Monday, June 5, 2017

An Encounter in Ubud - Some Enchanted Evening

There's so much I want to tell you about Bali, but it's hard to find the best place to start. My interests lie more with the people of the countries I've visited than the museums and monuments that house their history. Please don't misunderstand. There are wonderful structures and museums in Bali, but the spirit of these gentle people is what touched my soul and captured my heart. Touristy matters will come in due time, but first I'd like to share memories of the people who surface whenever I think of their beautiful country.

"South Pacific" had Bloody Mary and "Eat Pray Love" had Ketut Liyer. "One Perfect Bite" - that would be me - has Puspa to illustrate common traits of the Balinese. Generally, the Balinese are easygoing, courteous, gentle, and readily reciprocate kindness that is shown them. While they have a wry and wicked sense of humor, their broad smiles can be misleading. They are not in the business of making friends of strangers and it is almost impossible for outsiders to penetrate the tight-knit hierarchy of their communities. To say they are business and family oriented would be an understatement. In business they can be sly and conniving, but their hearts and homes are open to needy members of their own clans. Like other Asian cultures they display unwavering loyalty to family and clan and are conditioned to defer personal needs to those of the community. The Balinese, however, have no concept of time and could easily adopt the Tagalog "inshallah" of the Philippines or the "manana" of Mexico. I had a brief conversation with an expat who prayed his roof, victim of a hurricane, would never again need repair. His contractor smiled a lot, but it took 11 months to replace the thatch.

Now back to Puspa. She and her husband operate the cooking school, Paon Bali, in a family compound perched above a tropical forest. In form she is round and firm and has a voice that is nasal, high in pitch and as grating as nails on a blackboard. Her shtick would be the envy of a Catskill's comedian and it was literally peppered with the familiar "honey" whose use raised the hairs on the back of my neck. I was prepared not to like this woman, but her wild sense of humor and skill as a teacher won me over before our cooking chores were done. We hugged a lot. We also "melted" together. Orson Wells had an oft quoted description of Rita Hayworth in tropical heat. He insisted, "Miss Hayworth doesn't sweat, she glows." Unfortunately, we didn't glow, we melted and looked like a fine mist descended on our bodies. If you visit Bali, leave your makeup at home or apply it with a fine hand. It won't last. Our dinner that night was the food we made in her class, and we ate on the terrace overlooking the rice terraces her husband tended. It was the best meal of the trip and a truly memorable evening.

When I first began "One Perfect Bite" I was asked why I had chosen food as a subject. Truth be told, I had no "creds" in particle physics, and while I wanted to communicate with thoughtful women, I had only one passion that could be sustained and shared on a daily basis. It was, of course, food and the women who prepare it. I've always viewed food as a universal equalizer. It unmasks us. A practiced eye can determine background, experience and belief by examining what is being served and how it is made. While it provides sustenance, food also has become part of ceremonies that mark our celebrations and our passage from birth to death. Ceremonial food first caught my interest and made me curious to learn more about the women and the kitchens in which the food was prepared. I've always loved the kitchen. They are places of warmth and comfort and are universal reflections of family life wherever they are found. They reveal how women think about themselves, how they raise their children and how they relate to other women. The ingredients they use say as much about climate, geography and economic status as do more scholarly endeavors. I've been blessed and have had the opportunity to visit many kitchens, even those in remote parts of the world. I've learned more about people, customs and belief in those kitchens than I have in museums. I know my approach is not for everyone, but it works for me and it's how I came to know Puspa. I'll be sharing many of her recipes with you, but I wanted to start with something that most of you have never tried. I thought some of you might like to attempt this recipe for Tempe Me Goreng. Tempe is made by fermenting cooked soy beans and pressing them into a block. There is no need to make your own. It should be available in all large supermarkets or natural food stores.

Tempe Me Goreng - Deep Fried Tempe in Sweet Soy Sauce...from Paon Bali Cooking School

2 blocks of tempeh
10 red chilies
5 tablespoons Indonesian sweet soy sauce (i.e. Kecap Manis)
4 shallots
8 cloves of garlic
1 spring onion
5 kaffir lime leaves
1/4 liter coconut oil for frying
Salt and pepper

1) Slice tempeh into thin strips. Bring coconut oil to a boil in a large pan. Add tempeh and fry until golden brown. Remove and drain on paper toweling.
2) Slice red chilies and remove seeds, Slice garlic, shallots, spring onion and red chilies. Heat 3 tablespoons of coconut oil in another pan and saute until they are light brown.
3) Add deep-fried tempeh to pan containing garlic, shallots,spring onion and chilies and mix, adding Kecap Manis and broken Kaffir lime leaves. Stir well to coat tempeh in sauce.
4) serve hot as a main course. Yield 4 to 6 servings.


  1. Not sure if I'll make the recipe shown, Mary, but I enjoyed your commentary about travel, kitchens, and "melting" women!

  2. Bali sounds fascinating and I can imagine the food to be superb. This recipe sounds delightful. Take care Diane


  3. Thank you, Mary, for sharing your wonderful journeys and your adventurous soul.

  4. Mary, Sounds like you're having a terrific trip...with lots of experiences and culinary treats to boot! Bali holds a place in my imagination as it does with many people... Travel safely. Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

  5. thanks for sharing about the great journeys. i like it.

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  6. sounds like you're having so much fun there ! Looking forward for more.
    Blessings, Kristy


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