Nini Meneer

My journey over the past few weeks has been celebrating the culinary goddesses of Ubud, the women who have helped shape Ubud’s identity as the centre of all things gastronomic. You can bury any illusions of the glamorous Nigella Lawson twin-set types. These Ubud women are salt-of-the-earth mothers and gracious in their own right, running their home-grown businesses from the heart.

So, I thought I would take you back to the early seventies again, to a time in Bali when tourists were few. My first visit to Bali was in 1974, when Ubud was an untamed jungle of sorts.  But to glean more information about those idyllic years, I thought it best to chat with none other than my husband, Ketut: a proud Ubudian from his temple-scarfed head to his well spread toes. In fact, in writing this column I am rather reluctant to depart from these long-gone days. How lovely they were!

So sit down and cross your legs as I continue a tale of life in Ubud thirty years ago, (you might want to put the kettle on too!) and join me as I honour the women who remain but faded memories in the minds of my husband’s generation and beyond.

Drumroll and enter: Jero Made Munir, otherwise known as Nini Meneer. Nini Meneer was one of Ubud’s most famous food sellers in the seventies. Born and bred in Ubud, she hailed from the Gusti Homestay compound in Jalan Kajeng and her claim to culinary fame was Lawar sampi or beef lawar and beef satay. Lawar is one of Bali’s beloved ceremonial dishes that is a powerhouse of everything the animal ever owned, mixed with lashings of chilli, coconut and shrimp paste. It can be made with any meat and often incorporates various exotic vegetables and leaves. With the leftover scraps of beef, Nini Meneer lovingly created serapah satay or Balinese-style satay of pounded meat wrapped onto thick bamboo sticks and grilled.

Each day in the afternoon, when the sun was slowly descending and losing its bite, Nini Meneer would appear with her rustic table perched on her head piled with all her edibles, walking to the market or wherever there was a bit of village action to sell her famous lawar and satay. Sometimes she would even walk as far as Peliatan, a distance of around three kilometres. You could say she was a moveable feast.

But ‘village action’ I hear you ask. Remember this was the early seventies before the box of ill repute, the television, had infiltrated Bali and one of the most popular past-times, apart from temple gatherings, was cock-fighting. Of course, cock-fighting was performed mainly when there were ceremonies, give or take a few other hundred days of the year. In fact, when I first visited Ubud, cock-fighting was held every afternoon at the Ubud Wantilan or community hall.

So picture the crowded scene: layers of men surrounding a small arena of fighting roosters, gambling their rupiah away in a Lord-of-the-Flies type fervour, chanting the wild cock-fight call, amidst a veil of clove cigarettes; for those were the days when most Indonesian males smoked profusely. And picture little Nini Meneer seated quietly at her table in the corner of the hall, towel on her head, selling her home-cooked treats to a hungry crowd. Hers was a thriving business. My husband, Ketut, a teenager at the time, remembers it vividly.  And when Nini Meneer was not at the cock-fights, she was selling at the market or temple ceremonies all around Ubud. She was as regular as clockwork.

I chatted to Ketut about Nini Meneer. Have you ever spoken to a Balinese about the old days? Have you seen the wistfulness and softness in their eyes? Ketut re-called this tiny grandma, wandering down the memory lane of his mind into a charming place when life was less complicated. “Life was easier then” he said, “maybe, in a sense, it was better than now. There were no real pressures, just ceremonies and simple food”.

Nini Meneer was a typical Balinese grandma: small as Balinese grandmas are, with long hair that was smeared with fresh coconut oil and coiled up on the head. Ketut recalled Nini Meneer’s lawar. “It really was delicious” he reminisced. “But the trouble was, Nini Meneer liked to chew on beetle nut. She chewed it slowly until it dribbled out of the corner of her mouth while she was mixing the ingredients. And as we stood there waiting to buy her food, we would all watch the trickle of red juice, as it ran from her mouth and down to her chin. We watched and watched and prayed it would not run into the lawar”.

“And was there anything distinctive about Nini Meneer’s clothing?’ I asked, trying to establish if she had a certain look.  “Did she wear a particular type of kebaya?” I asked. In those days, bold polyester florals were all the rage so I wondered if she had a well-worn favourite, maybe splashed with motifs of big red roses or polka dots that she wore as a trademark. ‘Yes. She wore a kebaya” Ketut replied, “But actually only half the time. The rest of the time she was she bare-breasted!”

Ketut and I decided to drop into Nini Meneer’s home to chat to her son, Gusti Ketut Bajra, who lives behind Puteri Salon in Jalan Kajeng, to gain a little more insight into this legendary culinary diva. Have you ever wandered up this street? It has a lovely village atmosphere and is overflowing with small homestays and warungs. This is the North Ubud banjar territory of which I am a member. Banjars are rather like extended families, so this street is where I often go to attend weddings and family ceremonies.

As we gazed at a few family photos, I was surprised to find out that Nini Meneer is the mother of Gusti Putu Roni who is often seated out the front of temple ceremonies in Ubud, renting a pile of sarongs to eager tourists. Do you know her? She is rather eccentric and sells jackfruit on the ground floor of the Ubud market, in the far-eastern corner. She always makes me laugh.

