape, is sold at markets and is served at most  meals both as a savoury and a sweet food. Most Balinese eat rice three times a day.

The importance of rice in Indonesian culture is demonstrated through the reverence of Dewi Sri, the rice goddess.

She is a symbol of fertility – a mother nature. During ceremonies Balinese people wet foreheads or chests and stick grains of rice to their skin in an attempt to soak up Dewi Sri’s powerful life  force.

No wonder Igung was shocked to see Western people skipping these divine grains.

 I was delighted to find an array of vegetables within his family compound but also in the jungle surrounding his home.

In many ways this jungle is simply a vegetable garden left to it’s own wild devices. Native trees, plants and wildlife share a space with cultivated cacao, coconut and bamboo in what appears to be a bountiful and balanced forest.

Various edible leaves, fruits and roots are used as staple  vegetables and flavouring agents. Wild fern tips are popular  along with the pandan leaves that bring flavour and bright green colour to a range of dishes.

The family can collect most of the food they eat. Sometimes they eat pork as a Hindu ceremony will often call for the slaughter of a large hog.

I’d been visiting Igung’s family regularly over the past year, and their hospitality and the abundance of delicacies they serve never cease to delight me.

From the freshly caught rice field snails cooked with chili and garlic, to taro root smothered in palm syrup, to creamy  durian fruit and rambutans straight off the tree!

With so many wonderful ingredients at their fingertips, I was curious to learn which items Igung’s family choose to buy from the shop.

I was surprised  to learn it was gula pasir – standard white, refined sugar.

Unfortunately many Balinese have ditched the natural palm sugar so readily  available here in favour of the nutritionally empty, cheaper and sweeter white sugar.

Everything else is sourced within meters from their home. Although their diets are simple and include next to no salad or raw food, the way things grow so naturally gives this food a vital quality unrivalled by supermarket produce.

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Illustration by Mira Gisler

I asked Igung how his diet has changed over the past 40 years. After a quick discussion with his father, Igung concluded that it is much the same now as it was then.

The only difference, he recalls, was that when there wasn’t enough rice the family would bulk it out with taro root, the main staple in Bali before rice was introduced by the Chinese.

Families like Igung’s, who grow or gather almost everything they eat, are becoming increasingly rare.

Yet change is the only constant in life and this village is no exception. Igung recently purchased his first fridge, an item that demonstrates a bridging of two very different worlds.

Science shows us that although vegetables retain their shape and flavour longer in a fridge, the absence of sunlight causes rapid nutritional loss.

When it comes to crunch and vitality, nothing beats a freshly picked vegetable. Enough reason for us to harvest daily from the retreat gardens.

My job here is to please an international crowd of discerning and self-aware individuals who are keen to eat and stretch their way to better health.

Igung is an integral part of that process. Along with the many other guardians of tradition, we are maintaining a focus on the abundance of natural and locally sourced delicacies.

We are continuously expanding our network of ‘local food heroes’ as we recognize the wisdom and sustainability which marks traditional agriculture.

At the same time, we hear our local staff asking about our hi-tech solar panels, and our gardeners get excited about foreign permaculture concepts.

Their open-minded attitude and willingness to share insight into their culture is heartwarming.

Perhaps this kind of mutual respect is the key to sustainable growth and increased unity on the multi-cultural and ever changing island of Bali.

BREAKFAST

Red rice porridge with white mango and salak (Snakeskin fruit)

  • 237 ml (1 cup) of red rice
  • 705 ml (3 cups) of water
  • 470 ml (2 cups) of coconut milk
  • 2 white mangoes, peeled (feel free to use regular mango if in season)
  • 4 salak (snake fruit), peeled
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 vanilla pod, cut open and seeds scraped out
  • Pinch of salt

Rinse the rice in a fine sieve. Place rice, water, coconut milk, salt and spices in a thick-bottomed pot on a very low heat.

Simmer the covered rice until very tender and creamy in consistency. This can take as long as an hour depending on the rice.

Towards the end of the cooking time, stir occasionally to make sure the rice won’t burn. In the meantime, finely dice the mango and salak.

Stir the fruit into the porridge just before serving and add a last swirl of coconut milk. Sweeten to taste with palm sugar.

