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.