Bali Eats Pt.1: Rice

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Rice is the only starting place for any discussion of Balinese food. Whether it is cooked plain, steamed in banana leaves, ground into porridge, or worked into breads and cakes, rice is the basis for every meal. Indonesian has three words for rice. The plant is called padi, the harvested grain is called beras, and the cooked food is called nasi. Rice is so basic to the diet that this last word can also mean ‘food’ or ‘eating.’

Most family houses in Bali seem to have warm rice sitting in the rice maker at all times. Family members serve themselves whenever they like, typically eating in private. Ritual feasts are the opposite; rice is piled in communal baskets that people sit around and eat from with their hands. In both cases the rice is truly the centerpiece of the meal, with meat and vegetables adding a little extra flavor. Condiments are rare except a little chili sauce for extra spice. This has taken some getting used to; in my world, rice is not something you eat plain. It always has sauce heaped on top or fried goodies mixed in with it. Here people will happily eat a plate of plain rice like I would gnaw on a baguette.

I live in the main rice-growing region of Bali, where low-lying plains are watered year round by mountain streams. The course of this water is completely controlled by Balinese farmers so that it flows from one field to the next, all the way to the sea. Individual fields, called sawah, can be flooded or dried out using dams and channels. Every farmer participates in an irrigation cooperative that maintains these waterworks and organizes offerings for the rice goddess, Sri. This system, which exists completely outside other political and religious structures, has existed in Bali for at least 1000 years.

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Rice is continuously planted and harvested, so at any given time you can see sawah at every stage of cultivation. The process begins with a flooded rice field. One corner is fenced off and used to start the rice seeds.
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These seedlings are then transplanted by hand to the rest of the sawah. The shoots in this picture 

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The new plants grow very quickly. Here is the same field in October and then November

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During this time they require little maintenance. Early on farmers will cultivate around the shoots with a hoe. Later they will patrol the fields with a flag scaring off birds. In three months the grains are ripe and ready to harvest. The sawah is dried out and the plants turn from rich green to golden yellow.

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The stalks are cut and threshed by hand. While many modern agricultural practices are in use here, mechanization is virtually absent. It isn’t economical given the surplus of cheap labor in Bali. A gas-powered tiller is the only machine you see in the rice fields. After being harvested, the separated grains are sifted and bagged to be sent to the mill. The leftover stalks are burned where they lay. The field will then either be fallow for a time, planted with a cash crop like soybeans, or flooded and tilled in preparation for a new rice crop.

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In some of these pictures you can see motorbikes passing in the background. This field seems to be the last holdout on what is now a busy street, a reminder of how much this place has changed in a generation. I spoke with one elderly farmer who remembers when this whole area was just rice-fields. The pattern of development has been piecemeal and erratic, leaving single fields like this one entirely surrounded by roads and buildings.

Loss of farmland coupled with rising population has pressured Balinese farmers to raise their output through new means, such as chemical fertilizer and genetically modified seed. Using today’s fast-growing hybrid varieties, each sawah can produce three crops in a year. Traditional Balinese rice grows slower and is only harvested twice a year. You can still buy the traditional varieties, which include red and black rice, but they cost almost twice as much as regular white rice.

Traditionally, Bali has never had trouble meeting its own rice needs. Highly developed growing techniques, combined with ideal levels of rainfall, and volcanically enriched soil make Bali’s farmers some of the most productive in the world. This agricultural surplus helps to explain the richness of the arts and culture on this tiny island. Even the farmers practicing rice cultivation have leisure time for arts and crafts. Aside from planting and harvesting, farming here is not labor intensive. In the morning and evening I usually see a few workers out weeding and building up the terraces, but most days when I walk around my neighborhood the fields are deserted. I forget sometimes that these rows of green steps represent the basis of human life on this island. The elegant terraces just seem like part of the natural scenery, a beautiful and productive landscape sculpted by generations of Balinese rice farmers.

