Rice is far more than the staple food in Ubud; rice agriculture has been alive here for hundreds of years and it’s inseparable from the customs, beliefs and identity of the people.
Rice appears in all the daily offerings, and no Balinese meal is complete without rice in some form, be it boiled yellow with turmeric, pressed into the solid rice-cakes used in gado-gado and soto, or served with palm sugar and roasted coconut milk in the delicious black sticky rice pudding. Rice is even made into a sweet milky-white alcohol called brem, which varies in quality but can be delicious with lots of ice and a squeeze of fresh lime.
Although during the green revolution only one strand of rice was permitted (a high-yield, fast-growing variety), nowadays heritage rices are being revived and gaining in popularity for their distinct flavours and high nutritional value. Look out for dry rice, grown wihtout flooding the paddy, and red rice varieties. A good source for these is at Sari Organik, a fifteen minute walk from Jalan Raya in Ubud.
Ubud is famous the world over for its spectacular, verdant rice terraces, some of which are close to 1000 years old. You’ll see the best examples at Tegallalang, although this has become a prime tourist attraction, and you’re likely to be harassed by touts.
The rice fields are rapidly disappearing to make room for hotels and villas, so it’s a surprise to see that some still exist side-by-side with shops and restaurants in town. The best way to see the paddies though is to take a scooter or bicycle up a side-road – you’ll be out in the fields within minutes, and struck by their beauty.
Watched over by the rice goddess Dewi Sri who also represents fertility and prosperity, the rice fields have regular cycles, from planting to irrigating to harvesting, which are accompanied by ceremonies, the most elaborate being when the grains are starting to form on the stalk and the plants said to be like a pregnant woman.
The system of rice planting is one of the most ancient and sophisticated forms of agriculture in the world, from the companion planting to deter pests to the ingenious, to creating a habitat for fish and eels, and ducks to fertilise the soil and keep pests at bay, to the clever use of the husks after milling for animal food and compost.