by Janet DeNeefe
My culinary journey continues as we honour the grand dames of our village cafes and dip our toes into the Ubud of the 1980s. This was a time when Ubud still had that small village charm. Monkey Forest Road was a sleepy, narrow street and most expatriates knew each other.
Circa 1985. Lazy days in Ubud. I had been living here for roughly a year and spent my days shyly hovering around Balinese kitchens and restaurants. My abode was in Monkey Forest Road, south of the soccer field, and all around was mainly rice fields, a sea of green.
The street was lined with purple orchid trees, one of the prettiest trees on the planet. Don’t you hate it when they widen the roads?
There were a few popular hangouts in town where glowing Balinese men rubbed shoulders with dazzled tourists who were under the spell of all things Balinese. The preferred accommodation for visitors was home-stays offering an up-close and personal opportunity to stay with a local family. Who had even heard of villas then! I remember spending late afternoons sitting on the cement steps of Toko Tino’s on the main road, watching a slow-motion world drift by. It was like being in an open-air cinema. You could sip a fizzy soda as motorbikes, ducks, cows, farmers and bakso sellers passed by. I especially loved watching the crazy old farmer with his cow on his way home. He was always yelling at the traffic or running up behind tourists and scaring the living daylights out of them. Invariably, by the time you had finished your drink, there was always a small group of locals gathered around you, chatting eagerly, asking you all sorts of personal questions. One of my favourite places to eat was Okawati’s restaurant.
Enter Okawati, the proprietor. Daughter of none other than the late Gung Biang Guling, of suckling pig fame, and sister-in-law of Ibu Oka who now runs the legendary Babi Guling warung on Jalan Suweta. It was Gung Biang Guling who began selling those succulent slices of roast pork under the shade of the Banyan tree, near the Ubud Palace, where it is still sold to this day.
Okawati’s culinary career began near her mother’s stall, selling snacks to eager Ubudians and rice farmers. This was just before Agung’s big eruption in 1963. Her specialty was bubur kacang hijau or mung bean porridge. By 1974, she had decided to take the great leap and set up a warung near where Terazo now stands on Jalan Suweta. She was 24 years old. By that time, she had also established a cosy homestay at her family compound, where Ibu Oka now resides. The eclectic menu included favourites such as cap cay, scrambled eggs, nasi goreng, guacamole and fruit salad with fresh yoghurt. “A friend from Hawaii taught me how to make the yoghurt, and others taught me how to make scrambled eggs and Western dishes,” she smiled.
In the early 1980s, Okawati moved her expanding business to a place in the rice fields, down a rickety track behind the Monkey Forest Road Primary School. It was an instant success. Western-style ‘gourmet’ treats, such as spaghetti, sandwiches and fruit salad with ice cream were added to the menu (believe me, they were treats back then!) Her nasi goreng was the undisputed best in town and her red bean soup was in one word, sublime. Bebek betutu or smoked duck was added to the menu, providing a more lavish experience. She was befriended by travellers from near and far, and nights were overflowing with guests from all corners of the globe. It was also full of charismatic young Balinese men, which always helped attract customers.
1985 was a time when groups of eager-eyed tourists were flocking to Bali to enjoy an exotic cultural experience and learn about ‘The Balinese’. During the day they were scattered all over Ubud studying the Legong dance, batik-painting, offering-making, gamelan and Indonesian and Balinese language. It was Ubud tourism’s cultural renaissance. You’d spot them walking through town wearing bright sarongs, huge hibiscuses nodding in their hair and sporting that smiling, spaced-out look of bliss. Everything was wonderful. In fact, it didn’t really matter what you served or sold, they were happy. Some folk, like me, never went home!
And the picturesque setting on the edge of the rice fields made Okawati’s the perfect place to spend many a long, lazy lunch. Okawati was always there giggling and joking with the tourists. (“No joke, no long life”, she said. “If you are serious, you will be quickly old”.) Those were the days! In fact, those languid days drifted into balmy, dreamy nights. I remember evenings at Okawati’s, enjoying the breeze off the fields, watching fireflies blinking in the night sky and wondering what the rest of the world was doing, or maybe I didn’t care.
Okawati’s lovely warmth and generosity of spirit kept tourists coming back for more. She had that gracious ability to charm in an open friendly way, and a girlish spirit that made her even more delightful. Her restaurant offered a home away from home and she became the surrogate mother and sister of many. She possessed that single ingredient that made her business successful: integrity.
I asked her about the early days in the 1970s. “That’s when the hippies came” she said. “They used to dance to Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da and Black Magic Woman in the café,” she laughed. “All the boys were there, Nyoman Suradnya, Made Bading. So funny!” she said.
When I asked if the tourists were different in those days, she replied, “they were more natural then. Sometimes they would only wash once a week. And then they would smoke ganja (marijuana). I would have to hold my nose and tell them to have a bath! They had long hair, long beards. But they were like family. They were different. Today the tourist is more formal, more conservative. But they are still friendly.”
By 1989, Okawati added a happy home-stay to the restaurant that is still operating. Every now and then, I see Okawati at the Ubud market or at a ceremony. Age has touched her, but her wonderful spirit is as strong as ever. Welcome to the real Bali.
This article was first published in the Jakarta Post.