In their new Bali food book, local experts Tjok Maya Kerthyasa and I Wayan Kresna Yasa delve into the island’s rich culinary culture. Here’s an excerpt.
Photographs by Martin Westlake
Wayan and I are heading along the rugged Buleleng coastline to a village called Les to dig a little deeper into the food of Bali’s north. Compared to Java, Sumatra, or Borneo, Bali is a remarkably small island, just 153 kilometers wide and 112 kilometers from top to bottom. Yet from a cultural, geographical, and culinary standpoint, it’s a marvel — a patchwork of clans and former kingdoms, each with their own histories, customs, and flavors.
The people of Les belong to a community known as Bali Mula, whose belief systems and practices predate those of the island’s majority Javanese-Hindu descendant population. Some of the original Balinese, if you like. To find out more, we’re slated to meet chef and local priest Jero Mangku Dalem Suci Gede Yudiawan at Dapur Bali Mula, his restaurant and cooking school.
We arrive by nightfall and the open-air dining room is softly lit. Rows of antique clay pots rest against the woven bamboo walls; they contain arak (traditional palm wine) that is aging and infusing with the likes of fresh mango, jackfruit, and moringa leaves. There’s a little bar dedicated to the spirit on our left, and a wooden bridge to our right that leads to the paon (kitchen). One of the cooks, a young man no older than 25 with an impressive tattoo sleeve down his right arm, tells us Jero Yudiawan is officiating a ceremony and will be here shortly. He invites us to explore the kitchen while we wait. It’s set in a small, open structure with workbenches on either side and a neat earthen stove in its center. Jero Yudiawan’s knives are proudly displayed along the back wall; most are cleavers, a couple of them serrated for cutting through fish bones. An elevated bale pavilion where the mise en place happens sits adjacent to the hearth.
A huge volcanic-stone ulekan (mortar), an even larger tamarind-wood talenan (chopping board), and glass jars full of spices, roots and aromatics are spread across the wooden boards. Two fat roosters rest surprisingly calmly underneath all the chopping and pounding.
Jero Yudiawan arrives dressed in his immaculate all-white ceremonial attire. He excuses himself momentarily and returns in a more laid-back version of the previous outfit — a white kamben (sarong) and T-shirt, his headcloth removed and hair pulled back in a low bun. He and Wayan bond instantly over the similarities of coastline cooking in the north and on Nusa Penida, Wayan’s home island, which lies just off the southeast coast of the Bali mainland. “Heat and spice,” Jero Yudiawan says, “that’s what characterizes our food.”
The northern climate, he tells us, is harsh and dry. They eat seafood, mainly, with papaya, cassava, and Javanese long pepper leaves for vegetables. Before rice was widely accessible, they’d make nasi sela (cassava-root “rice”) similar to the dried and grated cassava of Nusa Penida. If times were bountiful, they might stir some actual rice into the mix.
The sea up north is wild and deep, so squid, octopus, lobster and deep-sea fish are the prime sources of protein. Jero Yudiawan serves us mackerel three ways: diced and tossed with a red sambal; simmered in a spicy fish-head soup; and cooked in a bamboo tube with a shallot-ginger marinade, a dish he calls ikan bungbung. Dessert is daluman-leaf jelly with coconut milk and juruh, a type of lontar palm sugar that resembles honey in its color and thickness. It’s smoky, complex and almost savory on the tongue. We cap off the evening with six shots of arak made from lontar nectar, which Jero Yudiawan produces the old-fashioned way using a wood fire, no yeasts, and long bamboo poles that cool the clear liquor before it trickles into bottles at the end of the production line. As we imbibe, we talk about the state of traditional cooking in Bali. “This kind of food is almost gone,” he says. “I’ve had chefs work for me who can’t make sambal but can cook spaghetti with their eyes closed. I want to make and preserve the kind of food that people miss.”
From the hot, dry northeast, we head up to the mountains to visit Kentri Norberg, the proprietor of a biodynamic coffee estate and retreat at the base of Mount Batukaru. The central peaks of Bali — the Batukaru range toward the west, Mount Agung out east, and the Kintamani caldera in between them — are the island’s most impressive landmarks. They are laced with freshwater springs and forests teem – ing with traditional foods. Water is delicately maneuvered from the holy lakes of the highlands to the lowland rice fields via a series of channels and streams known as the subak. And so, the mountains are the origins of the island’s fertility and are revered and protected by both the people and the spirits that reside on and around their slopes.
“The energies here are strong,” says Ibu Kentri, as she’s affectionately known, “particularly over near the yoga shala. That’s why we’ve never built rooms up there.”
She spent most of her childhood here, darting between her family’s garden, the local primary school, and the temple across the road where her father was a priest and caretaker. At Batukaru Coffee Estate, she cooks the kind of food she ate growing up: “Highly nutritious, not overly processed, how the village used to cook.”
From her dining pavilion, with glimpses of the western coastline to our right, almost all of the surrounding mountains are visible, except for Batukaru behind us and Mount Agung, which is concealed behind rain clouds. Ibu Kentri points to a group of tall, fat jaka palms and says, “We sweeten our coffee with juruh sugar made from these palms. There’s only one old man in the village who still produces this kind of sugar. When he’s gone, it won’t exist here anymore.”
Ibu Kentri’s estate sprawls across 10 hectares of jungle and coffee trees. From the cool, wild land, she cultivates and forages a number of local plants — moringa, kara beans, cassava, and sembung (ngai camphor) among them — which she serves with fluffy mansur rice that grows in the heritage fields below. She presents us with a pot of bamboo shoots in a bright yellow broth, and freshly foraged young fern tips sautéed with garlic, shallots, and chilies, with just the right amount of kuah (broth) to pour over our rice. She deep-fries the rest of the fern tips in a turmeric-spiked batter and serves them alongside a sambal fragrant with torch ginger stems. She smiles as we reach for second helpings, commenting on how everything tastes so alive. “This place, these foods can cure many things.”
Nearby, in the village of Belulang, we visit a temple called Pura Luhur Batu Panes. Today happens to be an auspicious day, Kajeng Kliwon, when the spirits and other elemental forces are believed to be potent, present and active across the three worlds. In an effort to neutralize or tap into this energy, Hindu devotees dive into ritual — purifying inside and out, laying out specific offerings, and asking the energy of Siwa for protection from any negativity that might be floating around in the ether. At this particular event, a new pratima (idol) is being planted in one of the temple shrines. The rituals are conducted first, followed by prayers and, after that, we are invited to eat.
From the temple kitchen emerge large tubs of steaming white rice, smoky chicken and banana trunk wrapped and steamed in cacao leaves, and a kind of sweet coconut floss known as sambal nyuh, a specialty of the region. Instead of cakes, we’re offered roasted yams and bananas, served plain and simple with a cup of sweet coffee. The woman next to me giggles as she peels the skin from her banana. “This is how we eat,” she says. “Do you like it?”
Get the Book
In Paon: Real Balinese Cooking (Hardie Grant, 2022), Balinese food experts Tjok Maya Kerthyasa and I Wayan Kresna Yasa explore the depth and diversity of the island’s culinary heritage with more than 80 recipes alongside personal essays and beautiful images by photographer Martin Westlake.
This article is an adapted excerpt from Paon: Real Balinese Cooking (2022). It originally appeared in the June/August 2022 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Secrets of the Balinese Kitchen”).