Friday, January 20, 2012

Fishing for Truth in Balinese Cuisine

Tilapia from Lake Batur, Bali

 Prior to a big trip, you can usually find me curled up in a chair intensely studying a guidebook on my destination.  I like to know what I’m getting into.  Seemingly unimportant things, for instance that the population of Namibia is 80% devoutly Christian, can prove useful at some point, say when a corrupt cop is trying to trap you into paying a bribe for a made up traffic violation and you appeal to his Christian sense of forgiveness when assuring him that you “are only human, God knows we make mistakes and we can only ask to be forgiven.”[1]  When the factoids help get me out of trouble, I’m glad I studied up.

This past trip to Bali I did some guidebook reading, to understand the layout of the island and also how the culture there would differ from Java, where we had been last summer. I was surprised to read a line on cuisine asserting that fishing is not a traditional part of Balinese culture and thus fish not a part of the local diet.  Historically, this text claimed, Balinese have viewed the ocean as unclean and have preferred land animals, like duck and pig, to the gifts of the sea.  If this were true, it would be the first island I’ve been to where an abundant source of food available right out a people’s door is not used.

It was true we did not see many fishing boats during our two weeks, save for a few mid sized vessels off the coast of Candidasa, but we ate fish nearly everyday.  Given that the fish was listed as local, someone was fishing.  Mackerel in curry, local tuna cooked in banana leaf, and mixed seafood satay; when it came to eating, fish was everywhere.

Young Fishermen in Pekutatan
It would be possible to conclude that demand for fish has evolved from tourists, the source of 80% of Bali’s economy.  But a trip to Lake Batur had me questioning that assumption.  The lake rests at the eastern slope of Mt. Batur, Bali’s only still active volcano.  Three hundred feet deep at the center, the lake was formed from the collapse of what was once a much larger mountain.  Now the lake and rich volcanic earth feed an active agriculture business in the caldera.  The lake also supports tilapia, a thriving business for some locals, including our hiking guide who supplements his guide income with a small fish farm. For two meals during that visit we dined on "lakefish", tilapia deep fried and smothered in Balinese sambal.

Wrapping up our trip on the west coast of the island, we stayed near a small town, Pekutatan, a Balinese fishing village.  At sunset on this deserted strip of black sand beach it appeared that fishing was exclusively traditional.  No boats patrolled the coastline just solo fisherman untangling nets in the setting sun and fathers with fishing poles, thigh deep in the tide side by side with their sons. At dusk the small boys were sent in with the days’ catch, a dozen fish for each set of small hands, and I imagined a mother waiting at home to cook up a fresh fish dinner.   
Guidebooks can be invaluable for basic information, but hotel listings change, restaurants come and go, and sometimes the local people change too.  There may have been a time where fishing was not a part of Bali’s culture or economy, but it is now.  And judging by the tasty results, that’s one guidebook claim I was happy proved wrong.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

[1] This actually happened less than one hour into our two-week road trip in Namibia.  John’s expert use of that factoid got our “fine” reduced to US$20.

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