Gusti Ketut Bajra is now 66 and said his mother started selling lawar well before he was born. He is one of eight brothers and sisters. “Your mother had a thriving business then?” I asked.  “It was a good business but we were poor in those days,” he said. And looking at Ketut, added, “We were all poor then. You don’t know this about the life then, do you Ketut?” (Ketut being nearly twenty years younger )

“We didn’t have an inheritance, didn’t own any rice fields and before the fifties, we didn’t always have rice to eat. Sometimes people just ate vegetables. These were the crisis years for us. But we had enough to eat.”

I watched Gusti as he spoke and could see the movement in his eyes, as if I was rekindling a slow-burning fire. “I remember there used to be around ten people who helped my mother prepare the satay. They would sit on the ground and make the bamboo sticks. When their job was finished, we would give them one satay and some lawar for their efforts. That was their payment. Others would just get meat stock. There were ten coconut bowls and we would fill each one with the stock of plain boiled meat. That was all. We hadn’t even added the spices yet, because spices were expensive in those days.”

Gusti was in charge of buying the meat for his mother. Every day, he would walk to the make shift abattoir in Tenggkulak, about five kilometres away, to buy the fresh meat. He would then walk home, with the meat straddled across a bamboo pole on his shoulders, via the rice fields and Monkey Forest. It was called survival!

“Do you have Nini Meneer’s lawar recipe” I asked (that is one recipe I would have insisted I learn, I thought). “Heaven’s no,” he said and chuckled. “We never thought of asking her for it”. Gusti then proceeded to tell us that, even though Nini Meneer used the same ingredients as everyone else to make her lawar, the same gingers and spices, there was something about the process, the way she mixed it, that created such a luscious end result.

Sometimes Nini Meneer would barter her lawar for offering cakes at the temple or swap coffee from the farmers in exchange for rice. “But this was not really good,” said Gusti, “because then we would not have cash to buy meat for the lawar!”

“But, you know” he continued, “beef was more delicious then too. Even if you ate it without spices. The cows were fed on grass, nothing else. They were not pushed as they are nowadays and there were no feeds or chemicals used.” I watched that wistful look on all their faces: two men from two generations, remembering days gone by.

When Nini Meneer died in 1992 she was possibly ninety years old. “She was hardly ever sick and she never really said much,” said Gusti. But the legacy she left in the hearts of the people of Ubud remains. All you have to say is, “do you remember Nini Meneer,” to the older folk of Ubud, and you will see their eyes light up. Thus is the power of food.

Wish you were here…..

Dear  Travellers

Wish You Were Here…. in my little office in Ubud, Bali, that overlooks carved pavilions, stone goddesses and frangipani trees that come in all shades and fragrances. Just another day in paradise!

So what brought me to the shimmering shores of this fabled island, I hear you ask? I fell prey to the seductive charms of Bali in the summer of 1974 when my father decided to take us on a family holiday; to a tropical Asian hideaway that was beginning to capture the hearts of many intrepid Australians. I had never been overseas before and the exotic East was a mystery.

That first visit made a lasting impact on my life. Imagine Ubud more than thirty years ago. I felt like Alice in Wonderland, stepping cautiously into a resplendent culture of startling beauty and wild energy. And I was on sensory overload. I tasted food that defied description, watched dance movements that resembled the flutter of gilded butterflies and saw processions that took my breath away.  You could say I was spell-bound.

I returned to Bali ten years later in 1984 to a land that was still drenched in magic and mystique. That same sensual hypnosis drowned me in a sea of Balinese charm; of smiles, fragrances and culinary thrills. Of course, meeting my husband, Ketut, the second day also played a major part in the attraction. And slowly Bali became my home.

But it was the cuisine that took me by the reins. I am the first to admit that my hedonistic food fetish knows no bounds and I was intrigued with every meal I ate. I wanted to know the secret life of spices, the power of aromatic leaves and the perfection of coconut milk. Every meal was a journey into an antique land: of ceremonial foods and time-honoured cooking. I remembered thinking I was delving into history, into a cuisine that has been shaped by centuries of visitors from foreign places and wild sea-faring folk. My passion became Balinese food in all its finery and nowadays, has extended into a fervour for the food of Indonesia.

To cut a long story short (I could ramble on endlessly about the early days of rice wine and Balinese roses), Ketut and I opened our first restaurant ‘Lilies’ in Monkey forest road in 1987. This rickety, small eatery had an ambience that buzzed with a vibrant village spirit. We spent our days and nights there, entertaining friends, sharing languid meals served with lashings of Bintang beer and making new acquaintances that have lasted until this day.   Ketut and I married in 1989.

From Lilies, we branched out into all sorts of other culinary endeavours, including the Honeymoon Bakery, the Casa Luna restaurant and cooking school and eventually Indus restaurant.