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Full Moon Festivities

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Each full moon in Bali brings a rush of activity that spills over into the better part of a week. This lunar cycle, my neighborhood marked the occasion with cockfights, offerings, music, and a ceremony in the local banjar, an open pavilion that hosts community events. On Wednesday, the day before the full moon, a makeshift ring was erected at the end of my street. Local men and food vendors came from all around to enjoy two days of cockfighting. This time-honored Balinese tradition is generally associated with religious occasions, but the atmosphere is hardly pious.

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In the recording, the fight is preceded by a lively round of betting with a man in the ring encouraging the crowd like an auctioneer. While the men around the ring wager with their neighbors, each rooster is fixed with a deadly sharp spur.

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The two opponents are then introduced to each other and provoked by pulling out feathers around the face and neck.
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At this point the crowd dies down and the cocks are placed at opposite ends of the ring. They charge and tear each other to pieces, with a victor typically emerging in less than a minute. Money is exchanged, and the men go back to eating and chatting until the next match.
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I bought a fistful of steamed soybeans and found a seat in the shade, resisting invitations to join the gambling. I watched a few matches, but I lost my taste for cockfighting pretty quickly. I have never felt particularly sympathetic towards poultry, but I didn’t get much pleasure from watching them peck each other to death. The sport may be a little cruel, but it isn’t wasteful. The slain cocks were immediately plucked and taken home to the kitchen. The cockfight wound down around sunset. That night singing and story-telling was broadcast from the banjar on a loudspeaker. I could still hear the performers carrying on as I went to sleep.

On the night of the full moon the people of my neighborhood gathered to present offerings (pictured above), pray, and be entertained. The music and dance were provided by my sanggar, which is the gamelan club where I live and study.

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Here we are in the banjar, with the crowd pressing in from outside. The woman in the green costume is dancing Legong, which is considered one of the most refined and subtle dances in Bali. It is traditionally performed only by young girls.

The following night, our gamelan group was invited to perform at a ceremony in Kintamani. This village is now perched on the rim of an active volcano. It was once down inside the caldera, which is almost 10 miles across, but was moved to higher ground after being destroyed by lava flows twice in the last century. The first flow stopped at the entrance of the village temple. They took this as a good omen and decided, despite thousands of deaths, to rebuild in the same spot. It took another eruption ten years later to convince them to relocate. The air up in the mountains was refreshingly cool, freezing cold according to my Balinese companions. The valley inside the volcano is rich farmland, famous for its mangos and coffee. It also holds Bali’s largest lake, which feeds the springs and streams that water the rice terraces of my neighborhood.

For the performance we went down inside the crater on a tiny winding road. The temple, which was much larger than my local banjar, was hosting dueling gamelans that night. We set up across the stage from another group and alternated songs for about two hours. The mood was hardly competitive; all the musicians seemed to know each other, and there were no official winners and losers. These young men have a casual attitude about performance: they practice hard to learn the music perfectly, but don’t seem to take it too hard if it doesn’t come out that way. No one is getting paid; they are here out of community obligation and the love of music…and of course free food.

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In the Hong Kong Airport

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On my way to Indonesia I had a four-hour layover in Hong Kong. I arrived in the early morning hours and the cavernous terminal was eerily deserted. Half the place was closed off so I found a seat and waited. In my jet-lagged haze I noticed a woman across the terminal was staring at me. Every time I looked up she was there, and eventually I started to wonder if she was real. It wasn’t until I got up and walked across the room that I saw she was a cardboard cutout of an airline stewardess. Luckily I had my guitar on hand, and I sat down and wrote this song.

In Other News:

-I have successfully cultivated a taste for hard-boiled eggs, a food I have never liked for some reason. But they serve them here a lot…also, I can cook them in my rice maker.

-On top of my usual watch and sandal tans, I am working on a great bike-glove tan

-Had my first ‘Bali Belly’ this week…a nasty 24-hour stomach bug, I won’t go into details.

-The word for speed bump (they’re everywhere…) in Indonesian means: ‘sleeping policeman.’