Bali, Hi - Eight months in Bali

Part VII
Give us this day, our daily rice

by Mad Dog


Just the other night I was in a restaurant which had a menu section listing six or seven pigeon dishes, though to be honest I doubt it was really pigeon. Iím pretty sure it was one of those translation errors. They probably meant cat.
    It doesnít look like Iím going to get a Thanksgiving dinner. Besides the fact that itís not Thanksgiving here, there simply arenít any turkeys on Bali. Well, not unless you count me, the man fishing in the stream with the electrified rod, and that guy on Jalan Raya (literally: Main Street) who asks me every day if I need ďtransportĒ even though I have a motorcycle helmet in my hand.

    This is quite a contrast to the U.S., where thereís a turkey in every house today and come January there will be a big one in the White House no matter how this silly election turns out. I have to say, if thereís one thing Iím really thankful for this year itís that Iím not in the states so I donít have to listen to those two spoiled brat prep school boys stamp their feet and throw temper tantrums about recounting votes. I can sit back, get the highlights, and listen to the rest of the world laugh because we ship Jimmy Carter off to every country on the face of the earth to monitor elections butówhoops!ówe plum forgot to send him to Florida.

    Iím sure some restaurant here is making Thanksgiving dinner, but I havenít heard about it. And I feel certain there are expats having an orphanís dinner but not the few I know. (expats, by the way, are expatriates, or Americanís living overseas, not a slang term for someone whoís had a sex change operation.) Besides, even if they are making a Thanksgiving dinner it wonít be traditional, since there isnít a turkey to be found here. Thereís a reason it was Ben Franklin who suggested the turkey as his countryís national bird and not Sukarno.

Quack!    Thatís not to say there isnít any poultry here. There are plenty of scrawny chickens running through the streets, each with about as much meat on it as Frank Perdueís middle finger. And there are lots of ducks which are taken from rice field to rice field, cleaning the stray grains until theyíre nice and fat and wind up on the dinner table. Just the other night I was in a restaurant which had a menu section listing six or seven pigeon dishes, though to be honest I doubt it was really pigeon. Iím pretty sure it was one of those translation errors. They probably meant cat.



A true hot, freshly cooked meal is a rarity on Bali. Surprisingly, so is food poisoning. You canít say those daily offerings donít do any good.
    Itís interesting that when I first got here all my friends wanted to know about the food. Iím not sure if they were just curious or whether they were afraid theyíd have to send me a C.A.R.E. package so I didnít shrivel up into nothingness because all they served was raw monkey brains with chocolate sauce. Hey, I saw Indiana Jones too. I know you donít put chocolate sauce on raw monkey brains.

    At first I wasnít real impressed with the food, but I quickly learned to like it. Dishes like mie goreng (fried noodles), bakso (noodle soup with meatballs and fried wontons), sate, gado gado (vegetables and tofu with peanut sauce), and babi guling (roasted suckling pig) are all really good. If thereís a problem itís that the food doesnít have a lot of range, like say, Thai food. Or the wide selection you find in Singapore (see: Is That a Durian in Your Pocket or Have You Just Been To Singapore?) You understand why this is when you realize that many Balinese eat the same meal three times a day. On Bali, consistency is the spice of life.

Offerings certainly can't hurt    Nasi campur (nahsee champoor) is the national dish, and many Balinese eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If they want a between-meal snack they go into the kitchen and have some nice nasi campur. While itís a drag for Mom to have to wake up at 4 A.M. to make it, the good side is the kids donít come running into the house every afternoon after school yelling, ďWhatís for dinner, Mom?Ē They already know.

    Nasi is cooked rice and campur means mixed. Obviously itís not named that because they mix up their menu, itís called that because itís a pile of rice with bits and pieces of whatever stuff they felt like making today, usually some meat-like things, chicken bones, fried something rind, half a hard boiled egg, a smattering of some vegetable searching for an English translation, and sambal, which is hot sauce used to deaden your taste buds.

 

 

How can you argue when thereís a picture of Chester Cheetah right there on the package and it says: ďChester Cheetah makin kerin aja! Chee-tos Snack yangÖ. KREESSH!Ē 

    Since itís all made early in the morning and still eaten at dinnertime, obviously it stays at room temperature, though to be honest, around here that means pretty hot. A true hot, freshly cooked meal is a rarity on Bali. Surprisingly, so is food poisoning. You canít say those daily offerings donít do any good.

    Not all the food here is unfamiliar, though even the familiar isnít as familiar as youíd like. Huntís ketchup is sweet. Itís also called saus tomat because kecap (kehchap) is Indonesian for soy sauce. Best Foods mayonnaise is sweet too. Philadelphia cream cheese is imported from Australia and itís not like the Philadelphia cream cheese I was raised on. Itís off-white, harder, and just doesnít taste the same. It must be the kangaroo milk.

