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Vivienne Kruger: Balinese Food

Vivienne Kruger
Vivienne Kruger

Vivienne Kruger was born in Manhattan in the very heart of the Big Apple. A social and cultural historian, Vivienne earned a BA in history and then a PhD in American History from Columbia University in New York.

She first visited Bali on a week-long overland trip from Jakarta in 1993. For five years, starting in 1999, she wrote travel articles for Bali & Beyond magazine. In 2006, with her column “Food of the Gods”, Vivienne officially launched her career as a food writer for the Bali Advertiser. Vivienne has been shuttling between Darwin and Kuta, Ubud and Lovina for most of the past 13 years. Considered a leading authority on the culinary arts of Bali, Vivienne’s book Balinese Food: The Traditional Cuisine and Food Culture of Bali was published by Tuttle in April 2014.

What inspired you to get into food writing?
I started out writing articles about a prominent Balinese restaurateur, Ni Wayan Murni, the owner of Murni’s Warung in Ubud. While researching her fabulous restaurant and the foods on her menu, my interests took an unexpected turn into traditional Balinese cooking—and I just kept going!

What’s so special about Balinese Food?
Balinese food is singular among the leading cuisines of the world. Dedicated to the gods and fuelled by an array of fresh spices, it’s inextricably bound to the island’s Bali-Hindu religion, culture and community life. The Balinese cook with love, art, reverence and exactitude. My book bears witness to Bali’s time-honoured, authentic village cuisine as well as its spectacular ceremonial feasts when food is carved, etched and painted into the rich spiritual shapes and divine colours of holy temples and imposing royal palaces. Curious strangers can only gape in awe, respect and admiration as they struggle to learn how to make these intricate food offerings.

"Balinese Food" Book Cover
“Balinese Food” Book Cover

What differentiates your book from other books about Balinese food?
My book is the first to explore the secrets of Bali’s virtually unknown cuisine and culinary-religious mindset. It’s also written from the perspective and world-view of the Balinese, offering insights into the cultural and religious underpinnings of the foods of Bali. The product of extensive, PhD-level, first-hand field research, my book is a storehouse of hard-to-obtain factual information on (and explanations of) Balinese cuisine that is unavailable anywhere else.

Did you test all the recipes?
I tested most of the recipes by being present in the kitchen as local people cooked. The recipes were demonstrated to me in either small warung kitchens or in private kampung homes. I watched the often complicated and laborious traditional preparation process, wrote down all of the recipe steps, ingredients and amounts, and then ate the always fragrant and delicious dishes afterwards!

Which recipes are the easiest and the most difficult to prepare at home?
Easiest: sambal matah, bubur kacang hijau, kolak biu, tempe manis, nasi goreng, rujak, pisang goreng.
Hardest: lawar, bali guling, bebek betutu, tape, jaja lapis, tum ayam.

What are the most indispensable ingredients in Balinese food?
The Balinese will not eat anything without hot, spicy sambal (sauce) as an accompaniment. The bumbu (spice paste) is another integral ingredient at the cooking stage, giving Balinese food its characteristic heat. A third central ingredient is the weighty cylindrical chunk of brown palm sugar (gula merah). It stars in many dishes like kolak biu, appears in most sweets (jaja) and is the basis of super-sweet village drinks like daluman.

Is Balinese food healthy?
The basic ingredients used for daily home cooking in the villages are low in calories, saturated fat and cholesterol. Refrigeration is rare in these household compounds, so food is purchased daily, always market-fresh and in season. Heavy fatty foods like pork are a luxury item only eaten in conjunction with major religious ceremonies. Because the Balinese diet is characteristically rice-based and leaf-heavy, obesity and obesity-related diseases are rare. Though the Balinese have a very robust sweet tooth, even their sweets are light and small and made of rice and palm sugar. However, unhealthy components in Balinese cooking have crept in with the widespread use of grated coconut in many dishes, a reliance on coconut oil to fry almost everything and a madcap love affair with salt liberally sprinkled throughout the food chain.

Balinese Food
Balinese Food

Is Balinese cooking in any danger of being assimilated into Indonesian cooking and thus lost?
Infrastructure has exploded in the tourist areas and modern technology has made a deep impact on Balinese society, but otherwise little else has changed since ethnologist Miguel Covarrubias observed Balinese culinary habits in the 1930s. The Balinese like Indonesian nasi goreng and bakso meatballs, but they far prefer to cook and eat traditional Balinese lawar, sate, tipat, and babi guling over anything else. When I took a friend to Bubba Gump Shrimp restaurant in Tuban, she was intent on ordering some hot local sambal sauce from the waitress to spice up the American popcorn shrimp!

Why don’t foreign visitors have a greater appreciation of Balinese cuisine?
Balinese food is ultra-spicy. The level of chilli-driven heat in almost every dish far exceeds the normal, western food comfort zone. As the Balinese say, “No spicy, no good!” Even fruit-based rujak packs a tremendous load of local chillies and spices. Many foreigners are not only afraid of the spice levels, but also the amazing and unusual appearance of the dishes. People are shy about trying novelties like fern tips or menacingly spiky durian, not to mention banana tree trunk soup or pork lawar made with raw pig blood. Balinese food is also very hard to find on the island of Bali if you’re a visitor. Most restaurant and hotel food is either Indonesian or ethnic (Chinese, Thai).

What do you like about being a food writer?
The quest for information and perfection and the inherent satisfaction in solving cultural food riddles. Like stumbling across a valuable, buried, underground treasure of truffles, I relished the relentless hunt for a particular food dish or recipe and the sheer adventure of tracking down renegade leaves, obscure food tree species and other rare ingredients for which even the Balinese did not know their colloquial or botanical names!

What is the best way to contact you?
By email: [email protected].

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