Monday, November 20, 2006

This Week

I'm back!

It was lovely to go away - very hot, lots of sunshine and the chance to play in the surf in Bali and splash about in the pool in Singapore. The only cooking I did was a bit of chopping and stirring in Bali when we attended Bumbu cooking school. The day started early - 6am - but we were making the most of the jetlag. The sun was already hot for the visit to Jimbaran market to learn about the spices and different fruits and vegetables. Some of them I knew not, like the very beautiful snake fruit with delicately carved skin and a sharpish fruit inside and the sublime mangosteen which I had heard of but never eaten. I will search them out here. We got a very skilful demonstration of how to weave little packages to steam rice - not something I feel confident I could repeat!

The rest of the morning was spent in an outdoor kitchen under an awning making, firstly spice pastes and peanut sauce and then using them to make curries and satè and yellow rice and fried rice. Rice is integral to the Balinese diet - it is the pivot around which the rest of the meal is based. The food is highly spiced and everything that is served with the rice is in very small quantities to give flavour rather than to be a dish on its own. Very different to western eating patterns. The lunch we all sat down to after the class was very generous and extremely tasty. It was a fascinating day.

While we were there we stayed with friends in a sort of paradise house. Their housekeeper is a local woman, Desak, who cooked for us a few nights. She is quite a skilled cook but making meals for us was a different experience for her to her own domestic catering - she is never likely to cook a whole chicken, fish, tofu, vegetables and rice for a mid week supper for four. So judging quantities is not something that came automatically. When we asked for a number of dishes to be served at the same meal what she laid before us was each dish generous enough for a meal on its own - it made me realise the extent to which that judgement is a learned skill for different cuisines and an integral part of the whole process of cooking.

And also that we are, relatively and literally, quite greedy in our consumption. Wanting multiple dishes was a means of tasting many things, giving us as much experience of the food as we could pack into a short time but in fact it doesn't match the experience of local people. We remain as tourists, learning at one remove from reality.

There is probably little that is useful to her that I could teach Desak about european food but her fabulous lemon grass sambal was a revelation to me - a tiny amount of intense spice to transform plain steamed rice. I have no equivalent to offer. But I will make the sambal and think of her long after she has forgotten us.

Singapore is a whole other world - urban and bustling and very shiny clean. Again we had the good fortune to stay in a private home, this time with the delightful Vicki. There is less that is startlingly new here but she guided us to different places for lunch and dinner every day with the effortless ease that comes from serious planning. We had delicate steamed dumplings, amazing fried rice, crunchy stirfried greens one day, richly flavoured indian served on banana leaves another and revisited two favourites from the last trip for perfect rendang and opor ayam one night and the spectacularly fabulous black pepper crab down by the waterfront that is hot and juicy and completely messy. You cannot eat them any way but using your hands - had hot butter juices running up my arms and globs of spice all over me by the end.


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