Bali in Bloom

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, July 17, 2009
[See recipe by clicking “Coconut Chicken (Kare Ayam)” in the box at right.]
            She goes by the name Putu. She’s the rare immigrant from Bali who chose to leave the island paradise. That was a big culture shock, but now Putu is in the middle of another upheaval. After running Bali Wine Bar & Grill for six years just off-Broadway, she’s moving the restaurant. But she says her connection to Bali and its food is as strong as ever.
            “That’s why I’m here,”  Putu says. “I love to introduce food art and culture, to open people’s minds, that this is actually the authentic Balinese cuisine.”
            Today, Putu is showing me how to make a typical Balinese dish that’s not only delicious but an easy one to replicate here – if you have the right ingredients and have strong arms. You won’t find the ingredients to make Coconut Chicken at Costco. To make Balinese food in Sacramento means a trip to SF Market, a cavernous Asian superstore. She ticks off the items on a list. “Let’s see, I need some shallot, salam leaf, coconut milk, and candle nut, tumeric, regular ginger and young ginger, galangal and Thai chili…. 
            If you’ve never heard of some of these ingredients, add to that another mystery food – candlenuts. They’re cream-colored and resemble a macadamia.
            The food we’re about to make comes from a tourist haven. But that’s Bali's modern incarnation. Bali’s ancient culture has the mixed blood of India’s Hindus and Buddhists, indigenous people and the addition of European ancestry after being colonized by the Dutch.
            Bali sits in the middle of a strand of thousands of islands that make up Indonesia – and includes the real Spice Islands. It seems odd to be shopping in a store when gingers and rare fruit grow in Bali back yards.
            “My grandma has a mango tree and star fruit in her middle yard,” Putu says. “And on the side we have a banana tree and of course coconut tree."
            Coconut Chicken begins with a special spice base used in all Balinese chicken dishes. Bali has specific marinades for beef, pork and seafood, too. We head back to the kitchen where the real work begins. Putu pulls out a stone mortar and pestle.
            “We going to try using our cobek,” she says. It’s pronounced choh-bek. It’s a traditional grinder, a stone mortar and pestle that sustains hours of pounding at a time.
            “My hand’s gonna’ be numb,” she says.
            It’s tempting to rely on the modern food processor Putu uses to make spice bases for big catering jobs. But in Bali, it’s women who crush herbs, seeds, roots and bark on a cobek. Each ingredient enters and leaves the cobek in ritual order. First the onion family.
            As she pounds, Putu tells me her full name. It’s Lu Putu Ayoo Radna Hafsari Knute. In the cobek, she’s got seven shallots and 13 cloves of garlic under her control. They’re smashed into a smooth, but not watery, paste. She empties the cobek and holds the paste in a bowl.
              Next in the grinding stone are fragrant roots. One is fresh whole tumeric, the source of the more familiar tumeric powder usually sold in typical spice racks.  Tumeric is a small root, like a baby carrot, and like its powdered form, tinges fingers yellow. It’s considered a ginger and it lands in the cobek with regular ginger, fibrous galanga and young ginger. Immature ginger is blended into the others as a balm to the burn of regular ginger.
            Putu pounds so relentlessly that our eyes sting from ginger fumes. But there’s no relief. She adds five Thai bird chilies, adding considerately that if we like, we can add 10 or 20.
            As she pounds rhythmically, she remembers life in Bali. The cobek in use today is about the size of a soup bowl. The family cobek back in Bali is bigger.
            “So it be my grandma, my mom, one here, one other side, one there, like you eat at the dining table. Blah, blah, blah, HEY! Exchange the story of the family, the kids, and we grinding the spice paste.”
            This makes a woman alone over a cobek unusual.
            “I don’t know, I feel like I’m at home. I don’t have any family here. But I just love to do all these spice base. It’s like therapy when I’m stressed. I go shopping and I make spice base in the kitchen!”
            Finally, she summons the last of her muscle power to pulverize 10 candlenuts. She’s ready to complete Coconut Chicken. 
            Compared to the arduous prep over the grinding stone, Coconut Chicken is a predictable sauté. She heats coconut oil in a pan and adds all the pounded spices. They sizzle as they hit the hot oil. She cushions fat drumsticks into the sautéed base and simmers everything uncovered in 4 cups of coconut milk. In 30 minutes, the chicken’s ready and the kitchen smells like sun tan lotion.  
            “My grandma whole body actually smells like coconut.”
            Remember that fresh tumeric? It’s turned the sauce canary-yellow. And I notice it’s gotten a lot thicker.
            “You know how I make it thicker?"  Putu quizzes me. "Guess! Why is it thicker?”
             Keep boiling?
             Coconut milk?
            “No. Candlenut! In Bali, we don’t use cornstarch. Candle nut make it thicker. It’s my secret."