How a Brief Bali Escape Changed One Woman’s Life

by : Joni Sweet | November 06, 2012

What started as a brief holiday in Bali in 1984 ended up transforming Janet DeNeefe’s life. She fell in love, not only with a man she would marry five years later, but also with the community, culture and especially cuisine of the island oasis. Almost 30 years later, Janet proudly calls Ubud — where she runs a cooking school, a cafe, two restaurants, a popular guesthouse and the famed Ubud Writers and Readers Festival — her home.

DeNeefe will share her knowledge of Balinese cooking in a talk hosted by Jakarta’s Indonesian Heritage Society at Erasmus Huis on Tuesday at 7 p.m. She will discuss how she turned the island into a hands-on classroom by training in the kitchens of her husband’s family and becoming a “village cook.”

“I’d watch my husband’s sister and her helper cook breakfast and I was totally absorbed in it. I’d later come back to Ubud in the afternoon and then hang around his brother’s restaurant and just sit in their kitchen,” she said. “It was sort of my PhD in Balinese cooking.”

While she said she laments her lack of formal culinary training, that hasn’t stopped the “grandma-style cook” from publishing a memoir with recipes, “Fragrant Rice” in 2003, and a Balinese cookbook, “The Food of My Island Home” in 2011. She has also taught thousands of students the art of balancing spices and how to properly understand and honor the traditions behind the dishes.

“Initially I thought I was just recording recipes, but I came to realize that I was unraveling aspects of the culture and maybe the fundamental principle that the Balinese have of harmony and balance. Everything they make is sort of this extraordinary balance of a thousand ingredients,” she said.

In her classes, students can learn how to make dishes such as spiced fish in banana leaves; gado-gado, a boiled-vegetable salad with a peanut sauce dressing; smoked duck and chicken satay. DeNeefe also takes them one step further into Bali with tours of neighborhood markets.

“Asian markets are very romantic and that is where you get the most exciting food because it’s catering for the local community and there’s a lot of color and excitement and Asian ambiance,” she said.

With the belief that good food can break down cultural borders, the 53-year-old makes a point to highlight not only the cuisine, but also Balinese society and its Hindu culture.

“It’s a really beautiful religion,” she said. “There’s a lot of ritual involved, but it’s really poetic and beautiful, so it’s hard not to be attracted to that. But also within the culture is the way the communities operate and their attention to relationships, to family, community, to the way they care about people.”

The inexhaustible woman, who was originally trained as an art teacher, hosts cooking classes at the Casa Luna Cooking School seven days a week. In addition, she runs the Casa Luna and Indus restaurants, Honeymoon Guesthouses, the Bar Luna cafe, and a homewares emporium.

The mother-of-four somehow still finds time to travel around Indonesia in search of gastronomic inspiration for new recipes. She is particularly interested in writing a book about Sumatran food, which she calls “the queen of Indonesian cuisine.”

DeNeefe added that she hoped to expand her culinary repertoire by offering food tours as early as next year, a project she began planning in the early 2000s, but put on hold after the Bali bombings in 2002. The following year, her ambition took a literary turn: to ease the blow of the terror attack on Bali, she founded the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.

“I knew it had to be something that attracted international names and audience alongside Indonesians, something that brought people together,” she said. “It had to be something of that magnitude that brings in the world’s greatest writers, thinkers, great minds that can make a difference, because terrorism is something that has such a negative impact, so it had to be something that could dissolve that negative impact with something that would transpire into a really positive thing.”

DeNeefe is planning the next literary festival, which will take place from Oct. 2-6, 2013 and again celebrate the theme of the first festival, “Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang” (“Through Darkness to Light”), in honor of a milestone year.

DeNeefe has made it her mission to nourish herself, her family and her students with the rich colors, striking flavors and depth of Balinese food and culture. The tools of her trade merely consist of “a mortar and pestle, a knife, a wok, a stirring spoon and a flame,” along with a passion, know-how and an array of simple yet satisfying ingredients.

“Cooking for people is one of the greatest joys and it’s not just about food,” she said. “It’s about pleasing people and looking after people, which for me is really important.”

Food Ways of Bali: A Love Story 
Discussion with Janet DeNeefe
Hosted by Indonesian Heritage Society
Tuesday, Nov. 6, from 7 p.m.Erasmus Huis
Jl. Rasuna Said, Kav. S-3, adjacent to the Dutch Embassy

Original article taken from : THE JAKARTA GLOBE

Still Hungry? Here's more

Don't miss my
next recipe :)

Join my newsletter now to make sure you never miss a recipe or cooking tip from me

about janet deneefe