For centuries, islands have captured our imaginations, they are magical places inhabited by mermaids, pirates, fairies, and more recently – much to the delight of my two sons – they are the petri dish of mad geneticists and their dinosaurs!
For many years, I lived on an island north of Sydney. Island living is every bit as idyllic as you imagine. However, I discovered that it was not just the physical beauty of the island that inspired me, but equally it was the challenges we each faced, that inspired creative thinking and helped shape a diverse, vibrant, and resilient community.
Today’s post is the final in my Bali series, and I’m talking to Janet DeNeefe, long time islander, internationally renowned restaurateur, writer, festival director and, one time student of ceramics 😉
30 years ago, Janet left Australia, the world’s largest island, and fell in love with a man named Ketut. She also fell for Bali, his island home, in the magical archipelago of Indonesia.
The island has proved fertile ground for Janet’s imagination and has inspired a highly successful cooking school, restaurants, guesthouses and bars including; Casa Luna, Indus, Honeymoon Guest House, and three best selling books, Fragrant Rice, Bali.The Food of My Island Home, and To Stir With Love.
However, it was during the wake of the devastating Bali bombings that Janet was inspired to invite writers from around the globe to stare down terrorism with poetry and bring about healing to the island community. Now in its 11th year, The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival has become the largest and most prestigious literary gathering in South-East Asia.
It is with great excitement that I’m talking with Janet today, and I’m thrilled that my ‘Food Meets Plate’ workshop participants will be part of a final celebration meal in Janet’s latest project, The Ubud Food Festival!
Claire Atkins: Welcome Janet! Wow, what a story! How did you come to live in Bali?
Janet DeNeefe: I first visited Bali with my family in 1975 when I was just fifteen years old. I was overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells and I instantly felt that it was the beginning of a much bigger journey.
I returned ten years later and I never really left! My Balinese husband, Ketut and I, now have two restaurants, a guesthouse, a cooking school and, of course, the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, Bali Emerging Writers Festival and the Ubud Food Festival. Our kids were born and raised here and Bali really is my island home.
When I first arrived in Ubud, it was common to see more people, chickens and pigs on the main street than cars or motorbikes. Ubud was like an overgrown tropical jungle and afternoons were “mandi” time with peak hour river action happening up stream and down stream. Electricity was only just coming in and kerosene lamps were the main source of evening light. I have an old photo of my sister and I walking on the track just past where Indus is now and you can see how simple life was back then. And yes, the island has changed, but any dynamic, creative culture always moves with the times. Ubud has managed to retain it’s mysterious beauty and charm. Thirty years on, I’m still discovering pockets of the unexpected.
If I look back 30 years, I notice how much our approach to cooking has changed in Australia. Aussie meal times have undoubtedly benefited from immigration and the wonderful diversity it brings to communities. In what ways do you infuse your own cultural heritage with Balinese cuisine? And how has a life in Bali changed and shaped your cooking?
Food and cooking has been a part of my family for generations; my aunty Helen wrote a food column in the Sydney Morning Herald in the 70s and my Maltese grandmother had this prolific vegetable garden with everything from chickens to fruit trees. How we cook is such a reflection of who we are as a person, our cultural heritage, so of course this background has influenced my food. I cook a lot of Balinese food for the family in Melbourne or sometimes make pavlovas or roast dinners for special occasions. I add a dose of my knowledge of spices and flavours into everything I make. I add tamarind to gravy sauces and chilli and palm sugar to just about everything too. I especially love travelling across Indonesia and other parts of the world sampling new and exciting foods and then bringing back my own version to add to the menus of Indus and Casa Luna.
I remember a few years ago salivating from the couch watching Rick Stein’s ‘South East Asian Food Odyssey’, and I think he was tucking into some beautiful fragrant rice when he said that this was his idea of ‘Bali on a plate’. Is there a local dish that encapsulates Bali for you?
There’s too many to choose from! And it depends what sort of Bali we are talking about; ceremonial or home-cooking. I love Smoked Duck and the multi-levelled elegance of melt-in-your mouth duck cooked together with a serious amount of spices. I am also crazy about Jackfruit, cooked Balinese-style. To me Jackfruit curry just about embodies the character of the Balinese; the humility and down-to-earth goodness that you can’t help by love!
At the conclusion of our ceramics workshop ‘Food Meets Plate’, participants will ‘exhibit’ their ceramics in a final feast at one of Ubud’s new restaurants during the Ubud Food Festival. You also studied ceramics, in what ways do you think good ceramics can enhance a good dish?
Food has evolved so much over the past two decades – and, more than ever, presentation has become an ever-growing important part of the culinary process. I love the new irregular, zen-like pottery styles appearing in restaurants these days. They are refreshingly charming, organic-looking and modern. It reminds me of my ceramic making days when I had to battle with our lecturer because I refused to make my bowls perfect. I don’t think my grades were very good because of this whereas now it’s all the rage. These days food looks like an absolute fashion statement and fabulous plates make a huge difference.
Finally, do you have a favourite local recipe you can share with us?
PEPESAN IKAN Grilled Fish in Banana leaves
Fragrant gingers, chilli and fresh fish are wrapped together and grilled over hot, coconut coals. The result is a deliciously golden and healthy meal. Use parchment paper if banana leaves are not available and barbeque your fish or grill in the oven in the absence of hot coconut coals. This dish is absolutely drop dead delicious. I promise you will love it!
SERVES: 4 – 8
600 gms.(18oz.) fish
4 shredded lime leaves
salam leaves for each parcel
1tsp sea salt
2 stalks of lemongrass
1/4 tsp shrimp paste
1 tsp coriander seeds
2 tsp tamarind
3 large red chilli
2-4 small chilli
3 tbs fresh galangal
1 tbs fresh turmeric 2 tsp ginger
3 tsp palm sugar
3 tbs oil
Grind the spices with some water if necessary in a mortar and pestle or blend in the container of a food processor until you have a fragrant, golden yellow paste, flecked with chilli and tomato skin. Chop the fish into fat chunks, roughly 4cm x 4cm or leave whole if you prefer. Shred the lime leaves. Mix thoroughly with the spice paste, oil and fish. Cut the banana leaves into rectangles roughly the size of a standard envelope. Wrap the fish in one or two layers of banana leaves, with a salam leaf underneath. Roll over and secure the ends with a toothpick or tie with string. Grill, steam or barbecue the fish for five minutes or until cooked. Serve with steamed rice and kangkung pelecing.
Thank you for sharing your inspiring, mouth-watering story with us today Janet!
I hope this blog series from Bali has left you feeling inspired to embark on new creative adventures.
I’m thrilled to say that our workshop, ‘Food Meets Plate’ at Gaya Ceramic Arts Centre in May 2016 is almost full! There are places still available, and I would love you to join us. Click the link and head over to the workshop page now for full details and exclusive Early Bird specials when you book through me.