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Eat, Pray, Love in Bali
Elizabeth Gilbert found love in Bali. Visitors will find it hard to resist the charms of this island paradise which has culture and cuisine, simians and shrines.
In her bestselling memoir, Eat Pray Love, 30-something Elizabeth Gilbert wrote of her yearlong travels to three countries to "find herself" after a bitter divorce and a rebound fling. Her selfprescribed recovery checklist read as follows: eat like a horse in Italy;scrub temple floors and attain enlightenment in an ashram in India;find balance and an unexpected new romance in Bali, Indonesia.
I was somewhat more fortunate than Elizabeth Gilbert. With much less emotional baggage, I managed to tick all boxes on the eat-pray-love checklist in a single destination, Bali. And in the same week, I might add.
Bali inevitably brings to mind visions of sun-kissed beaches, virescent rice terraces, graceful Balinese dancers and indulgent spas. However, if you're the sort who tosses aside the tourist brochure and prefers to get under the skin of the place, then a good starting point is 'masakan Bali' or Balinese cuisine.
At first glance, it might seem that Balinese food is no different from the fare found all across Indonesia. In fact, on most menus you'll find the Indonesian staples - Nasi Goreng, Satay, Gado Gado and so on. What distinguishes Balinese cuisine however is a fiery condiment that sounds as exotic as it tastes - Bumbu Bali. A coarsely ground curry paste, it includes herbs, spices and roots such as turmeric, shallots, chilli, tamarind, palm sugar and shrimp paste.
I discovered this delectable secret at a cooking class taught at The Alila Manggis in Candidasa, a secluded beach resort in East Bali. Using the traditional ullekan, or the flat grinding stone, Chef Nyoman Santika demonstrated the right way to coax the flavours out of the mound of ingredients. The Bumbu Bali then formed the base for a number of delicacies with lyrical names such as Cumi Cumi Isi Bumbu Bali (braised squid filled with chopped prawns) or Sayur Daun Singkong (cassava leaf braised in coconut milk). Even the humble Nasi Goreng transformed into something feistier with a dash of Bumbu Bali.
"What's Babi Guling?" I asked our guide, Wayan Bagya, as we drove around the art district of Ubud. It was a sign that hovered over several warungs or cafês. In response, Bagya drove us straight to the Ibu Oka restaurant to sample what masterchef Anthony Bourdain called 'the best pork in the world'.
Simply put, Babi Guling is a suckling pig that's stuffed with spices and spit roasted to perfection. Slice through the crisp skin, and what you have is juicy, tender and flavourful meat that begs superlatives. Seeing me relish this traditional delicacy, Bagya recommended the Bebek Betutu - duck covered in spices, wrapped in banana leaf and slow cooked over coals. The finest compliment came from the chef at the Melasti seafood restaurant opposite the Tanah Lot temple. We'd ordered fresh fish, and it was served with steamed rice, leafy vegetables and sambals or sauces. Foregoing cutlery, I set about combining the sambals and rice with my fingers and topping it with fried fish, making my own version of Nasi Campur, or mixed rice. The chef nodded approvingly, pronouncing me 'a true Balinese'.
Bali is sometimes called the 'Land of a Thousand Temples'. However, that can be a bit misleading. There are at least a million temples and shrines on the island. Every other edifice is either a public temple or a community temple or a village temple. There are temples of spirits (Pura Dasa) and temples of the dead (Pura Dalem). Moreover, every home has a shrine, which is a separate structure from the living quarters, and in which daily offerings are made. There are guardian statues all over whose waists are covered with black and white checked cloth to protect their 'spirit', giving them a semi-human appearance. Literally and metaphorically, God is omnipresent in Bali.
With a few million options to choose from, we set off to see the most famous among them. Such as the 1, 000-year old Besakih Temple on the foothills of the sacred Mt Agung, the Pura Goa Lawah or Bat Cave Temple, and the Pura Goa Gaja or Elephant Temple. The most scenic one was a sea temple, Pura Tanah Lot in Tabanan, just off the southwest coast of Bali. The temple is perched on a large offshore rock, so that during high tide it appears to float on the waves. Watching the sunset from the terraces nearby is a sublime experience that even the presence of souvenir shops and cafes cannot dim.
Tanah Lot is also the stage for the magnificent Kecak fire dance. Accompanied by the thrashing of waves, and the rhythmic chanting of dozens of dancers, we watched spellbound as the costumed characters played out scenes from the Ramayana, namely of Sita's rescue from Lanka.
One of the most fascinating temples, albeit in a spooky way, was Padantegal Pura Dalem or The Temple of the Dead, in the sacred monkey forest in Ubud. Our guide had given us an ominous list of instructions, "Take off all jewellery, don't clench your fists and if a monkey jumps on you, don't push it off. " Although we were shadowed by a forest guide to ensure that the long tailed macaques didn't get too boisterous, one couldn't help walking stiffly with splayed fingers, ever watchful for a simian possessed by some passing spirit. Their high-pitched chattering alongwith the clusters of bats in the trees and the desolate, moss-laden crumbling structures made it the kind of place you wanted to stay clear of well before sunset.
The movie adaptation of the book Eat Pray Love stars Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert, who ultimately finds her true love in the dreamy Javier Bardem. That wonderful possibility of falling into the arms of a mysterious stranger was ruled out in my case, as I was travelling with the better half. But I fell in love anyway, with the island and the people, who were among the most genteel folk I'd ever encountered on my travels. How could you not love a place where the entire populace has one of four names - Wayan, Made, Nyoman or Ketut, meaning First, Second, Third or Fourth? Or where the policemen wear frangipani behind their ears? Or where, even at the international airport, they bid farewell with a sign that reads - May the peace of Bali always be with you?
As soul searching journeys go, I found a lot more than myself in Bali.
AT A GLANCE
GETTING THERE |
There are no direct flights from Mumbai or Delhi, but connections are available from Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Bangkok (Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Thai, Kingfisher and Jet)
WHAT TO EAT |
If you're adventurous, try Babi Guling, spit roasted suckling pig, or Lawar, made from pig's blood, meat and spices. Also, try the famous 'Kopi Luwak' or civet coffee
TIPPLE TO TRY |
The local brew is Bier Bintang, which as our guide described is, 'slow but sure'. The Jepun sparkling wines produced by the Hattan winery in Sanur are also startlingly good. For a more rustic tipple, try Brem or rice wine
BRING BACK |
Barong and Rangda masks, Balinese spices.
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