Part of the experience of working or living in a foreign country, is learning the customs and way of life of the people you live with or amongst. Friends of mine will attest once you get me started talking on this topic, it’s hard for me to stop. I love being fascinated by a culture different to my own, I love learning about people, and I absolutely love being invited to be a part of it. So to be invited by my dear friend Eka to join him and his family in a traditional ceremony preparation day, was a highlight in my life and something I will never forget. I learnt so much, joked and laughed with fabulous people and got to eat the most amazing food. I thought I knew Balinese food…this was easily the best Balinese food I have ever tasted. And lets face it, one of the reasons I moved to Bali was for the food. Nothing beats good home-made, made with love, traditional cooking.
But before I get into the foodie bit, the day starts with hard work. Now while the photos might look all very relaxing and not hard work at all, trust me, sitting on the floor and making hundreds of offerings from scratch and by hand is not easy. Actually it can be almost a little painful. The number of times I gave myself tiny ‘paper cuts’ with the palm leaves or stick threading needles was ridiculous. A fact I was painfully aware of the following day when I chopped up chillis and got chilli juice in all the little ‘paper cuts’…my hands were literally on fire all night and I could only get to sleep by filling plastic bags with big blocks of ice and putting my hands in them. A rookie offering-making mistake I believe.
Once I learnt how to do what I’m calling the pinwheel, you then make the baskets from leaves that the pinwheel sits in. But there is a process and method to it. Each section requires a specific colour or type of spice or paste or rice. And colour is very very important. Merah Putih (red white) are colours symbolic of the gods so every offering must have elements of red and white in there. Eka’s family were so patient with me while I was learning. I don’t have a religious background so even just learning about the importance of order in ceremony was new to me. And considering my Bahasa is rudimentary at best, the women in Eka’s family did an amazing job teaching me how to make these offerings and what they mean.
Once you finish that process, then flowers of all colours are put into the various sections of the offerings and there is a system to this too. Different flowers and colours symbolise different things and have to go in a certain order. At this point I was trying my hardest to make sure the offerings looked the best I could because I realised they were going to be used in Eka’s family temple! So I’m afraid the colour and order of the flowers escaped me by then.
Then came the food. I was charged with grating BBQ coconut, a task I loved because everyone knows when you grate something there’s always that bit left over at the end that you just can’t grate…and I was more than happy to eat that part of BBQ coconut! All around me was a frenzy of chopping and slicing and stirring of hot roasted chicken, soups being stirred, chillis, garlic, lemongrass and other spices being minced into pastes…and it was making me hungry! Grilled papaya, long beans, dragonfruit, minced BBQ chicken, mixed with spices I’ve never seen before.
And then it’s time to eat – something I needed no coaching for. Shoes off, sit down and pile up your bowls with as much as you can. It was definitely the most incredible eating experience I’ve had. And the best part for me, was being included in the day by such beautiful people. The kids were all running around playing, men and women all working hard to get as much food ready as they could. Which by the way, they also make enough to share with all the neighbours. Afterwards a guitar came out and everyone sang. I just clapped. Singing is not a strength and I also didn’t want to say the wrong word in Bahasa and offend anyone. Eka and his lovely wife Putu and their boys have been so good to me since I got here. Being invited to join them on a family day was so much fun, and also an incredible honour. I’m very lucky to be able to learn from Eka and call him and Putu my friends.