January 19, 2010

First things first! The foods of Life: Coconut (Nyuh) and Rice (Nasi)

What would Bali be and look like, I often dreamily wonder, if it was not for the ever present grace of the coconut palms and the arresting emerald beauty of the rice fields, the Sawa? Both are essential and shaped the life on the island.

The Coconut, Nyuh, la Noix de Coco:
The coconut tree, in its natural state, provides dappled shade, grows to a height of 60 to 80 feet and produces about 75 to 85 fruits a year. Those can be harvested at three different stages every two months or so. If not, they naturally fall to the ground with a ShhhhhBaaaaam! sound followed by a Wooooeeee! cry uttered by someone who heard, then a happy cacophony ensues and a lucky someone gets the prized coconut! Even Komang, when he hears a coconut falling gets excited and stops what he is in the midst of doing! I mean, his land is part of the large family coconut grove, he can have any coconut he wants whenever he needs to but the sound of the coconut falling is irresistible to Balinese ears, a free bounty, a promise of good things to come! Yeehaw, chicken curry tonight! Well, anyway that's what I'd do!

The young or green coconut is shock full of a perfect nectar, so perfect and sterile that it could be used as a replacement for an IV in a pinch (a good thing to know in case the need would ever arise). Its soft, translucent flesh is gelatinous and very delicious. To open the young coconut, two slits are cut at the top, the liquid is drained in a container and the top is then wacked with a machete looking knife. The soft flesh is scooped out in long ribbons and mixed with the liquid in a pitcher and passed around. Voila! The perfect refreshing drink on a hot day! Often, when the family works in the groves, the coconut picker throws a few of these down to the delight of everyone.

The more mature coconut has less liquid and the flesh is thick and firm but still tender, it is perfect at this stage to be grated and turned into one of my favorite thing to eat, Jakut Urab. Jakut Urab is a delicious salad, at once soft, chewy, crunchy, sweet and spicy, redolent of crispy fried shallots and garlic. Each bite is an explosion of textures and flavors and I HAVE to eat it at least three times a week since it goes so perfectly well with anything Balinese.

Jakut Urab (2-3 servings)

2 cucumbers, peeled, quartered lengthwise, seeds scooped out and finely sliced
200grs long beans or green beans (optional)
1 cup finely grated coconut
6 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
7 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
3 bird's eye chilies, very thinly sliced
2tsp finely grated palm sugar
1tsp lesser galangal, washed and very finely chopped ( leave it out if you cannot find it)
2 kaffir lime leaves, very thinly sliced in a chiffonade
peppercorns,  sea salt

Deep- fry the shallots and garlic until golden and crispy, drain, reserve.
Squeeze the water out of the cucumber slices and place them in a bowl.
Add the grated coconut to the bowl.
If using green beans, boil them for 2 minutes, drain and refresh with cold water, they should be bright green. When cool, slice them in small pieces and add to the bowl.
In a mortar, pound together the peppercorns and the lesser galangal to a paste. Add the salt, the palm sugar and the chilies.
Add the chilies/peppercorns mixture, shallots, garlic and kaffir lime leaves to the bowl and mix everything together gently. Serve right away.

In a non-traditional way, this Urab goes great with tamarind grilled chicken and coconut mashed potatoes. It is also perfect with barbecued ribs.

Coconut Mashed Potatoes  (4 servings)

So UnBalinese, so UnFrench, soooooo delicious! What are these doing here? They are the delightful collision of two traditional foods from two different worlds resulting in a fluffy mound of happiness and perfection! (at least for me)

1kg (2lbs 2oz) Yukon Gold potatoes, or any kind you like for mashed potatoes, washed and brushed
1 cup coconut milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
6 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
3Tbs unsalted butter (or 4 or 5 depending how much you like butter), cut into slices
a few gratings of nutmeg
sea salt, freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a pot, place and cover the potatoes with cold water and a good pinch of sea salt, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and cook until tender. Pierce with a skewer to test, it should go through easily. Drain completely, return to the pot on very low heat, dry the potatoes for 2/3 mnts, if you use an electric stovetop, simply return the pot with a lid to the turned off burner for 5 mnts.
In a pan, bring to a simmer the coconut milk, the cream, the garlic and nutmeg, cook over very low heat until it thickens (about 10mnts), mix from time to time and with a fork, mash the garlic into the cream mixture.
In the meantime, peel the hot potatoes and put them through a ricer, return to the pot over very low heat, add the cream/coconut mixture, the butter, salt and pepper, whip with a fork (as for an omelet) to make the potatoes fluffy and light. Adjust for seasonings and butter. Serve.

