Special Balinese Ceremonial Ingredients

THE MOST ELABORATE BALINESE dishes are prepared only on special occasions: weddings, tooth filings, and cremations, where many guests must be fed. And special food is usually prepared on, important religious holidays, the most-most important of which are Galungan, occurring once everv 210 days, and the anniversary of the local temple.

The special meal that is most loved by the Balinese and least known to Foreigners is called ebat, meaning “chopped up.” The preparation of ebat is a truly Herculean task, often involving dozens of men, unlike the simple daily meals that are always cooked by women. Since there is no refrigera­tion, the food, especially meat, spoils quickly in the hot, humid climate. So, cooking usually begins shortly after midnight, is finished by dawn, and the food is eaten before noon.

Near the coast, where sea turtles, penyu, are readily available, their meat is the preferred choice for ebat, whereas, inland, pigs are usually used. Bali is a Hindu enclave in the middle of predominantly Muslim Indonesia, so no prohibitions against eating pork exist here. First an offer­ing is made to the turtle, begging its pardon for what is about to happen. Then its throat is slit, the preferred method of killing animals in Bali. The blood is carefully saved and kept from coagulating with a little lime. In a huge, steaming cauldron the liver, intestines, stomach, lungs, and cartilage of the turtle are boiled. The meat is used raw, but first it must be “mebatted” and then pounded in a large mortar, like that used for pounding rice, until it is reduced to almost a paste.

But before the cooking, mountains of spices must be chopped up. This procedure, called njjeracik basa, generally starts about 6 or 7 P.M. the evening before the ebat is to be prepared. Several days before that. sentatives of the family must go to the market to buy the spices.

Mounds of coconut must be grated fey hand. Baskets and baskets of the basajjenep spices have to be chopped—mebat. It may take 25 men just to chop spices, which are usually not peeled, although some of the loose, outer parts may be removed from onions and garlic. Five or six men grate the coconut, some grated fine to make coconut milk, some coarser to be used in one of the five dishes. Five or six men chop up the meat, and sev­eral more must be present to mix and tend the materials in the boiling pot. The chopping is done with heavy knives, almost cleavers. The Balinese called them belakas. The chopping blocks are sections of tree trunk. Generations of mebat-ing have caused the center to become depressed a bit, which keeps the ingredients from running over die edges. You can hear the preparations going on blocks away, as the steady rhythm of the rapid chopping shakes the stillness of the night.

Most of the grated coconut is then used to make coconut milk by mix­ing it with hot water and squeezing repeatedly. The coconut milk is then heated with turmeric until it just starts to thicken, producing what is called kekalas.

After four or more hours of chopping, grating, pounding, boiling, and grinding, die several dozen workers put their products in big baskets from which the chief cook takes great handfuls and assembles each of the five main dishes, mixing fiiem with his hands. Lawar is any food that contains a substance cut into long, thin slivers, called tataban, and usually mixed with uncooked blood, making it red. Usually, some sort of meat is added for taste. With lawar penyu, turtle lawar, the tataban is cut from the boiled cartilage. Meat may not be used, in which case the tataban may come from melons of different sorts, unripe mango, or coconut. I have eaten a delicious lawar made from bee larvae, with its tataban made from unripe papayas.

The second dish of ebat is jejeruk, made from coarsely grated coconut mixed with kekalas. The third is geguien, made from die pounded turtle meat, kekalas, and the boiled leaves of die starfruit tree. Fourth is seran-du, made from die pulp leftover from making die coconut milk, blood, meat, and spices. And die last of the five main dishes is urab, consisting of ground coconut, meat, and kekalas.

Usually side dishes are also prepared. The boiled viscera are skewered and grilled to produce serapah. Komoh is a soup made from spices and blood. Spiced boiled banana stem, ares, is a usual accompanying veg­etable. And an almost invariable companion is a special sate called sate lembat. Most Asian sates are made by skewering small pieces of meat on a sliver of bamboo and grilling them over charcoal. Balinese regularly eat diis sort of sate too. But, sate lembat starts out as a thick paste, almost dough-like in consistency, made of pounded raw meat, grated coconut, coconut milk, and spices. Thick sticks of bamboo are prepared, diagonally cut on one end, flat on the otiier. A small chunk of the dough is scooped up and shaped onto the flat end of the bamboo stick, forming it into a pear shape, about die size of the end of one’s tiiumb, tapering down to die diameter of the stick below. A piece of banana stem is cut, several of die sticks are tiirust into it, hence tlieir sharp ends, and the banana stem serves as a holder as the sate lembat is grilled over the charcoal until a golden brown.

When everything is finished, die family of each of die workers gets its share of the five main dishes and optional side dishes, which are placed on a tray of woven coconut leaf. (See illustration page 311.) This placement is not done at random. To the Balinese, food is a gift of God, and impor­tant directional and color symbolism always accompanies ceremonial foods. The number five represents the four cardinal directions land center, each, in turn, representing one aspect of God, each aspect with its sym­bolic color. Thus, the green geguden, representing Wisnu, is placed at the top of the tray, which is oriented toward the north; the red la-war, the color of Brahma, is placed at the bottom, south; the yellow urab, at the left, west, represents Mahadewa; the white jejeruk at the right, east, sym­bolizes Iswara; and the multicolored serandu, symbol of Siwa, is at the center. The food, always eaten cold, is exceedingly spicy. Even the Balinese break out into profuse sweat when eating it, and most Westerners cannot handle it.

If the ebat is prepared for a ceremony that celebrates some sort of rite of passage, the ingredients are carefully parceled out, arranged on coconut leaf trays, and each section of the extended family has its portion carried to his own house compound by one of the workers. By now all the work­ers are exhausted, it being well after dawn, and they have worked most of the time since midnight. There is some temptation nowadays just to buy the ebat, as there are several factories in the Denpasar area that make it on a regular basis.

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