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Unfamiliar Produce and the Joy Thereof

January 28th, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Last week we had a Balinese cooking class and, as is par for that sort of thing, it included a tour around the local market.  This is such a good thing to get in early during a stint spent in a foreign culture, as it trains your eyes (at least partly) to recognize food as actually delicious and edible.

This seems like an odd thing that shouldn’t really be necessary, but hear me out.  Yep, food is food, and if someone’s selling it in a food market, logically one should be able to perceive it as such and take on faith that “yeah, I could buy this, take it home, make something with it and put the result in my tummy”.  But at least in our experience, that leap of rational understanding seldom happens on its own.

What happens instead is that our eyes lock immediately onto (or desperately seek) food that we already know and can recognize.  And that’s what we buy.  Everything else is reduced (by our all-too-quickly discerning brains) to visual clutter which must be sifted through, obstacles as it were to get to the [apparently little] actual food is present.  It’s a trick of perception, and an insidious one at that.  In a sufficiently foreign place one might think “Ugh, there’s nothing to eat in this country!”1

Luckily we’ve never yet been that disoriented, but we do have countless instances of having delightful treats right under our noses for weeks, before some gentle soul turns us onto the fact and thereby takes one or more items out of the “visual clutter” realm and into the happier land of “hey cool, they’ve got these here and I’m gonna buy some!”

This month our gentle soul was the most jovial Chef Ketut Budi of Payuk Bali, and our easy-to-miss delightful treats included jack fruit2, durian fruit, three types of ginger (two more than I knew to appreciate before), turmeric root, snake beans3, and snake fruit4.

This cooking class felt completely in line with the rest of Bali (as we understand it), which is to say it had an air of charm, beauty and general awesome which permeated every aspect.  The visit to the market was nice, yes, but so was the stop by the gorgeous rice fields, the time spent making the little offerings, the break time for enjoying tea and fried jack fruit dipped in honey, and of course the very hands-on main cooking event.

What was most striking for me about the cooking we did was the never-clearer experience of transforming raw ingredients into elaborate and lavish foods.  Raw IngredientsKetut began by showing off a platter containing no fewer than 16 distinct ingredients, each of which, aside from some which had been dried, could’ve been pulled or picked from around the island and gotten to their ready state with nothing more than a knife.  Nothing imported, nothing requiring elaborate mechanical processing.  To loosely quote Chris Tucker from Friday, “This shit’s from the earth, yo.”

Our main task in the first segment was to chop these ingredients all down to small bits.  We did so using these cool circular cutting boards that were essentially 4-inch thick cuts of tree trunk (to accommodate my height I was given 3 stacked atop one another, leaving me thankfully much less hunched over for the task than I would have otherwise been).

Once our constituent raw ingredients were chopped, we were shown these big ol’ mortar and pestle sets, perhaps 16 inches across and carved from indigenous volcanic rock.  Our chef went down the line and dropped the right combination of ingredients into each of three mortars to make our three sauces, and invited us each to take up a pestle and start grinding things together.

Like magic, grinding up our respective sets of freshly chopped ingredients started to turn things into our respective sauces.  Our essentially dry set of finely chopped veggies turned a thick but unmistakably saucy consistency.  The result was bursting with fresh flavors of the constituent elements, and more than fit for bottling up, slapping on a label, and selling at about a buck an ounce to internationally-curious yuppy types in a fancy suburban grocery store.  (“Oooh, honey, do you think we should try this new Balinese peanut sauce?  It say here it’s made by real tourists, in the outskirts of rural Ubud!”)  Seriously though, if you do see this in your local Whole Foods or wherever, you should totally pick some up.

I wish I could tell you that all 3 of us valiantly managed to grind all our well-chopped bounty of the earth into salable sauce, but the truth is the resident chef’s aides were on hand to relieve our quickly fatiguing selves, politely offering to take over with a clear sub-text that “Look, you’re new here and kinda suck at using a mortar and pestle.  I could leave you to finish the job but you’d take 2 hours, about 60 minutes of which would be you nursing and resting your cramping wrist.”

I gratefully deferred to their technique and musculature, both of which were much better honed than mine for the task.

These three magic sauces served, as is ubiquitously the case in Balinese cuisine, as the basis of flavor for staples like steamed rice, tofu, tempeh, and boiled vegetables, transforming the boring and bland into exquisite and varied.  Our resulting smorgasbord of all vegetarian dishes was tremendously satisfying.

As a consumer of heavily processed and/or imported foods to at least some degree for virtually all of my life, it is remarkable to understand and participate in the process of going from what grows in the ground to a delectable meal in mere hours, with no help from the good people, impressive machinery, or lengthy supply chain of the industrialized food complex.  Heck, drop me on an island of similar climate and natural abundance as Bali with a knife and a few matches in my pocket and I might not starve to death.  If I can find an suitably shaped volcanic rock I might even be eating pretty well after a few days, and have well-toned hands and forearms by the end of the week.

For full on visual coverage of each segment of our well-above par cooking class, Tracy’s got you covered.

Another lovely takeaway from our cooking class was the friendship of Cassie, the other participant joining us for the day.  Cassie is from the US but was vacationing from South Korea, where she’s been teaching English for now three years.  Hanging out with her for drinks one night afforded us the opportunity to learn about life in South Korea, for it has been in our “maybe” pile for the World Tour path for a while now.