Chee-tos Snack yang.....KREESH!    Then there are Chee-tos. Since cheese pretty much doesnít exist here, Chee-tos come in roasted corn and chicken grill flavors. Kind of defeats the name of the product, donít you think? But I have to admit that the chicken grill flavor is pretty good. They have the same consistency as the quick fried to a crackly crunch ones only they taste like, well, they taste kinda sorta chickeny. And how can you argue when thereís a picture of Chester Cheetah right there on the package and it says: ďChester Cheetah makin kerin aja! Chee-tos Snack yangÖ.KREESSH!Ē So far the only package Iíve seen that comes close to it is the Cadburyís Crunchie bar a friend brought me from Brunei with the logo in Arabic and the ingredients listed in Arabic, Greek, and Spanish.

    Snacks are big here, though you have to be careful when you buy them. The Happy-tos package looks exactly like Fritos that didnít make it through the spellchecker, and something tells me they didnít make it through the taste-checker either. Then thereís the whole line of Hello Kitty snacks with packages that look about as cheap as a package can be, without bothering to tell you whatís in them, and have pools of grease in the bottom. Something tells me Sanrio doesnít know about these.

 

 

Here in Bali McDonald's has Paket Nasi, which is rice with some fried chicken. While this is a nice touch, itís not nearly as nice as Bolivia where they expanded the usual drink selection to include tea made from coca leaves, which coincidentally are the same leaves used to make cocaine. 

    But donít lose hope, this is the land of French Fries 2000, a snack food a friend discovered in a warung. Theyíre square, fried, reconstituted potato sticks that come in a small bag which boasts they have ďVitamins A & C!Ē Plus thereís a little cup of ketchup in every package. And unlike that bogus Huntís stuff, this is spicy. All I can say is itís a shame they already gave out this yearís Nobel Prizes.

    I mostly eat in warungs, which are tiny roadside food stands. They range from funky to ďwouldnít exist if there was anything resembling a Board of Health on the island.Ē The foodís generally better than the restaurants and certainly tons cheaper. Providing, of course you have no moral objections to eating for under a dollar.

    I also eat from the food carts which are pushed through the streets. Iím told the carts are all made on Java and the men walk them here, selling their food along the way. Of course they take the ferry across the Bali Straits, but thatís only because thereís no word for amphibious in Indonesian. Or waterproofing. But weíll leave a discussion of the now-in-force rainy season for another day.

    If you want familiarity in food you can find it in a few fast food restaurants. Here in Ubud the closest thing to fast food is the Dunkiní Donuts counters which are in two grocery stores. Thereís real fast food in Kuta, which is a tourist hell beach about an hour away, but I havenít gotten up the nerve to head there yet. Though I did see a McDonaldís at the airport.

Bakso anyone?    One thing McDonaldís does which is admirable, aside from keeping their bathrooms clean and free so people like me can use them in any city in the world without having to eat there, is put one or two localized items on the menu. Hence the McSteak and Kidney Pie in England and the McPtť in France. (And now available in both countries: the McMadCow!) Here in Bali they have Paket Nasi, which is rice with some fried chicken for Rp7500, or about 85Ę. For another Rp500 (6Ę) you can even get it hot. While this is a nice touch, itís not nearly as nice as Bolivia where they expanded the usual drink selection to include tea made from coca leaves, which coincidentally are the same leaves used to make cocaine. Some countries have all the luck.



For some odd reason eating with my hands wasnít nearly as much fun as I think it should be. This will probably please my mother no end since it means something she spent countless hours drumming into my head actually took.
    If youíre one of those people who like knives, this isnít the place for you. The Balinese traditionally eat with their hands, though now many of them use spoons. They also use forks, but only to push the food into the spoon, not to stab anything. Progress moves slowly here. Knives are reserved for the tamu (tourists), and even then you donít see them often.

    Itís oddly unsettling to watch people use their hand to mush food together, scoop it up, and put it in their mouth. I was raised not to play with my food. In fact, I was sent to bed hungry a few times for doing it. So what do Balinese mothers tell their children when theyíre growing up, ďStop using that fork or youíre going to bed without dinner!Ē? Or ďHow many times have I told you, play with your food!Ē

    Being a good tamu, Iíve eaten with my hands a few times, usually because Iím in someoneís home or in a warung where they donít even have silverware. Actually itís ďhandĒ, because you do not eat with the left one. Thatís reserved for wiping yourself, but I donít want to totally ruin your appetite by pursuing that discussion right now. In fact, itís not necessary to remind me about it lateróif I forget, thatís fine.

    For some odd reason eating with my hands wasnít nearly as much fun as I think it should be. This will probably please my mother to no end since it means something she spent countless hours drumming into my head actually took. Too bad it wasnít the one about finding a good-paying career.

    Finally, Balinese food is very literal food. Fried rice is exactly what it says, as is fried noodles. And nasi campur, as Iíve mentioned, is definitely a rice mixture. But the winner of the literal food sweepstakes has to be the ice cream sandwich I first saw when it was being sold at a cremation ceremony. It was ice cream, chocolate syrup, and some kind of red syrup served between two slices of white bread. Mmmmm! Sounds like the perfect ending to a Thanksgiving meal. If I could only find a turkey.

 

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