Food and Spices – TRADITIONAL BALINESE CUISINE

Most Balinese eat very simply at home. Rice is cooked early in the morning and left, covered, for anyone in the family to help himself when the spirit moves. The rice may be kept in an insulated container, but as often as not it is just left in a covered pot, so that it is probably cold when eaten. It is consumed, along with a few side dishes of vegetables, and per­haps a small morsel of chicken or fish, and a very spicy chili seasoning called sambel, which is made fresh daily. The other principal spice for cooked food has the confusing (to a Westerner) name of kecap, pro­nounced “ketchap.” But kecap is what we call “soy sauce,” not our famil­iar tomato sauce. It comes either sweet, kecap manis, or sour, kecap asem. Although there are hundreds of spices used in Balinese cooking, everyday food is often quite simple.

The Balinese eat very little meat in their everyday meals, deriving most of their protein from soybean products. Tahn, which we would call i “tofu,” is often fried and eaten with rice. Another soybean product called tempe is prepared by fermenting shelled soybeans. A special yeast is used which grows white tendrils throughout the soy beans, forming a kind of flat cake, which has a delicious, nutty flavor when fried. Nobody in Bali is far from the sea, and so fish is another source of protein. The favorite vari­ety, or at least the cheapest, is dried or salted fish, if one lives away from the sea. And even those who live near the sea generally purchase and eat rather small fish, only 10 centimeters or so long, and eat them whole.

Never is protein served as a “main course.” There isn’t any main course. The meal is rice and side dishes. The rice is the “carrier.” One mixes up a bit of the scanty side dishes with the plentiful rice, rolls the combination into a wad, and pushes it into his mouth, using various techniques. One is to pop the wad in with your right thumb. At any rate, it has to be the right hand. (The left hand, as elsewhere in Southeast Asia, is considered unclean.)

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