At 7 a.m., as we entered the food and produce market in the highland town of Ubud, Indonesia, we were greeted by a lady in a faded sarong, who had an air of comic elegance. She sold us dalumen, a slimy drink made with wheatgrass juice, squiggles of pink rice dumplings, palm sugar, and roasted coconut milk. The drink was disgusting, but the seller, Ibu Jarni, was so charmingly persuasive that I downed the whole glass.
Visiting the two-storeyed market topped my agenda, and my guide through the stalls was Janet De Neefe, the Australian author of Fragrant Rice. Her book is an essential read for anyone who wants to see, feel and understand Bali’s food, rituals, and way of life. “My enriching experience of this peaceful island paradise… has allowed me to see the world in a whole new light, where love and respect are the key principles,” she writes.
Janet’s love affair with Bali began on a family holiday in 1974, when she was 15. On her second visit, a decade later, she met an Indonesian man named Ketut Suardana and eventually married him. They now own two of the town’s best restaurants (Indus and Casa Luna), a literary café called Bar Luna, and the Honeymoon Guesthouses and Bakery. Janet runs a cooking school that offers different courses.
I met Janet many years ago in one of her restaurants and there was an instant connection. One of the chapters of her book is called “The Vibrant Heart of Village Life: The Market”. After reading it, I felt like I knew all the vendors in Ubud Market and ever since then, I have wanted to visit the place with her.
After that awkward experience with the dalumen, I was thankful that the next stall was filled with people hawking breakfast items. Old grandmas sat in a row selling bubur, a rice porridge made with soft boiled rice topped with steamed greens, coconut sauce, soya sprouts, and fish curry. Another lady was selling bubur injin, a sweet, black rice pudding, simmered in coconut milk with banana and thick palm-sugar syrup. All the meals were carefully wrapped in waxy green banana leaves, to be eaten as you walked around the market or taken home for an early lunch.
In a damp, dark corner was the young lad selling laklak, golden steamed chewy pancakes, cooked to order with a generous sprinkling of sugar and roasted coconut. Next was a stall selling gado-gado (a peanut dip) with steamed vegetables, followed by an array of stalls selling pink temple cakes known as roti khukus. Behind hissing barbecue counters, busy men twirled satay sticks over glowing coconut husks. These wonderful aromas mingled with those of Balinese coffee, and the sounds of people laughing, talking, and bargaining. The market, I realised, was not only a place for people to buy great snacks, but also where the ladies of Ubud socialise.
We finally found ourselves at a set of crumbly cement steps leading to the lower level of the market. Here, we found creamy tempeh, cakes of fermented soya that lend the air a smell of freshly-brewed beer.
Amidst the stench of rotting leaves, shrimp paste, and fermented tofu, flower sellers offered some olfactory relief with the sweet smells of whitechampak flowers (sonchapaa in Telegu), magnolia, orange and red-tinted frangipani, and bamboo baskets full of pandan leaves. The perfumes and colours gave me a sense of calm.
The market also had vendors selling fragrant spices and coffee, vegetable stalls selling beautiful white eggplants, knife sellers hawking handcrafted knives, fruit stalls where women lovingly and carefully peel rambutans for customers. Everywhere, young men and women, carrying brightly-coloured helmets, more as a fashion accessory rather than a necessity, were buying all sorts of provisions. Ubud market was not just a haven for eating and drinking. With all the bargaining, aromas, sounds, and colours, it was the closest I would get to Balinese village life and culture.
Appeared in the March 2013 issue as “The Heart of Ubud”.