Bali: The Food of My Island Home by Janet de Neefe
The food philosophy of the author of Bali: The Food of My Island Home can be summarized in the book’s very first paragraph where she pays high praise to nasi campur, the Indonesian national rice dish with condiments. In its own way, depending on how expertly it is prepared, this seemingly very simple dish is actually a very sophisticated cuisine.
In visiting any Indonesian restaurant, I’ve learned that ordering the house nasi campur is the easiest and fastest way to take the true measure of an eating establishment, to find out what the restaurant is truly capable of. If it can do a good nasi campur, most everything else on the menu will also be of high quality.
De Neefe has lived in Bali for 26 years learning the cooking styles of Bali and in her new book she takes you on a tour of the island’s rich food culture. De Neefe is the founder of two restaurants in Ubud, Casa Luna and Indus, as well as the Casa Luna Cooking School which is attended each year by hundreds of students from all over the world.
With chapters exploring sambals, rice dishes, curries and coconut, street food, ceremonial food, modern offerings and sweets, this handsomely produced book contains recipes not just from Balinese culinary arts but from the country’s other authentic regional cuisines. Whether it be the fiery sambals of Manado, the galangal-infused dishes of Java, the salted eggs of Lombok, this food writer can be found hovering, poking, tasting, observing, experimenting, asking questions and taking notes.
Whatever the dish - in a sidewalk lesehen of Yogya, a bustling Jakarta cafe, or recreating a recipe in her small Melbourne kitchen - Indonesian food has an underlying vitality and harmony garnered from fresh ingredients and the wisdom of village cooks and heads of households who have honed their recipes and passed them down through the generations.
De Neefe opens with her personal history of her first visit to Bali, how she met her Balinese husband and settled down in Ubud in 1980s when it was still a “sleepy village with a special breed of homegrown charm,” the opening of their first restaurant on Monkey Forest Road. Living in her sister-in-law’s house for two years, De Neefe’s first teachers were many other humble village cooks, both men and women, who provided her with knowledge and skills far beyond anything she could’ve learned in an institution setting.
The chapter Modern Offerings is dedicated to recipes, such as Pork Spare Ribs with Tomato Sambal and Mediterranean Paella, that were created from her Western interpretation of Balinese food as exemplified in the eclectic style of cooking for which her restaurant Casa Luna is well known. De Neefe avoids the term “fushion cuisine” as it can often mean dishes overloaded with conflicting flavors. “The key is to marry flavors, not murder them,” she advises.
My Island Home is not just a cookbook, but also a picture book filled with rich and unposed images that make it collectible for that reason alone. Because the photos take up more space than the recipes, it is actually more a photo book with recipes than it is a cookbook with photos. That doesn’t matter because the book is enjoyable on both counts; it can sensibly shelved in both the cookbook and art section of a bookstore. However, the oversized book is too cumbersome, too beautiful and too expensive to be used on a working kitchen counter.
The photos portray iconic Bali scenes: rice fields, forests and seascapes; lichened-covered statuary, riotously carved doors and windows; crowded markets, street scenes, food stalls, bakso vendors and sate carts; colorful arrays of fresh fruits and vegetables, flower stands, woven palm offerings; animated diners, men preparing festival dishes in big aluminum bowls, tofu-makers; costumed dancers and worshippers. The book designer chose the book’s large format and the thick paper with dull matt finish to bring out the best in the images. The colors are deeper and richer than if they were printed on glossy paper which make images bounce off the page.
The food styling is not slick nor overly staged; everyday utensils, rough table settings and rural scenes provide authentic props and backdrops: a calculator sits on top of a pile of rambutan, a hurried diner talks on his cellphone, thongs are strewn over the steps of a stair, a cheap aluminum spoon rests on a half-eaten plate of fried noodles, an old man smokes in an alleyway. This is Bali at street level, not the rarefied and candle-lit environs of chic restaurants and celebrity chefs working in super-equipped stainless steel 5-Star kitchens.
Indeed, this book’s best quality is De Neefe’s attitude and sensibility towards keeping it simple. Her own words say it best, “There’s nothing fancy or ambitious about Balinese cooking. All you really need is a mortar and pestle, a knife, a wok, a stirring spoon and a flame.” Calling herself a “village chef,” this food writer is faithful to the humble fare available in the villages. The longest chapter - a generous 44 pages - is devoted the street foods and snacks of Bali’s kampungs. The last chapter highlights native desserts of palm sugar, rice, coconuts and sago.
De Neefe’s last book, Fragrant Rice (2006), was more of a memoir/travel book interspersed with Balinese recipes and personal insights into Balinese culture and traditions when she had one foot in Bali and the other in Austrailia. The Food of My Island Home is a hugely augmented update in which the author has now fully immersed herself in the Balinese way of life and its mouth watering cuisine.
Bali: The Food of My Island Home by Janet de Neefe, ISBN:9781742610610, paperback, 243 pages, photography by Mark Roper, glossary, recipe index. Available for Rp550,000 at Casa Luna and Indus Restaurants, and at Ganesha bookstores: a) corner of Jl. Raya Ubud & Jl. Jembawan in Ubud; b) Jl. Petitenget 888 (inside Biku Restaurant) in Seminyak; c) Jl. Danau Tamblingan 42 in Sanur.
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