Category Archives: Cooking

Bali in the Kitchen

As a kid, the only coconut I was ever exposed to was that horrid dessicated stuff people use to make bunny cakes look fuzzy. Cute, but it tastes horrible, although I might be able to get on board with the bunny butt cake. (Recipe on the Betty Crocker website.) That’s to look at, mind you, not to eat.

bunny butt cakeMy grandmother was a mountain of love who made the best gingerbread men ever but ruined her fruit salad by topping it with desiccated coconut.

Then I moved to Asia. Years ago, on a beach in Thailand, I saw a wizened old lady spend her days using a machete to mince fresh coconut meat that eventually became sweetened squares of heavenly delight. And then I discovered coconut milk curries, which I can’t get enough of. I regularly order green curry at the Thai restaurant in the ‘hood and eat my way around the despised eggplant. Only recently have I discovered the uncountable merits of coconut oil. I decided that coconuts merited more of my attention. I was therefore determined to figure out how to make the Lombok chicken, but the only thing I was sure of was that it had coconut milk in it.

I had my photo of the dish itself as well as my memory of how it tasted.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAI studied the picture of the ingredients we’d used during our day at cooking school in Ubud.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAAnd remembered us all laboring together in the midday heat.

all choppingI called on Cutie McHottie’s beautiful smile for inspiration. (He’s the one on the right. I’m not in the group picture because I was off grinding peanuts with Cutie II, the one on the left.)

cutie BBQI studied recipes on the interwebs and then scoured my local supermarkets and veggie stands to find the stuff I’d need. Onions? No problem. Tomatoes? Check. Garlic? Got it. My confidence began to build…too soon. Fresh red chilies…uh…well… Fresh lemon grass…not a chance… Fresh galangal root…ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?????

As an extra kick in the rear, most of the recipes said that these ingredients would be available at my Asian market, which is funny because ALL of my markets are Asian and NONE of them had any of that. Chinese and Korean ingredients are readily available, but except for Nasi Goreng, Japan pretty much ignores Indonesia, at least from a culinary point of view.

I was not going to let that stop me. I am a strong, determined woman. I march into battle with my head held high, my dented armor polished. Like the bravest samurai of yore, I scarf down my rice balls in 30 seconds, retie my topknot, straighten my loincloth and dive back into the fray.

I squared my shoulders and made my way to the import store, where I found some coconut milk and an Indonesian sambal. I even found some jasmine rice to go with the finished masterpiece.

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And it was good. Really good. I have no idea whether I did it right. Maybe there is no right or wrong when one is winging it. At any rate, it tasted wonderful.

Isn’t that all that matters?

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Grandmother Curry

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Grandmother Curry

I would bet a bazillion, no, a gazillion dollars that my grandmother never, ever, not once in her entire life, made curry and rice. And I’d be willing to bet almost the same amount again that she never even tasted it. But as I’ve mentioned before in these sacred pages, curry and rice is mac and cheese to the Tokyo taste bud, soul food, a taste of home, of childhood, of comfort, of permanence in this all too transient world.

What my grandmother did make was really great vegetable soup. I remember once, in my snotty childish way, I asked my mother why grandma’s veggie soup tasted so good (with ‘better than yours’ implicit). She just sighed and said, “She puts sugar in it.”

And that got me thinking about our relative attitudes toward sugar. I read recently that America’s obesity is not altogether our fault. Yes, fast food and large sodas and triple scoop ice cream cones are personal choices, but apparently there is hidden sugar in nearly every product in American supermarkets.

I think that’s less true of Japanese food. In traditional cooking, sugar is added to most dishes, but we’re talking a teaspoon of sugar in a dish that serves four people. If there’s dessert at all, it’s most likely fresh fruit. So while sugar is rarely added to main dishes in Western food, our desserts usually start with a full cup of sugar, often more, and don’t forget to add eggs, butter, cream and chocolate.

Thoughts of my grandma also brought back thoughts of childhood fun, like summer fairs and carnivals, where we ate cotton candy, candy apples, caramel corn–in other words, sugar, sugar, sugar. Of course, sugary things are available here, but it is not uncommon to see a kid at a summer festival happily chomping on a cucumber skewered on a chopstick, perhaps with a bit of miso or salt, perhaps plain. Healthy, cooling, sugarless.

I suppose it is possible that my grandma had a secret life where she made and consumed curry with gusto. Perhaps she spent her summers following the country fair circuit, traveling around dispensing curry and rice from the back of a brightly painted van. If she did, I’ll bet another gazillion dollars that she put sugar in it.