Thursday, July 29, 2010

July 2, 2010 Manggis, Bali: Bumbu Bali

As I mentioned in the cooking class blog, Bumbu Bali is the spice mix that defines Balinese cooking and gives it the richness and complexity that has captured my imagination and my taste buds. And it is so fun to say. It sounds like Boom Boom Bali and I couldn’t keep myself from saying it over and over, like an incantation. Boom Boom Bali. Boom Boom Bali.

You may be saying to yourself, "I would never in a thousand years make this." I must admit that I am still weighing the time considerations against the flavors which I love. What I find fascinating is that on the island of Bali, and probably many other islands in Indonesia, women are getting up every day and putting this together for themselves and their families. Of course the ingredients are readily at hand for them, but still I am in awe of the work involved and the sophistication and elegance of the result.

The ingredients include:

Ginger, galengal, and fresh turmeric (clockwise from upper left). I have found these three at Ranch 99 in Richmond or Berkeley Bowl.

Kencur, also known as aromatic ginger or lesser galengal, in a basket at the market. I haven't been able to find this in the US. I have substituted a little more ginger and more galengal.
Hot red chiles come in several different forms. The smaller ones, sometimes known as bird's eye chiles, are incredibly hot. I use slightly larger ones, like jalapenos, which are still plenty hot but not impossible. I often reduce the number I include until I know how hot they are.
Tamarind can be found in lump form like this or often in small jars as tamarind paste. It can be found in stores selling Indian foodstuffs. It has a wonderful tart flavor.
Palm sugar in Bali comes in these cakes. I've only been able to find it in a jar in the US.
Shrimp paste is used quite sparingly in Balinese food. It has a very strong flavor and an even stronger smell. In the US it comes very well wrapped---for good reason.
Candlenuts, shown here on the lower right, are very much like macadamia nuts. Whole nutmegs are in the middle of the plate. The shell needs to be removed to get to the nut which can be grated and is far superior to anything you can find in ground form. Peanuts and green, black, and red beans encircle the nutmegs.

Dried salam leaves and garlic are at the top of this picture. A lemongrass stalk is on the left. The stalk with a bud on the end is a ginger flower, not used in Bumbu Bali. Galengal, kencur, and fresh turmeric are the roots. Several kinds of peppers. And tucked in the middle are small Bali limes and perhaps a shallot or two.

Traditionally most of these ingredients would be ground together on a daily basis in an ulekan, a mortar and pestle made from lava stone, readily available in this volcano-rich country. Apparently some Balinese women, feeling pressed for time, have resorted to blenders to speed up the process. But clearly this method is frowned upon by our chef. I must admit that both times I have made it (before the trip and after the trip), I have used a blender and my less sophisticated Balinese palette thought the result was just fine—splendid even.

The paste is heated in oil over a fire, water is added, and it is simmered along with crushed lemongrass and salam leaves until it is much reduced. Once it has cooled, it is ready to use.

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