Traditional Village Food: Cooking in the Compound. Part I

A high Brahman priest told astute cultural observer Miguel Covarrubias, resident on Bali in the 1930s, that the Balinese are prohibited from eating “human flesh, tigers, monkeys, dogs, crocodiles, mice, snakes, frogs, certain poisonous fish, leeches, stinging insects, crows, eagles, owls, and birds with moustaches.” Covarrubias noted that while the Balinese eat chicken, duck, pork (and more rarely beef and buffalo), they are also fond of “stranger foods” like dragonflies, crickets, flying ants, and bee larvae. Children hunt dragonflies in the rice fields using long poles smeared with sticky sap on the end as a trap. They pull the wings off, pierce them alive on a stick, roast them, and eat them (the bodies are also brought home to be grilled or deep-fried in coconut oil with spices and vegetables). Dragonflies are a very traditional village food—as well as a favorite delicacy in western Bali: the village of Tengkudak (Tabanan regency, near Mt. Batukaru) has its own “dragonfly with cassava” recipe called Rempeyek (cracker) Capung (dragonfly). Raised in and resurrected from the rice fields, the dragonflies are captured using an ingenious, three-tiered Balinese device: a long, firm coconut leaf spine is inserted into a bamboo tube handle and sticky sap collected from a jackfruit or frangipani tree is then smeared on the tip of this magical, dragonfly hunting wand. The flying prey becomes irrevocably affixed to the sap when tapped or struck. Many eminently practical Balinese sidestep the hard-to-make bamboo handle and substitute a huge, easy-to-obtain, banana leaf spine instead. They attach the coconut leaf spine to the top of the banana leaf spine with gluey, sticky sap—thus attaining the desired, sky-level height to stick-swat proud, free dragonflies on the wing. The banana leaf handle is simply thrown away afterwards. Utilizing only the body (not the wings), the requisitioned dragonfly is crushed using a stone mortar and pestle (batu base), while its co-conspirator recipe ingredient, cassava, is scraped with a hand-held traditional parutan (grater). The dessicated dragonfly and cassava are mixed together with garlic, chilli, lesser galangal, and MSG into a soft paste and then fried like a wafer-thin, kripik cracker until dry (yellow and brown-colored), or coaxed into thick, round, soft-shaped fritters. Ubud’s dragonflies (once the wings are removed) get the cordon bleu treatment usually reserved for fish as “pesan capung”—grilled dragonfly in banana leaf with spices. Dragonfly soup (kuah capung) is another popular culinary tradition: remove the wings, and boil the insect in water with spices and fresh turmeric leaf (for added flavor).
Informal, traditional, de-facto village foods continue to thrive in western Bali: Tengkudak villagers like everything emanating from the rice fields—from grasshoppers to dragonflies to eels to live baby bees (nyawan). Baby Bees with Coffee Leaves (Jejeruk Nyawan dan Don Kopi)) makes an indelible, permanent impression on young Balinese children, who crave these idiosyncratic, fondly remembered local dishes throughout adulthood (especially during prolonged absences from their traditional customary village). Bee hives (located in trees or under house roofs) are raided, and the honeycomb (sheltering live, stingless, baby bees) is sold in the market or vended by door to door street sellers. The entire honeycomb (containing still-living bees inside) is boiled whole in hot (disposed-of) water for ten minutes (by which time the bees will be well-done). Young coffee leaves are boiled separately, as they have a bitter taste (discard the coffee leaf water, wring-squeeze the coffee leaves until dry, and slice). Prepare the sambal sauce (sliced onions, garlic, and chilli fried in coconut oil). The final step to entomologist ecstasy is to boil coconut milk on the fire for five minutes, mix the sambal by hand into the coconut milk—add the shredded baby bees, coffee leaves, salt, and MSG–and serve with an approppriate, stinging degree of reverence! The honeycomb is later eaten separately—no food is ever wasted on Bali!
Western Bali people are also fond of coconut tree larvae, which tastes like milk: they chop down a rotting coconut tree, split open the trunk, and look for white larvae (ancruk) inside (to be either eaten plain or boiled with chilli and salt as the sambal). Grilled fresh bamboo, called Embung (young) Tiing (bamboo) Tabah (the specific bamboo species, as many kinds of bamboo grow in Bali) Metambus (Balinese for grilled), is another natural culinary endowment from the watchful gods. A short young bamboo tree is harvested (cut down near the bottom of the trunk), and the whole tube is grilled on top of a wood fire until blackened. When done, the outer bamboo bark is removed and the interior is sliced and mixed with coconut oil, grilled chillies, and salt (the taste resembles gourmet mushrooms). Western Bali people also whip up a stupendous, “Balinese-style sweet and sour frog” dish called Katak Bumbu Kesuna Cekuh—hopping straight from the wet sawahs into the frying pan to be fried in oil until crisp. The frogs (katak in Balinese, kodok in Bahasa Indonesia) are first twisted by the neck until dead, and the skin is then removed and thrown out. The frogs are mixed with turmeric, lesser galangal, garlic, chilli, brown sugar, and tamarind (fried together in oil) to impart a sweet-sour tinge to the amphibious culinary undertaking.
Island-wide rivers, lakes, canals, and rice paddies give birth to small eels reconfigured as marinated minced eel in banana leaf (lumrah lindung) and fried rice field eels (commonly served in every warung)—along with river crabs, crayfish, prawns, and indigenous local snails gathered and reincarnated into a variety of Balinese specialties. Succulent, golden rice field snails (a potential, locust-like threat to the rice crop, as they can devour the stalks en masse) constitute an inexpensive and nutritious food resource (as do their common, green leafy garden-variety cousins). Rice farmers collect the snails before weeding the plants during their daily work routine: the fleshy uni-valves are made into satay, jukut kakul (green papaya soup with snails and vegetables), gedang mekuah misi kakul (green papaya soup with snails), steamed snail with grated coconut and spices, grilled snail, and snail soup with coconut milk. The recipe for “Snail in Coconut Milk Soup” requires 500g of medium size gastropods and 100ml of coconut milk as basic ingredients. A bouquet of spices (large chillies, small chillies, garlic cloves, shallots, turmeric, greater galangal, ginger, and candlenut) are ground and then stir-fried in oil. Snails, salam leaves, lemon grass, and salt are added to the pan, briefly simmered in water, and the pièce de résistance—coconut milk—is stirred in until it reaches boiling temperature to produce a classic Balinese kampung specialty.
© Dr. Vivienne Kruger 2007
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