In between, Ketut and I cooked up four spirited children that have given us years of pleasure.  My story was eventually bound into a book. Enter Fragrant Rice, a memoir of my life in Bali with recipes – maybe you have heard of it. More recently I have been directing the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival that is held annually in October. In 2006 it was named as one of the top six festivals in the world by Harper’s Bazaar, UK. But as Amitav Ghosh said recently, “Top 6? What nonsense, number 1 is what you are…”

So, in the meantime I will continue to work on this year’s event in my cosy, scented space and come and join us for the 2009 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival if you can.

Curry

You Are The Sunshine Of My Life
That’s Why I’ll Always Stay Around
You Are The Apple Of My Eye
Forever You’ll Stay In My Heart

Stevie Wonder.

 

Breakfast at the Four Seasons in Jakarta, the morning after the Jakarta Post 25th anniversary celebration with the effects of a few too many “sherbets” making me feel a little under par (don’t you just love parties).

The smooth sounds of The Ireng Maulana band playing “You are the sunshine of my life” still humming in my ears. I was looking for a soft tender meal to start the day; one that would bring me back to the land of rosy cheeks and boundless energy.   Rows of bain-maries filled with  sausages, bacon, potato roesti and baked beans beckoned. I glanced at the pastry section; croissants, Danish pastries and multi-grain breads. Sliced fruits, dazzling in their arrangement, tempted me like Eve’s apple.  How to resist?

But then… like Pepé le Pew in one of those love-struck moments when stars appear in your eyes and you go all quivery at the knees, I spotted the server of my choice – Indonesian curries, beans with tempe and lontong, compressed rice cake, sambals and more. Dare I say I was smitten and love-blinded at once? I piled my breakfast plate high (sorry, Vikram, but what’s a girl to do?). The flavours were sublime and each mouthful presented a new taste sensation.

My thoughts drifted off to ‘curries’ and its many incarnations across the archipelago and beyond. Don’t you love how the mere taste of a dish can send you into a global culinary spin? The power of food does this to you, or, at least, to me. My mind floated down the Ganges, through tropical jungles, paddy fields and other exotic curry-eating destinations.

Can you imagine a world without curry? Heavens, no! But let’s start with the word “curry”.  Said to be an anglicized version of the Tamil word, kari, which is, in fact, a type of vegetable stew that is eaten with rice. The word itself is believed to simply mean “gravy”. Nowadays, in the Western world, it is synonymous with any dish that is simmered in coconut milk seasoned with a commercial curry powder or spice paste.

In Britain, the favourite curry dish is Chicken tikka masala. Marks & Spencer sells about 19 tonnes of the chicken tikka masala curry every week and 23 million portions a year are sold in Britain’s more than 8,000 Indian restaurants, many of which are located in and around London. Former foreign secretary Robin Cook announced that chicken tikka masala had become ‘Britain’s national dish’ thus demoting fish and chips to second place.

Back to the emerald isles of Indonesia. Gulai, kari, kalio and opor are what you might call Indonesian curries. In Bali, my favourite jackfruit dish, jukut nangka, is affectionately called a curry in English, although it bears no resemblance to a Indian curry and does not usually contain coconut milk. In reality, it is more like a stew but let’s face it, “curry” sounds more luscious.

There’s something about a curry that conjures up a dreamy blanket of seductive flavours, like snuggling under a duvet on a cold winter’s night, with a chilled champagne.

There are wet curries and dry curries. Rendang, from West Sumatra, is a perfect example of a slow-cooked dry curry and reigns supreme in the flavour department. You can find rendang in all Padang restaurants across Indonesia. And what a divine dish. I remember in my early days in Bali, a visit to Denpasar was always timed to include an early lunch at the Padang restaurant in Batu Bulan, just as the steaming bowls of beef and chicken rendang, cassava leaves, green chilli sambal and others were pouring forth from the kitchen.

Another favourite Indonesian curry is gulai, especially gulai kambing or goat curry. Gulai kambing is the star on the menu of the village “bazaar” events that the Balinese hold to raise money for their temples and so forth.  In my family, it goes without saying that a meal at these gatherings must include a bowl of soupy gulai kambing with rice.

Opor Ayam or white chicken curry is another perennial favourite that I overdose on every time I go to Yogjakarta. In this land of lesehan or street-side cafes, I sit back and relish each mouthful of tender chicken bathed in a gentle coconut milk gravy while serenading street musicians hover around strumming their guitars. As for lontong cap gomeh – I confess I’m an addict. And then there are my favourite Balinese curries that include torch ginger or a touch of long pepper and nutmeg, the queen of sleep.

But what makes a curry so divine?  For me, it’s the delicate balance of fresh gingers: of galangal, turmeric, ginger and kencur; and the layers of subtle flavours  born of coriander seeds,  lemongrass, chilli, lime leaves and more. Coconut milk adds an elegant finishing touch.

Indonesian curries are the symbol of a nation; of home-cooking that represents the bounty of Indonesia, a succinct blend of vitality and sunshine, of simmered flavours born of the Spice Islands. Unity in diversity. They capture the majesty of the East in all its finery, from sunburnt yellows to the deepest fragrant browns. So let us rejoice in a dish that charms the most jaded spirit; that hugs and kisses in the warmest way.

And if you have a favourite curry recipe to share please send it my way……..”forever you’ll stay in my heart.”

 

© Janet De Neefe 2008