Balinese cooking classes have become a visitor staple in Ubud. So where does it all normally happen? Diana Darling, author of the “Painted Alphabet” pokes around the Balinese kitchen:

No matter how filthy or glamorous, all kitchens must accommodate two elemental principles: fire and water. In modern kitchens, the sources of fire and water are invisible things that come with the house—electricity, gas, tap water. But for Balinese, even as kitchens modernize, fire and water are still kitchen deities. The traditional Balinese kitchen is at once holy and yucky.

It is holy because it accommodates several important gods. The Balinese, whose Hindu religion is still vividly animistic, venerate the deities of fire and water in the kitchen. Until recently, the altar of the water god Wisnu (Vishnu) was a big terracotta water vessel in the corner; the altar of the fire god Brahma was in the rack for firewood over the stove. Today offerings for these deities are put over the sink and the two-burner gas stove. When Balinese housewives are busy setting out offerings, they might say to their daughters, “Put these offerings at Brahma-Wisnu,” meaning put some on the stove and some on the sink. They might also say, “Don’t forget to put those other things at Batari Sri,” referring at once to the rice goddess, the plastic container of raw rice, and the rice cooker.

Crowded with deities as the Balinese kitchen may be, it is also construed (correctly) as a dirty place. This is because cooking fuel here used to be of the sooty sort: first firewood in open stoves with no chimneys, and then kerosene in smoky little kerosene stoves. Thus Balinese kitchens have always been housed in separate buildings. Moreover, in the cosmological grid that governs the lay-out of the Balinese family courtyard, kitchens are relegated to the dirty quarter of the compound, near the pig-sty. Hindu-Balinese cosmology works in a tension based on the polarity between the holy mountain in the center of the island (called ‘north’) and the sea, realm of dissolving impurities at the island’s edge (called ‘south’). Both poles are valued in the same way that we value both our right leg and our left. For Balinese there is no problem about kitchens being dirty hovels as long as they are situated in the southern part of the compound, removed from ‘clean’ realms like the family house temple, in the north.

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But even as Balinese kitchens modernize with the advent of bottled gas, piped water and a joyous enthusiasm for ceramic tile, their design remains in thrall to this same cosmology. Newly-rich Balinese build new kitchens in the form of neat, dark concrete bunkers in the southern part of the family compound. They are dank and gloomy places, and they accommodate very poorly the way Balinese nonetheless still cook and eat.

Balinese cuisine (if one may push the term a bit) requires hours of preparation: peeling tiny onions and garlic; splitting, husking and grating coconuts; roasting nuggets of shrimp paste on a skewer over an open flame; grinding aromatic roots and spices on a stone—not to mention the things one must do to animals if one is to eat meat. It’s a cuisine that requires lots of room, which is why most of the preparation is done outdoors, where the light is better, too. Balinese like to carry out these chores seated on a big bamboo bench or squatting on the ground. The cooking is usually done by women, very early in the morning. People come and go during the day, helping themselves when they feel like it. Evening meals are leftovers or snacks such as instant noodles.

For ceremonial feasts—which occur often, in people’s homes or in temples—the cooking is a social event. Duties are divided between men and women. The men deal with everything to do with meat, while the women cook the rice and prepare offerings, of which food is an important part. The sound track is a roar of voices while underneath is a steady tok tok tok tok tok tok tok tok as the men chop meat, spices, and vegetables for the famous Balinese dish lawar, warm salads famously flavored with a bit of raw blood. Once everything is done, big pots of food are laid out and everyone helps themselves. Then the noise level drops to the sound of eating. There is no conversation among the Balinese as they eat. It is an almost solitary activity.

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In Bali’s mountain villages, kitchens double as a place to sleep, especially for old people, who enjoy the warmth and protection from the chilly mountain fogs. A few hens might roost in the rafters, along with other indoor wildlife like mice and lizards. The kitchen is also a storage place for offerings-in-progress: a variety of containers made of palm leaves pinned together with slivers of bamboo, for which there is a continuous need. These are strung up and hung from a wall, or stored in large woven bamboo baskets. Another storage device you might still see in old-fashioned kitchens is a coconut shell holding sea salt, suspended with twine made from the black fibre of the sugar palm.

Kitchen implements used to be homemade, and many can still be found in traditional markets. Rice used to be cooked in a terracotta pot with a rounded bottom, with a conical woven bamboo steamer capped by a big bell-like terracotta lid. Today’s rice steamers are of aluminum—or, for young housewives, electric rice cookers. An excellent frying spatula could be made by cutting out a circle from a metal biscuit tin, punching holes in it, and fastening it to a long bamboo handle. Cups were made from a length of bamboo sawed off about ten centimeters above the node. Eating vessels were made from coconut shells or a one-off banana leaf. Chinaware and glass are more common today, with stainless steel spoons for those who no longer like to eat with their fingers.

The modern Balinese kitchen among the ever-growing middle class has a two-burner stove fueled by 15kg bottles of liquefied natural gas. When you run out, someone has to carry the (still heavy) empty gas bottle on her head to a vendor and carry a full one back to the kitchen. The water source may be a sink with a faucet; or it may be an outdoor spigot, where people wash dishes squatting on the ground, surrounded by tubs of water, a dish rack, and a little plastic container for detergent. The modern kitchen will very likely also have a refrigerator, although this important piece of equipment may occupy a more prestigious place — on the veranda outside the bedroom. It is often used to store fresh flowers for offerings, as well as half-eaten packets of junk food: for the evolution of shopping in Bali is transforming Balinese kitchen life as it also transforms the look and temperament of Balinese children.

 

Look for Diana Darling’s next piece “On the Evolution of Balinese Shopping” in this space soon.

all photos ©Rio Helmi