“Yeah, all those beautiful, culturally rich things that you see in the tourism promotional material, I’m not sure they exist because I still haven’t found anything like it.  They do a really good job of putting forth a good front.”  Umm… you guys have google and Trip Adviser there to find stuff like that, right?  Yes, given her presence in Bali and upcoming itinerary she’s clearly no slouch about finding things worth seeing in the world, they just have to exist.

Wow, good to know.  Our hypothetical itinerary just got simpler.

Even more interesting is what Cassie could tell us about North Korea.  She’d never been, of course, but living living in such (relatively) close proximity to the troubled nation reveals a steady stream of anecdotes pertaining to the bizzaro situation in which its [essentially] imprisoned people live under.  We learned that a pair of socks is a coveted commodity, a single pair trading for some twenty pounds corn.  A local hero in South Korea came up with a way to float a box full of socks over the boarder using a large balloon, a clever way to send aide when doing so is otherwise basically impossible, thanks to the military standoff.  We learned of the business of mules who will try to smuggle you out of North Korea and on into South Korea, taking the roundabout way of going through China and into Thailand.  If you manage to make it, you walk into the Korean embassy there and they deport you on back–mercifully to South Korea, because you are automatically classified as a refugee.  This service costs something like $10,000 US and comes with no guarantee.

There is no internet, no outside literature or culture5.  For most people the only evidence or reminder that there’s an outside world that’s not as shit-tastic comes from things like flyers raining down alongside air-dropped socks.

The sum of these sketches of life made me wonder how the heck can such a place and situation possibly exist in this day & age.

On a lighter note (and zooming back out to broader first-hand accounts of Korea), it bears mention that Cassie is utterly tired of “Gangnam Style”, which, in South Korea, is endlessly touted as it’s proudest and greatest cultural export since spicy pickled sour kraut.   For the record I’m still enamored with the video, but can appreciate how endlessly in-your-face it must be when you’re living within a 100 mile radius of PSY’s hometown6.

Last night, to further celebrate the independence afforded to us by our motorbike transportation, we made a date night out to the Jazz Cafe, Bali’s first ever live Jazz venue (opened back in 1996, don’cha know).  After having lived 8 years in St. Louis I have a deep and abiding fondness for sitting back and nodding along to the rhythms of top-shelf jazz performances.  This being a small town inland of a small island in the South Pacific Ocean we didn’t go in with any unfairly high hopes, so my goodness we were delighted by what we found.

It was Sunday night, acoustic jazz night.  On stage was just a guy strumming an acoustic guitar and a native looking woman holding a mic, the resident vocalist Nancy Ponto.  They were incredible.  Granted, my reaction may have been because I haven’t been to a good live Jazz show since leaving St. Louis back in 2009.  Nonetheless I immediately thought this woman could stand in for Norah Jones at anytime with minimal ticket holders demanding their money back, and Tracy agreed.  It was one of those “What are you doing here?” moments, as in “Why aren’t you in some fancy recording studio cutting an album?”

The night was pure bliss to my ears, to my soul.  I was designated driver for the night, so while having a glass of Malbec wine like Tracy had would’ve been lovely7 I was more than contented to sip my froufrou tropical fruit cooler out of a tall glass, eyes closes while my ears devoured the brilliantly rendered jazz standards and my body reclined on the swanky and always comfortable lesehan style seating8.  We topped it all off by sharing a chocolate mousse, and agreed that our roughly $20 night out was a most worthy way to pass an evening.

As we continue to rack up experiences outside of our paradisaical situation at home, Bali’s stock just keeps rising.


  1. And then from that assessment you might erroneously conclude that everyone there should already be long dead from starvation, which would be just plain embarrassing.
  2. I originally dubbed these “tree balls” when I first saw them growing back in Nicaragua, ‘cuz again, I’m kinda juvenile.
  3. These are just like regular green beans, just longer and winding.  So you’d think we’d have noticed ’em on our own, but no.  Ugh!
  4. Actually I bought a bag of these just the day before and had already discovered their tastiness.  Same principle, though: someone at a tiny store just up the street from our house in the boonies pointed to it and said (in so many Indonesian words) “Hey, you buy this, they’re good.”  I’m happy to be so highly suggestible in this domain.
  5. Notable exception: Kim Jong Il’s DVD collection.  I hear that guy was just nuts for Hollywood films.  Still, it is presumably hard for average citizenry to get an invite over for movie night.
  6. I wonder how many North Koreans have seen it?  I’m guessing it’s about 100% or 0%, depending on whether it’s celebrated or censored by the regime.  My money’s on 0%, ‘cuz like, if you’re a government official in North Korea, “Fuck South Korea” is probably one of the affirmations you read out loud to yourself in the mirror each morning.
  7. Wine here goes for 90,000 rupiah a glass, or about $9 US.  A pricey indulgence by Bali standards but still a most reasonable one considering we’re on a tropical island hundreds of miles away from the nearest vineyard.
  8. Lesehan style seating is the setup in which a platform about 2 feet off the floor is adorned with small tables that rise maybe 18 inches off the platform, and you sit on cushions that are positioned around the cute little table.  So it’s kinda like you’re sitting Indian style on cushions on the floor, but it’s not because the whole thing is raised, making the whole thing seem more grownup friendly.  Commonly in setups you’ve got part of the platform perimeter against a wall, and thus still more cushions which you can lean back against.  I think they are way more fun than conventional tables, and I dream of someday having a breakfast nook or something with this style of seating.
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