by Janet DeNeefe

‘Why did you fall in love with Balinese food?’ asks Rio Helmi, as we chat on the phone and reminisce about Ubud in the early eighties­ — when ducks and cows wandered along the main road, peak hour traffic was only to be found at the Tjampuhan river during bath time, coconut pie was the most talked-about dessert and there was not a villa to be seen.

It was circa 1974 when I was first introduced to the Balinese cuisine. I was staying with my family at Hotel Tjampuhan. It was our first trip to Asia, our first trip out of Australia. Mealtimes were spent in the open-air grass-roofed dining pavilion of the hotel, where we enjoyed a rijstaffel-style banquet of exotica. Picture the scene: a procession of elegant young Balinese men and women in sarongs, carrying trays of aromatic food to us, one-by-one, as we sat, at long bamboo tables. Were we startled? Of course!

The restaurant overlooked an abundant tropical jungle on the edge of the river. Daytime was pure colour and shimmering heat. Peacocks would saunter past in a flash of emerald-green; the occasional blue kingfisher would be spotted in the branches of the enormous trees nearby; pink hibiscus, frangipani and bright, batik sarongs were all around us. Nighttime was overloaded with the sounds of distant gamelan, fireflies, bamboo xylophones, and the occasional owl. The scent of coconut oil from rustic wicker candles drifted along the garden paths. The atmosphere in the dining room was charged— romantic, you might say. Different types of satay, frog’s legs, greens with gado-gado, curries, stews, poached snakefruit and bananas with roasted coconut, drenched in palm sugar were served. I recognised few dishes but it didn’t matter. I loved the adventure.

Back in Melbourne, I began looking for cookbooks, recipes—anything— about Balinese food. The love affair with the cuisine grew into a frenzied search. I wanted to recreate the flavours that had changed my palate forever and maybe even cook up some of the magic in my own kitchen.  My mission failed.

When I returned to Bali in 1984, I picked up where I left off. My lifelong apprenticeship in Balinese food had begun. I ventured into kitchens, markets and warungs, and tasted all I could—blood-seasoned lawar, jackfruit curry, goat satay and stew, wok-fried leaves, various sambals, smoked duck, suckling pig, pork sausage, roasted coconut salads, seaweed, eels, bees, slimy drinks and desserts. Who knows why! But I was driven to the point of obsession.

The next step was to share my knowledge, as those of us trained as teachers feel compelled to do. In 1987, I commenced teaching Indonesian cooking at the Council of Adult Education in Melbourne. But, as fate would have it, later that year I fell into the hospitality business in Ubud. My soon-to-be husband, Ketut, and I opened a small restaurant called Lilies in Monkey Forest Road, and the rest, as they say, is history. My teaching program relocated to charming village in Bali.

I didn’t just fall in love with Balinese food, I am still in love with it, and nearly 30 years on the passion remains. The alchemy achieved by mixing together handfuls of nuts, seeds, leaves and gingers continues to fascinate me. I love everything about spices. Beyond their extraordinary flavours and healing properties, their secret life and their global history—full of swashbuckling adventures, tales of empires, colonial rule and discovery of continents—keeps me driven to learn more. The fact that they were once the seeds of capitalism, exploitation and forgotten languages amazes me. Why do you fall in love with anything? A flame is ignited and, simply, never dies.

@janet deneefe 2013