Travel and food, especially new food have always been intertwined for me. When I embarked on a yoga retreat to Bali I was excited about eating Indonesian food, though I wasn’t quite sure what that would be. The only Indonesian food I’d heard of was rijstaffel, which is really Dutch. Before the trip, as part of the preparation our guide and leader Erin gave each of the three of us a different book. Mine was Fragrant Rice by Janet De Neefe, an Australian ex-pat who with her Indonesian husband owns a beautiful inn and a few restaurants in Bali. The book was filled with recipes, but there were so many ingredients I wasn’t familiar with, I couldn’t imagine what things would taste like. I was thrilled we’d be taking a cooking class at De Neefe’s school Casa Luna.
We stayed in a villa with a small and exquisite pool surrounded by tropical flowers, and overlooking a large expanse of rice paddies. Each morning began with poolside yoga. We were focusing on the chakras, starting at the root chakra and each day we moved up to the next one. Some of the work was difficult and emotional, all of it was enlightening. The yoga was easier than I had expected.
Indonesian or more specifically Balinese food was and still is a mystery to me. We’d go to restaurants and I’d guess at what I thought I might like, but it was hard because I had no idea what many of the ingredients were. I tried noodle dishes, rice dishes, soups, duck, satays, all good, but nothing I wanted again. I opted not to try their famously expensive, and a bit too exotic for me kopi luwak coffee.
Each morning one of men hosting us would come and take our breakfast order. We had a choice of some kind of fresh juice, like mango or melon, and a fried rice dish with egg. Breakfast was my favorite meal, and the only one I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to duplicate at home. We’d do our yoga, then we’d convene at the kitchen table overlooking a small goldfish pond to review our plans for the day.
We ate at beautiful restaurants, and though I can recall the places, I barely remember what I ate. All the restaurants were open and airy. One was a multi-story place, that hung over a ravine, one a completely open space covered only with a thatched roof beside a coffee plantation. Beauty is constant in Bali. The people, the flowers, and trees, the small floral offerings that you see virtually everywhere, including in the middle of the road, no matter where you are you are surrounded by it. Houses and temples are ancient and made of elaborately carved stone. There are flowers blooming everywhere. It was this graceful beauty that captivated me, rather than the food.
The best meal we had was one we made. Erin arranged for us to participate in a cooking class held at Janet DeNeefe’s Casa Luna Cooking School. We started at the wild and crazy Ubud market where we shopped under the guidance of our instructor. He shopped for our meal, and we shopped for souvenirs, based on his advice which we were all grateful for. I had been planning to buy saffron for everyone until he told us that the saffron for sale at the market was fake, and would have no flavor. I bought vanilla beans, squares of peanut paste and palm sugar. The class was large, maybe 30 people, but everyone got a chance to do as much cooking as they wanted. And there was plenty of lively conversation.
The meal was very good and unlike anything I was familiar with. It too was beautiful. We made tempeh curry, eggplant sambal, fried noodles, and fish with a tomato lemongrass sauce. If you are curious about the recipes contact me and I’ll be happy to share them with you, however many ingredients are things I’ve never found here in the US. It was good, but the eggplant was the only dish I wanted to try at home. What I loved and recall about this meal was the shopping, the cooking the amazing kitchen at Casa Luna and the people we met.
Aside from this one meal, my most cherished and replayed memories of this trip have nothing to do with food. We spent an evening at a Full Moon Festival watching hours and hours of the faithful dressed all in white walk up and down steep stone steps carrying (actual) gold figurines on their heads. We met lots of friendly children ecstatic over the toys and glow-sticks we’d brought with us to offer them. We bathed in an ancient bath where we stood, fully clothed under spigots of water making wishes and asking for forgiveness and understanding. We went to a several hours long Indonesian funeral service complete with a traditional Wayang Kulit shadow puppet show, and a chicken sacrifice.
There was so much to take in, so many unfamiliar sounds and sights and smells, and for once in my life, the food wasn’t the main attraction. I thought I was going for the food, and the yoga, but what I got filled me with experiences and memories that will last me a lifetime which it turns out, is why I travel, that, and the food.