Spice of Life

Ubud, Indonesia 02:00PM

By Janet DeNeefe

Published on May 21, 2014

Lunch at my Balinese husband's family compound in Ubud is served in the informal Indonesian style: Dishes are put out on the rough-hewn wooden table, and family members come when they like, fill their bowls with food, and eat in the kitchen or on the steps facing the compound's central courtyard.

Today's early afternoon meal is a typical one for us, made up of intensely flavorful dishes that reflect the fundamentals of Bali's cooking: fragrant greens, meats fried with fiery spice pastes, delicious warm salads, and vibrant, versatile chile-based relishes called sambals.

It's a standard lunch, but it sweeps me off of my feet just as it did when I fell in love with this island's cuisine on my first visit here some 30 years ago. There's_ jukut jepang,_ a mellow dish of sliced chayote simmered in coconut milk with a delicately pungent spice mix that includes earthy galangal, Indonesian bay leaves, Kaffir lime leaves, chiles, garlic, red shallots, and shrimp paste. That heady blend of spices and aromatics is a mainstay of the Balinese kitchen, and it's also used to flavor today's ayam jeruk, an addictive warm salad of grilled shredded chicken and roasted coconut tinged a bright yellow from fresh turmeric root, as well as the babi kecap, wok-fried pork whose savory-sweet depth comes from the liberal application of the sweet soy sauce called kecap manis.

But it's the simplest preparation that I love the best—sambal goreng tempe. For this dish, tempeh, umami-rich fermented soybean cakes, are deep-fried until bronzed and nutty-tasting, and then tossed with a vibrant tomato-and-garlic sambal.

As I fill my bowl, I make sure to take an extra helping of urab, a punchy salad of blanched amaranth. The greens were picked up just hours ago from the market a short walk away, then chopped and combined with crisp soy sprouts, fire-roasted grated coconut, and a spicy_ sambal goreng_made with red shallots, garlic, chiles, and shrimp paste fried in coconut oil. And at the center of my plate, as always, I put a big helping of steamed rice, that anchor of every Indonesian meal, against which these lavishly spiced dishes shine like the jewels they are.

Janet DeNeefe is the author of Bali: The Food of My Island Home (Pan MacMillan Austrlia, 2011).

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A staple food for more than half of the world's population, rice makes up 20 percent of global caloric intake. Myanmar consumes the most rice per capita (1.27 pounds per person per day), followed by Vietnam (1.03 pounds) and Bangladesh (0.97 pounds).

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