In my family, we like to serve these potatoes mounded in a bowl and covered with a soupy curry or stew. A bouillabaisse is delicious this way, the broth of a pot-au-feu with some pieces of meat and vegetables is comfort food at its best! 

The mature coconut is used at home for making coconut milk (Santen) and coconut oil (Lengis Nyuh). Most everyone (at least here in the village) can make perfect santen and oil but, like a perfectly boiled egg, it is easy once you know. My first attempts were a complete failure (for the oil mostly) and it is only through sheer stubbornness and the desire not to be taken for an incapable tourist by my Balinese friends and family that I mastered both, sort of.

To crack open a coconut

 Cracking a coconut is  not only a puzzling activity but also a potentially dangerous one or so I thought, in the genre of "Anything which could go wrong will go wrong!" kind of scenario. Maybe it's me but the combination of a seemingly unbreakable object and a very sharp knife, both held by exposed flesh, used to give me goose bumps. Lo and behold, do not fear! The Balinese way is simple, no knife needed here! Yes, it does involve a tool not found in the West (a miniature crowbar) but can easily  be replaced by a hammer, I found out.
Hold the coconut in one hand and tap firmly the upper part of the coconut (the one with the "eyes") 3 or 4 times all around with the blunt side of a hammer, the coconut will open (and since the water contained in the coconut will splatter everywhere at that point, it would be a good idea to pursue this activity outside or above a sink (if you want to keep the water, place a bowl in the sink).
To separate the meat from the shell, tap on the shell in the same manner you did before, this should loosen it and with a blunt table or butter knife (NOT with a screwdriver as I have seen it done), gently pull the meat out by inserting the tip of the knife between the meat and the shell and pushing gently the knife up, the meat should detach cleanly in a few pieces.

Grate the coconut pieces on a four sided grater (small holes side) or in a food processor (cut the coconut in small pieces first not to jam the motor) fitted with the metal blade, pulsing for short amount of time until you get a fine powder, or alternatively, you could use a blender, I got pretty decent results with it.
The coconut grater used in Bali, a very simple, cheap and efficient tool difficult to find in the West, should be on your list of things to bring back if you visit and intend to make authentic coconut milk at home.

To make coconut milk

Place the grated pulp of one coconut in a bowl and add about a cup to a cup and half of water. Now the fun part, with your hands, squeeze the coconut in the water until the oil is released and the water looks very creamy (5 minutes). Take some of the coconut in your hands and over a clean bowl, squeeze the milk out (you could use muslin cloth if you like), continue to do this until all the pulp has been used, discard the pulp, then filter the milk and use within 6 hours. This milk is rich and creamy, not separated into cream and thinner milk as it is done in Thailand but you could do so if you prefer.

At this stage, the coconut is also harvested for copra, tied up in bundles of 5 (for ease of counting) and stacked on the side of the road waiting to be picked up by a truck to the processing plant. Copra is a cheap version of what the best coconut has to offer and maybe that's why the coconut had for a long time a bad reputation. Copra is used mainly in the cosmetic industry and in processed foods.

From the unopened flowers clusters at the top of the tree, the sap is harvested, and, in a process which can be only described as a labor of love, coconut palm sugar (Gula Bali) is made. The sap is boiled down for a very long time and poured into half coconut shells until it hardens. It is the most delicious sugar, caramel like with flavors of butterscotch, I adore it!

A very tasty syrup 

This syrup, which can be used for pancakes, rice pudding and drizzled on ice-cream, can be made by chopping 2 cups of coconut palm sugar and boiling it with 3 cups of water and a vanilla bean split in half for 10 minutes until thick and syrupy. Filter through a strainer in a pitcher. It will keep in the fridge for one week or so (if it lasts that long).

The husks (the outside shell we rarely see in the West) are used to make coir, ropes, mats and bags. They are used as well to start the fire every morning in the wood burning kitchen oven and for grilling sate. They are burned on Kajeng Keliwon in front of the houses as a mean of protection and the smoke is a natural mosquito repellent (actually a repellent to most everything, me included)
The shells are made into handsome bowls, scoops, forks, spoons and ladles.

The young pale green fronds, which have to be picked from the top, are a daily necessity for making the Canang and Banten, the intricately woven baskets filled with offerings to the Gods

and the mature fronds, when woven and tied make handsome partititions and roofing material.
The wood, with its beautiful mottled grain, is strong and used extensively for building.

Maybe because  of all these gifts to us, the coconut tree was named in Sanskrit
"Kalpa Vrishka" , the tree that provides all the needs for life!

To be continued, the Rice...

life is good, every day

1 comment:

  1. my i add before i comment that i am the first to comment on this blog ''hooorrray'' i am especially interested in your stories and wish for u to continue. i am soooo excited for your next post lots of love your secret lover Austin Goodman ;)


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