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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