Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Eat, pray... nah, stuff that, just EAT: Bali

In my travelling tummy experience often the best meal you’ll eat in a country is the simplest. Goo-y creamy mozzerella and you-can-still-taste-the-green-of-the-vine tomatoes in Rome, a bowl of steaming fresh mussels in white wine and skinny just-crisp-enough frites in Bruges, a so buttery-it’s-almost-melting warm croissant fresh from the boulangerie in Paris (not forgetting the Malboro Red on the side – there’s a reason why those French women are so skinny). Well, in Bali it was noodles, fried noodles. I was obsessed.

My new obsession ‘mie goreng’ literally means ‘fried noodles’- that’s it. Although, like its closely related counterpart ‘nasi goreng’ aka, you guessed it, ‘fried rice’, it was rather more than that. My Lonely Planet Bali and Lombok described it as ‘fried noodles with mixed goodies’ but like all the best recipes it depends on the chef. At the core is noodles fried in a piping hot wok with vegetables and a sweet soy spicy sauce, some warungs (roadside food stall-cum-restaurant) would add a fried egg or omelette on top and a variety of crackers – prawn, peanut, vegetable – on the side. Sometimes it’d be with pork, sometimes with chicken, sometimes just plain and simple but always great, and even better, less than £2. I’m sure there is usually shit-loads of MSG in it... uhum, sorry yes we’re calling it umami now. But who cares I was hooked.

We arrived in Bali at night after a long, long, long flight, thrust blinking into the humid darkness and then the bustle of the airport immigration hall. There was a small smiling Balinese man holding a sign with my and Choux Boy’s names, confused looking queues for visas and huge signs about the death penalty for drug dealers everywhere. Not that that was really an issue... I was there ‘officially’ to review some hotels and write about Eat, Pray, Love; unofficially, as always, I was there to eat, eat, eat.

First stop: Jimbaran Bay in South Bali and fortunately, given we hadn’t seen a bed in over 24 hours, only 15 minutes from the airport. Jimbaran Bay, I’d cribbed up from the Lonely Planet, which came to be known as ‘the bible’, is famous with locals and tourists alike for its string of seafood warungs that run the length of its golden arc. From lunchtime you can smell the smoky, salty smell of barbequing fish hauled from the colourful wooden fishing boats that dot the sea if you are up early enough to the ramshackle fish market at the north end of the bay. After sunset the tables stretch down the sand to replace the lapping waves as the tide retreats and candles ripple through the smoke.

The Boy turns from Choux Boy to Action Man on holidays. And he was a man with a plan for Bali – surfing, bodyboarding, sailing, snorkelling, scuba diving were all on our activity agenda. I was a little bit afraid. So day two and cooking school was perfect – an activity and I didn’t even need to get wet. Plus I get to ask a million questions about Balinese food, double win. This was the discovery of mie goreng, this was the start of the trip’s obsession. We start at 8am with a trip to the fish and produce market. The average Balinese day starts well before sunrise at around 4 or 5am with a trip to the market (which opens at 2am!) to get food for the day – no fridges equals daily trips. There was everything crabs, sardines, sharks, mullet all from the bay. Woven baskets full were bought and strung onto thick bamboo poles between two men to be run along the bay to a warung.

Most of Balinese cooking, we’re told, revolves around the key roots: galangal, turmeric and ginger which are on sale everywhere in the produce market along with chillis, Balinese limes (smaller and sweeter), bunches of Thai basil...

But on to the Mie Goreng...

Mie Goreng
courtesy of Wayan Suratha head chef of Warung Mie at Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay (and the Four Seasons Cooking School – hence the rather precise measurements and obsession with julienning)

100g boiled fresh noodles
5g chopped garlic cloves
10g red chilli – julienned
25g carrot – julienned
10g spring onions – julienned
40g chopped onion
10g Napa cabbage
8g sliced leeks
1 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp light soy sauce
1 tsp sweet soya sauce
3 tsp oyster sauce
1 tsp Chinese wine
½ tsp sesame oil
1 tsp chilli sauce
1 tsp white pepper

To garnish
25g of sliced omelette
5g fried shallots

Heat up the wok and pour in oil. Add garlic and fry for 3 seconds before adding onions, napa cabbage, leek, red chilli, carrot, spring onions. Pour in fish sauce, soy sauce, sweet soya sauce, oyster sauce, Chinese wine, chilli sauce and seasame oil. Add noodles and toss well. Check seasoning. Serve topped with omelette and shallots with crackers.

After Jimbaran Bay we travel round the coast and away from the crowd to East Bali and Amankila. And my second Balinese obsession ‘salak’ fruit (don’t worry I was acquiring, not cheating on my food obsessions, I was still having mie goreng for lunch almost every day). I was immediately drawn to it because of its skin. It looks and feel exactly like snakeskin (how long would it last fashioned into a bracelet before I started smelling of rotting fruit I wondered...) The skin is thin and easily peeled away in satisfying strips to reveal the knobbles of the three of four segments of fruit beneath. Good ones were sweet, not juicy but crunched a bit like an apple. The best one I eat was off the basket on the head of a Balinese woman during a hike near the small village of Wates. Our guide Kawit said they were the best in all of Bali...

Goodbye to the mountainous jungle of East Bali, a speedboat and it is replaced by the flat, sand-circled tiny paradise isles of the Gili Islands. Gili Meno, Gili Air and Gili Trawangen, our home in an unairconditioned beach shack for the next five days – which in turn was home to some of the best banana pancakes I have ever eaten, but maybe everything tastes better in the sunshine.

In an island that you can walk around in two hours it will come as no surprise that on this leg the obsession was fish. Fresh, simple, barbequed fish. Sat cross-legged in a thatched-roofed, cushioned balé, large Bintang beer, grilled snapper – there’s not much else I could have asked for, well air-con in the beach shack...

Speedboat, minibus, Ubud. The cultural heart of Bali, but I was still thinking with my stomach. Across from our haven of a hotel, Uma Ubud, a smoking, tin shack with Nuri’s painted in huge white letters on the corregated roof.

(Inside Nuri's: Eat, Pray, Love - Tongue, in, cheek)

It looks slightly like it belongs in a war zone. The infamous Naughty Nuri’s. You’ve got to try the BBQ ribs, and lethal martinis.

Of course, we did. But they never quite beat...

(Nuri's Mie Goreng - me liking)

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