Crunch. Colour. Character. Each mouthful of the Alchemy raw salad was a revelation. It was like tasting and swallowing morsels of Ubud’s verdant vistas. Vegetables in various hues and textures tossed in a sparkling dressing.
I could not stop eating. A hazard, surely, at the Ubud Food Festival which took place over three days at the tail end of May.
While the day-long Think, Talk and Taste sessions went on in Joglo – one of the many venues at the festival’s centre in Taman Kuliner – people swirled about the bustling hub thinking, talking and tasting food.
Paper packs of steaming noodles and smoky satay satisfied some festival goers, and the hot coffee and chilled Bintang quenched the thirst of others. Certain stalls, food items and products stood out by prompting visitors with more than just food for thought.
Warung Schnitzel’s gluten-free bread, brownies and cakes. Healthy, fermented Happy Kombucha drinks. Gelato Secret’s jamu sorbets. A movement was under way toward a more mindful manner of marrying past and present, and incorporating healthy, considered sustenance to the Balinese gastronomic landscape.
Janet DeNeffe, Ubud Food Festival’s director and founder, said, “It’s a festival that celebrates the richness of Indonesian diversity and culture.”
In keeping with the festival theme of “going local”, unique events included traditional Balinese babi guling pairing with beer, and complex ceremonial dishes discussed in a Kitchen Stage demonstration.
Many other events at the fest focused on food sustainability, local produce and healthy eating.
Six months ago, Made Janur Yasa opened the plant-based vegan restaurant and permaculture garden, Moksa, in Sayan. Together with executive chef and fellow co-creator Made Runatha, they wanted to “do something that we believe in and that is aligned with our lifestyles.”
It is easier to do something they love, he believes. “When you do something with a purpose, the story will spread.”
Their special event, Garden Grazing with an Eye on the Plate, was attended by 65 festival goers. The holistically conceptualised meals, carefully considering every component from farm to plate, were matched to the beautiful tableware made by Made Janur’s wife.These were from her Gaya Ceramic ‘Culinary Clay’ programme that makes dinner sets based on Balinese food.
Conversation at the event revolved around the relationship between food and vessel. “Of course, there is a connection between everything. The food you grow, what you eat and what goes into the vessel,” said Made Janur.
He is passionate about the environment, sustainability and the way food fits inherently into the equation. He sees his restaurant as an opportune “place of awakening” – individual healing, community consciousness and holistic awareness.
His greatest satisfaction with his venture? “Knowing that we at Moksa are a part of the solution. Knowing that the guests who come here do not just eat a meal but that they are part of the story of what we are trying to do here.”
Every part of the process has sustainability at its core, from the kitchen food scraps that they collect from other restaurants to compost, to growing their own produce, to collecting rainwater.
In tandem with the festival, Locavore restaurant in Gianyar launched its new Rooster cocktail lounge that uses unique local ingredients. Also parked in front of the festival venue was their casual companion, Locavore To Go, specialising in creative comfort food using sustainable local produce. That’s what Locavore is known for – serving only sustainably-sourced ingredients from the area.
Going down the sustainable route is not always the easiest path, admitted Dutchman chef Eelke Plasmeijer, but it is the only way he wanted to run his restaurant.
Together with one of his Indonesian partners, chef Ray Adriansyah, Eelke serves modern European-influenced dishes and Indonesian cuisine at Locavore. Locally sourced ingredients abound, such as Balinese abalone, Tabanan spiny lobsters, Malang beef, Lombok seaweed butter, and Sumbawa Island oysters.
Eelke’s customers, he is certain, appreciate the effort. “Why should you come to Bali to eat Tasmanian salmon, foie gras and cheese from France, truffles from China, lobster from Canada, and lamb from New Zealand?”
Those ingredients, he added, are often frozen. To him, local ingredients are so much more interesting. Plasmeijer insists that chefs must come out of their comfort zones to revel in the stunning produce available in his beautiful adopted country.
“With so many great ingredients on your doorstep, why go further afield?”
Plasmeijer has been in the archipelago for 10 years. He grew up in the Netherlands, where going green was happening long before it became globally hip. He is still an inherent naturalist, recalling his time spent recycling waste, keeping a compost heap and growing his own vegetables back home.
This year, Locavore earned a place among Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, as well as garnering the Best Restaurant in Indonesia award. He reckons it’s time for Ubud to become even more sustainable. “It is obvious some things have to change fast.”
The traffic, waste and uncontrolled building of villas and hotels will soon become reasons for people to stay away.
“I believe everybody can do something to make this stop. Maybe something real small, but that is still helping, isn’t it?”
Ways and means of helping differ. Covering an archipelago of 17,000 islands, Indonesia is host to a plethora of ingredients. Produce is plentiful.
The Green is the New Gold – Indonesia’s Food Future panel discussion revealed that the country grows 7,000 types of rice, each strain adapting to soil and climate conditions across the length and breadth of the nation.
Specialists, architects and activists discussed building on biodiversity and exploring new ways of returning to the way we were.
As Moksa’s Yasa explained, global awareness – especially among the younger generation and the well-travelled set – is leading to demand for a more mindful state of living. “People want to know what they eat, where it comes from and how it’s cultivated.”
Throughout the Festival, several events focused on extolling the virtues of raw, vegetarian, and slow food. And herbs, including celebrating Balinese traditions with their ceremonial meals and the healing properties of exotic herbs and spices.
Indonesian chefs who have spent time abroad are returning to preserve their traditions and tastes. Chef Gede Paskara Karilo studied in Australia while earning a living in restaurant kitchens. He opened an Indonesian fusion brunch cafe in Melbourne; their bestseller – suckling pig burger. “There are nearly 20 spices in our bumbu Bali, but I strove to maintain its authenticity.”
He’s now based in Bali, where he heads the exclusively Balinese cuisine restaurant, Mr Wayan. He determinedly promotes authentic Indonesian food without compromising on value, quality, and original taste … or chillies!
My first day’s lunch proved his point. Fluffy white rice sprinkled with sweet potato bits, topped with fried shallots, pungent lawar kenus, a tantalising taste of buah kacang mekala and tender, robust pieces of serapah kambing marinated in a mound of spices. And served on a fresh banana leaf on a bamboo platter.
However, sustainability is not just limited to the environment and to produce. Time, effort and funds are invested to reduce poverty in remote Indonesian villages.
At the Ibu Inspirasi – Wonder Women Indonesia session, Kopernik – a social enterprise that promotes clean-cooking technologies – demonstrated the efficacy of their bio-mass stoves in isolated areas, preparing traditional delicacies such as sorghum fried rice and prawn curry.
As this year’s Food Festival highlighted, a lot of traditional Indonesian ingredients and cuisine are enjoying a revival in Ubud. Tastes are tinkered with, recipes rejuvenated and authenticity celebrated, especially in this ecologically-diverse country. And the many expatriates who have made the island their home also demand and play an equally pivotal role in preservation.
I found out later that Alchemy, the raw vegan restaurant, is owned by a Swede who grew up in a vegetarian commune. Of the holistic restaurant’s ingredients, 70% come from their own organic farm and their sustainable practices range from recycled wood furniture to fair wages.
Left with my own thoughts, finally, as I looked across Ubud’s verdant rice fields, I saw that they encapsulate the Bali culinary capital’s relationship with food. Lush. Fresh. Sustainable.