LUNCH

Raw sprout salad with a rich peanut, coriander and coconut dressing

  • 470ml (2 cups) of sprouts of choice. Mungbean sprouts are widely available in Bali
  • 1 red capsicum, diced into matchsticks
  • 1 yellow capsicum (pepper), diced into matchstick shapes
  • 3 spring onions, diced on an angle into fine rings
  • 1 large carrot, grated
  • ¼ small white cabbage, finely diced
  • The leaves of 1 bunch of coriander, chopped
  • A few coriander leaves for garnish

Dressing

  • 118 ml (½ cup) peanuts
  • 70 ml (5 tablespoons) fresh lime juice
  • Some grated lime zest
  • 5 ml (1 tablespoon) soy sauce
  • 5 ml (1 tablespoon) sesame oil
  • The stalks of 1 bunch of coriander, chopped
  • 14 ml (1 tablespoon) palm sugar
  • 118 ml (½ cup) coconut milk
  • ½ chili pepper
  • ½ chili pepper
  • Salt to taste
  • Additional peanuts and coriander for garnish

Place all the dressing ingredients in a blender and blend into a thick and zesty dressing.

Toss all the salad ingredients together in a mixing bowl. At this stage you can place in the fridge for up to a day.

Just before serving, gently mix the dressing into the salad and scoop with your hands onto a large serving platter. Garnish with some peanuts and coriander leaves and serve.

DINNER

Potato and taro gnocchi in a chili, candlenut and lime sauce

Although gnocchi are traditionally made with potatoes and wheat flour, I use a mixture of potato and taro which gives it a slightly chewy dumpling-like texture.

Taro is a tropical tuber and was a staple in Bali before rice was introduced by the Chinese.

It’s available around the world and typically found in Chinese grocery stores. Feel free to experiment with seasonal starchy vegetables that are abundant in your area.

Think sweet potato or pumpkin. Same goes for the flour. You could use tapioca starch, corn flour or coconut flour.

This dish is a great gluten free option if you leave out the wheat flour. It’s an authentic fusion dish, bringing together ingredients from two different cultures.

If you want to take the cross-cultural boundaries further, try crumbling feta cheese over the top for a rich and exotic touch.

Gnocchi

  • 940 ml (4 cups) peeled potatoes
  • 940 ml (4 cups) taro root, chopped into 5 cm (2 inch) cubes
  • 420 grams (2 ½ cups) rice flour

Making the dough

Boil or steam the potatoes and taro until tender. Place on a tray in a hot oven or in a dry frying pan for 7-10 minutes until completely dry (without browning).

Mash together or pass through a colander until smooth. Slowly stir in the rice flour to make a solid dough.

Flour quantity will vary according to the moisture level. Create neat rolls of dough about 2 cm (½ inch) thick.

Dust your bench with flour, place your roll onto it and chop into bite-size pieces. Press each piece into neat little pillow shapes using a fork.

Cooking the gnocchi

Boil the gnocchi in salted water for several minutes. They are ready when they float to the top. Gently lift them out of the water into a sieve.

TIP: If you’re not sure about your consistency, boil one piece first. If they are too soft for your liking, add more flour. Go easy on the flour as reversing the process is a lot harder.

Sauce

  • ½ red capsicum, chopped
  • 1 chopped chili pepper (2 if you like or 6 if you’re insane)
  • 4 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1 knob of ginger, chopped
  • 4 candle-nuts or macadamia nuts
  • 120 ml (8 tbsp) coconut cream
  • 30 ml (2 tbsp) coconut oil
  • 1 stalk bashed lemongrass
  • Lime juice and lemon zest
  • Soy sauce
  • Palm sugar

Making the sauce

Place all the ingredients together in a blender (or pestle and mortar) and grind into a fine paste.

Cook on a gentle heat with 1 stalk of bashed lemongrass for about 15 minutes until thick and rich. Season the sauce to taste.

Add a dash of fresh lime juice, lime zest, soy sauce and a tiny amount of palm sugar.

Continue to taste until you reach a fine balance of sweet, sour and salty You’re aiming for a thick sauce that coats the gnocchi without drowning them.

To serve

Toss the gnocchi and sauce together. Mix with the remaining coconut cream and thai basil. Garnish with some gently torn thai basil leaves and serve.

by icon-1-14 Simon Jongenotter | Cover photograph by Jamie Woodall of Agung in his garden.

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