Call me a masochist but there is definitely pleasure
in certain kinds of pain.
It was mid morning and the sun was intense. Mango trees - boughs heavy with green fruit - cast magnificent shadows on the ground, and dappled the light on the faces of children in orange plaid school uniforms making their way up and down the main street of the village. Uncomfortably damp, I tried to find a breeze but the humid air hung like a wet blanket, dashing any hopes of my emerging into a cool oasis. Just moments before, I had been in a delicious kind of hell.
Inside, the moisture had beaded heavily on my skin. Rivulets of sweat ran down my face and swam in a pool on my chest that was feeding a stream between my breasts to my belly. My hair clung to my neck like a wet rag, my shirt gradually becoming sheer with moisture. I counted my blessings that Balinese women traditionally wore semi sheer Kebayas, and that I wouldn't be offending anyone with the emerging outline of my bra through my thin linen shirt.
A comment was made that I looked like I had been crying, but looking around the weathered old timber table and rattan chairs; I found that I wasn't the only one suffering this condition. In the heat of the shady outdoor room, with our feet planted on a cool tiled floor, we were all red faced, blotchy and wet. Three foreigners suffering in the airless climes of a Canggu village eatery in Bali - earnestly pressed into our pursuit. All of us exploring our preference for native cuisine, over Cuisine Touristic, while pointlessly trying to mop the resulting perspiration from our heads.
Gasping for air, a tidal wave of chilli and spice induced sweat prickled my pores and welled up behind my knees as I made my way through a meal that few foreign visitors deign to eat, and to that end a plate was pushed away, barely touched by the fourth person in our party. For me, the pleasure of eating was intense - despite the feeling that I was sitting atop an erupting volcano, turning me into a leaking human spigot.
I wondered what the cook and host must think of us – was she proud or were we to become a hilarious anecdote to be told to others in the village? I know we're crazy, that's a given. And it was certainly worth it to take this journey into her culinary inferno. Her dishes were so tasty, with melt in the mouth meat, intentionally chewy fish, and fresh vegetables. These Indonesian dishes were prepared in ways that offered a range of textures and flavours that celebrated the spices native to the region.
Now people keep telling me that the Balinese don't like chilli, but every time I have eaten like the locals in village 'restorans' and hawker stalls I have found myself in the grip of a heavily spiced meal with the full side effects of capsaicin. This particular meal was Masakan Nasi Padang, an Indonesian spread of various curries, deep fried items, sambol (chilli chutneys) and blanched vegetables eaten with rice. The recipes originated in West Sumatra, the cuisine of the Minangkabau and usually halal, but the Hindu Balinese also love it and they include pork in the selection.
For this style of eating, a generous serve of steamed rice is added to your plate and a selection of toppings chosen from either the window display of the venue or from a glass cabinet in an open air venue or hawker stall. In larger, city restaurants, all the items displayed are dished up on separate plates - often covering your entire table - and you pay only for those you have sampled. Uneaten dishes are transferred to the next table for their perusal. None of this food is refrigerated. It is believed that the spices actually preserve the food to a certain degree.
In this particular instance the venue was at the front of a family home, with cooking and preparation occurring in the family kitchen, the drinks station and the behind the the street facing display. In a glass cabinet fronting the main road of the village there were three stainless steel bain-marie inserts sitting on a tiled bench with heavily sauced curries. Next along the bench were four more, with deep fried then sauced dishes, another with soy braised eggs, and three of blanched vegetables. Balancing on top were a stainless bowl of peanut sauce used on Gado Gado or sate, and a dish of fresh green chilli sambol. On the glass shelf above towered plates of deep fried meats & patties arranged in columns and something that had been grilled in banana leaves.
From a large rice cooker a mound of fluffy steamed rice was dispensed to our plates. I chose Rendang immediately. This particular beef Rendang was the real deal – a dry curry made with an intense, dark rempah that is is designed to soften the sinews in beef. An excellent example of one of our home staples, this one was complex in its range of spices and ramped things up again from the generic, thickly sauced version - employing coconut milk - that I had eaten the night before in a restaurant catering to the local expat community.
I passed over the coconut curry with slow braised pork and green vegetables and went for small dice of tempeh marinated in tamarind, onion, chilli and sweet Kecap Manis, that had been fried crisp. From the next platter came grated, deep fried potato stir-fried with chilli, tamarind, galangal and tomato, which was chewy and tangy – a great foil for the dry curry. From the top shelf I chose a couple of plain fritters, as it turned out, the only items I picked that did not contain chilli, but went very well with the explosive green chilli sambol. Finally I chose blanched Kangkung – water spinach – with bean shots and semi sweet palm sugar infused peanut sauce flecked with minced lemongrass, galangal and tiny ballistic strength chillis.
I passed a tablespoon of the green chilli sambol to Mr Sticky to eat with his meal but unfortunately his breakfast brain was engaged, driving him to mistakenly put the whole lot in his mouth at once. He sat very still and realizing his anguish, I surrendered one of my corn fritters to him to rescue his mouth. In return I found myself with a mouthful of deep fried mackerel encrusted with pulverised red chilli – seeds and oil; deliciously excruciating.
When I felt that I could not go on, I reached for a few sheets from the green plastic table top toilet paper dispenser and mopped my entire head. Then taking a mouth of Kopi Susu - finely ground local coffee taken like Turkish coffee and stirred through with condensed milk - I found the sweet, gritty beverage took the edge off my pain for five seconds. The heaviness of the condensed milk carried most of the coffee grounds to the bottom of the glass and the result was strong, creamy coffee, forming the perfect counterfoil to a palate whimpering for mercy from the after burn of local style Nasi Padang. The respite was enough to allow me to forge once more into Hades.
The pain made it difficult to speak. We concentrated mostly silently on our own personal Everest's, climbing painfully to the peak of intensity and navigating our way carefully down the other side, while our abstaining friend drank coffee and spoke of other things, of what I'm not sure. I found it took my full morning concentration to compose each mouthful upon my spoon, in such a way that I would not repeat Mr Sticky's mistake with the sambol.
When my plate was clean – bar a wedge of rice that I was too full to eat – I felt as though I had run ten kilometers in the desert wearing a plastic suit. I was exhausted, invigorated and burning inside and out. I felt the hot slurry engorging my gastrointestinal tract. We concluded that this must be the way to stay slim in a climate that makes exercise outdoors difficult. With cries of 'Enak sagali' (delicious) we surrendered two dollars each for our meal and walked out to the street in search of a cool breeze.
I felt the heat in my body for a long time, sustaining me and robbing me of hunger for many more hours than usual after a meal. Lunch passed with no inclination to eat. The abstainer amongst us ate chocolate brownies purchased at the local market over the course of the afternoon, but I felt that nothing more could pass my lips save, iced lime tea.
When we made it back to our villa, I plunged into the pool and felt steam rising from my head as I endeavoured to shake off the residue of the delicious gut burning heat. I bobbed there with the flavours still lingering in my mind and on my tongue. All thoughts of the pain superseded by the exhilaration of the adventure and endorphin rush, the madness of the moment and the sheer love of life.