Eating for the soul – A Balinese Food Odyssey
A rush of warm air envelops me as I step out of Ngurah Rai airport terminal, passing crowds of tired looking tourists and dodging scooters carrying entire families that zoom past at astonishing speeds. Once safely ensconced in a taxi, I look outside, and although it is night, I get glimpses of the giant statues of the monkey god Hanuman as we drive through large roundabouts, and then, as streets get quieter and narrower, the outlines of temple compounds nestled against palm trees and rice fields.
I am on my way to Ubud, the place where the very name of the town means “medicine”, and where people flock from all around the world to experience healing in its various forms. Known internationally for its yoga and natural health scene, Ubud has always been regarded by the Balinese as a place of strong spiritual energy – a home to medicinal plants, holy waters and healers.
Ubud’s energy is palpable even in the middle of the night; even in the torrential rain that has just begun, and that has me treading through massive puddles on the way to my bungalow. Smiling and welcoming, the hotel owner Ketut assures me that the rain is nothing to worry about, and it turns out he is right – as I wake up after a very short, jet-lagged night I step outside to beautiful sunshine and an amazing view over rice paddies bordered by native forests. And while the scenery alone – and the prospect of exploring Ubud’s many yoga studios – is enough to make me fall in love with this place immediately, I am here not just to experience Bali through the beautiful landscape, or even by stretching myself into various asanas, but through the celebration of Balinese food. I am here to attend the Ubud food festival, a three day inaugural event that will bring together a line-up of local and international chefs, foodies, and nutrition experts to talk about the magic of food.
“Food is a universal language,” states the festival organiser Janet DeNeefe. “It is about being with people, sharing ingredients, and for Indonesia this is also a way to acknowledge its treasures.” The magic of food, according to Will Meyrick, an ex-London based chef who now runs Ubud restaurant Hujan Locale, is that learning about it can be a direct way to gain insight into a culture: “Traditional food is where the heart of the people is – my recipes come together only thorough understanding the people, culture and religion of Bali.”
That Balinese food is very much intertwined with the culture and the people is obvious in Ubud, where a walk down one of the main roads will mirror the diversity and the ongoing evolution of this cuisine, with traditional “warung” – small, often family-owned restaurants serving Indonesian food – placed next to organic raw food and vegan restaurants or exclusive – yet usually very affordable – high end “fusion” restaurants.
Being more than happy to understand the culture through food, I make my way to the first food festival event, a talk by Kevin Cherkas, held in the sumptuous surroundings of Arma Resort. Cherkas is an award winning chef who is known for his work in Michelin-starred restaurants, including Spain’s “El Bulli” and “Daniel” in New York, and who – captivated by the sights, sounds and flavours of Bali – opened his restaurant Cuca here several years ago.
Cherkas echoes the message that I will be hearing throughout the food festival weekend, which is that Bali is fighting hard to “go local”, which means using local Balinese products in a way that sustains the growers, the communities and Balinese traditions. “When we first opened our restaurant and said that we would only be using products that have come from Indonesia, people thought it was not possible,” Cherkas states, and goes on to list the incredible, mouth-watering variety of locally produced foods, which include cashews, papayas, wild honey, sea-salts, aromatic spices, coffee and, of course, “the gift of the gods”: rice.
Rice growing in Bali is much more than the production of food – it is a way of life that relies on sacred, traditional values and cooperation between people and nature. Based around the “subak” system used in Bali for the purpose of water irrigation, traditional collectives work together to organise the water and the planting, and strive to grow the several different varieties of Balinese rice without fertilisers or pesticides.
By acknowledgement of the cultural value of these systems, UNESCO designated several of Bali’s rice-growing areas as part of their protected world heritage sites in 2012, something I begin to appreciate the next day, when – thanks to a slight miscommunication with a taxi driver over the location of my hotel – an unexpected drive to the outskirts of Ubud takes me to the Campuhan Ridge area. Besides the fact that the driver has to swerve across the increasingly pot-holed roads several times to avoid hitting a rooster, a dog and then a cow, I am absolutely spellbound by the beauty of the multi-tiered rice terraces that step their way down steep and lusciously green hills. Seeing these areas for myself, and learning about the sacred heritage of rice growing means that I will never look at rice the same way again, and decide to fully immerse myself into the different culinary uses of rice in Ubud – from black rice pudding in coconut milk for breakfast, to variations of the rice based staple Nasi Goreng for lunches and dinner – rice is now also my gift of the gods.
