Food for thought: learning about Balinese life by cooking

It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me (or who has seen the size of my arse) that I'm a big fan of all things food. One of my favourite things about going abroad is visiting foreign surpermarkets (not joking) and sampling local delicacies.

Thankfully our little crew all agreed on this and so taking a local cookery school was one of the first things we looked in to doing before our trip.

Along with eating food I'm one of those people who loves taking pictures of food. Usually I've got my darling other half to moan about it and rein me in. He, however, was thousands of miles away  and armed with my new SLR I managed to take about 600 pictures during our 5 hour market tour and class. (Once more, not kidding).

What was so fantastic out the Lobong School was that it wasn't just about the food. We went on an incredible tour of a locals market (and I'm talking a local market for local people). It's somewhere you definitely wouldn't have found without a guide !

While some of the wares for sale were recognisable (citrus, eggs, bananas) some were a little different...

Like these poor baby chicks! Dyed bright colours, they are bought as children to play with and look after as toys making them little trouble to raise. Once they're grown and have shed their colourful plumes for a more mature look....well, it's poultry for dinner. They probably still have a much better life than many of the chickens we eat! 

We were told by our - rather dashing - guide Sang that the locals who come here will all chat to each other outside to find out what everyone else paid. In lieu of prices on things it's the best way to find out what a reasonable offer is.

A common sight was stalls making religious offerings. Sang told that it used to be the women of the house who made these but now that Bali is modernising many women work outside of the home. Offerings to the Gods still need to be made - the average household has 54 a day - so now many are making a living form selling them.

I was absolutely captivated by the boxes of brightly coloured flowers stacked everywhere and immediately set about taking bad photographs of them in an attempt to be artistic.

The offerings are extremely important as in Hinduism God's are treated the same way as people. So they must be fed, clothed and shaded from the sun. Until we did the tour we'd been wondering why so many statues had lovely little skirts and umbrellas!

The locals seemed amused by us, probably akin to how we'd react seeing a load of tourists taking pictures in Asda or Coles.

I wish I'd taken notes during this tour so I could think of something to write here other than, "Mmm, doesn't our guide's pecs look lovely through his t-shirt?"

Don't they though?
Every single thing seemed to have a use, properties and a meaning. 

Not everyone was as interested as us though...not a bad spot for a morning snooze.

I was absolutely obsessed with the chaps moustache, it is absolutely magnificent.

There were also lots of stalls selling tiny cones of rice to be put in the offerings (God's got to eat!) and they were very popular. The day after our class was the start of a big and important festival called Galugan so there were extra ceremonies and consequently extra offerings to be made.

Mum told me this chicken was just 'having a rest' but I think she may have been lying?
About 200 photos, or an hour, later it was time to go to the location of our school and get stuck in to some cooking. 

Lobong cooking school takes place in a family compound and the chef Dewa, who had worked all over the world, was the brother of our guide Sang.

As we sat and enjoyed a cup of Balinese coffee with our delicious Pisang Goreng (banana fritters) we were told about the importance of family in Balinese culture and the significance of the home.

Every single family compound has a temple which is built in relation to where Mt Batur is. Each part of the compound is then built in an order of importance and extended each time someone marries and has their own family.

The compound was not only beautiful but also serene. We descended through a gate and down some steps into near silence, unthinkable given the proximity to a very noisy road just above.

Each time a child is born in to the family the placenta is buried in this garden and a stone placed over the top. Sang told us that if a baby won't stop crying during the night they bring them to their particular stone and it always calms them down. As babies cannot be put down (except on their beds) before reaching 105 days old this helps to connect them to the earth and calms them.

This beautiful building is the heart of the compound and where all the special ceremonies and celebrations take place - including the moment that the new baby can touch their feet to the ground.

Beautiful fish pond in the complex
Because preparing and making the daily offerings is such a time consuming job each month the task is passed on to a different family member. For the month we were there this fell to the matriarch of the family, the mother of Sang and Dewa.

After every meal some of the food has to be offered before anyone is able to eat it, so we saw a small amount of what we had cooked being divvied up.

Our lovingly cooked food being shared with the Gods
We were then invited to watch and photograph the ceremony. Sang told us that his Mum is now an internet celebrity and has lots of photos uploaded to instagram! 

#nofilter #photographingverysacredceremonyforsocialmediagains
We had wondered why each offering contained incense and Sang informed us that the smoke helped to carry up the blessing to heaven.

Afterwards water is flicked from a frangipani flower as a cleansing act.

It was wonderful that our morning not only taught us how to prepare delicious food, but also helped us to understand Balinese life a little better.

The biggest message I took from the day was the importance of family. We witnessed how strong family ties are and it was strange seeing the reaction of our guides when we were discussing the difference in our culture. They couldn't fathom why on earth you would move out after getting married - why remove yourself from a strong unit that could help you in your first steps as a couple and a parent?

Although we do things very differently in our modernised western world I think many of us could lake something away from their attitudes: elderly parents would never be put in a retirement home and children grow up with a strong sense of community. Of course it would not be feasible in many situations (and certainly not for me!), but it was a very interesting window in to a life that has been lost in many a 'developed' nation. 

Food or thought, as well as food to eat indeed!

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