Rice may not be high on the list of ingredients at the next food festival event I attend, a talk and cooking demonstration by Javanese chef Arif Springs, who is making a name for himself by using traditional Balinese ingredients and health concepts to transform Ubud’s raw food scene. Working from the restaurant at Taksu, a picturesque spa in the middle of central Ubud, Arif shyly tells the audience that it was coming to Ubud, which motivated him to become a raw food chef. “It was my quest for inspiration that brought me here, and I am constantly inspired by Ubud.”
With a background in healing with traditional Indonesian herbs and spices, Arif understands the benefits of raw food, in particular in regards to digestion. “In Indonesia we think of digestion as a lake – it is best to have the lake clear, calm and balanced, and that is what raw food can do for you,” he explains, as he starts cutting up the most colourful and deliciously pungent ingredients to create Jamu, a turmeric based traditional Indonesian drink, which is used for health, energy, and mind- body- balance. The turmeric root, mixed with lime, honey and coconut water, give the drink an almost fluorescent, light orange colour, which I eye suspiciously when the tray with samples makes its way to my table. I feel the sting of the turmeric on my tongue immediately, and decide that this is the most unusually addictive taste I have ever tried.
“We come from nature and we will return to nature – raw veganism is more than a lifestyle, with it we realize our human nature”, muses Arif, and as I sit here, among the blossoming foliage of the outdoor restaurant, listening to the local river rushing behind in the distance and sipping my healthy, fluorescent drink, I realise that I could easily get used to this kind of lifestyle. Arif’s belief that raw food is a way of ensuring balance stems from the Balinese philosophy of the “tri hata karana” – the perfect balancing between humans, nature and the gods – which is more than an abstract idea or aspiration in Bali; here it is something that is embedded in every aspect of life, including relationships to food.
The concept of perfect balance is also something that the next speaker at Taksu, Dr Liana Nenacheva, fully espouses. Liana is a medical doctor and ex surgeon who has integrated her studies of Western medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, yoga and yoga therapy. She came to Ubud, and -like almost every other resident ex-pat I talk to in Ubud – felt compelled to make this her home. “When you come to Ubud you will be faced with your problems, no matter what they are,” she says, “and because of the spiritual energy here you feel that you need to start dealing with them.” Fully embracing Hippocrates’ sentiment to “let food be thy medicine, and thy medicine be food,” Liana talks about the type of problems that we create with the food we use, and the way in which we use it. She talks about macrobiotic principles of eating in season, and being aware of your particular constitution, or Ayurvedic “doshas”, when making food choices. Embracing wholegrains, dairy-free, warming food that maximises the energy we need, and eating our big meals at breakfast and lunch – rather than in the evening – are just some of her strategies to avoid becoming “slaves to food.” At a time when there are more fad diets than ever before, and when there is access to a bewildering amount of nutritional advice through the internet, it is important to come back to yourself. “There are no diets” Liana states to the audience which – in typical Ubud style – have come here as part of their wellness journey. “There’s just you – we can guide you, but only you can heal yourself.”
The idea of self-healing with what we eat and how we eat is obviously not a new concept – but here in Ubud, during my three days at the food festival I see that such an approach to food is not just about one person by themselves, but about community, and about the environment we live in and create. Food can truly be a way to foster connections and to create sustainability in a way that surpasses the individual.
At the end of three days of such food-connections, the Ubud food festival ends with a party in the lily-pond gardens at Arma resort. Listening to a Balinese jazz singer and drinking “Pino de Bali”, a red wine made by a real Balinese vineyard, I listen to the festival organiser Janet DeNeefe, whose foremost aim for the audience of the festival was to go away inspired about food, and inspired about Bali. As the sun goes down over the lily ponds, and the frogs come out to sing along to the mellow tunes of the jazz band, I think that on returning home from Ubud, Indonesia’s spiritual mecca of healing, it would be impossible to not feel a bit more educated, a bit more healthy and most definitely, a bit more inspired.
The next Ubud Food Festival will be running from the 13th April to the 15th April 2018.