Monster Porridge and the Cloud-Watching Cook

Bali’s climate creates luxurious, grandiloquent clouds, guaranteed to entice the most hardened sidewalk gazer to cast her eyes upward. Today is a cloud-watching day. A day for dreaming, imagining, writing…and cooking?

Cloud-watching days, for me, outnumber cooking days 2000 to 1. It’s rare that I stick my fingers in that soup since both Ketut and Wayan, after a few polite attempts in the past, have declined to eat anything I make. They’ve kindly offered to share with me whatever they prepare for themselves. Both are accomplished kitchen magicians and I bow with gratitude to their superior talents and gobble up whatever appears in front of me.

But for breakfast I’m on my own. It’s my choice. I like to go softly into morning and a steaming plate of spicy omelette appearing at some ungodly hour before my palette has connected with my brain is just wrong.

So I make it myself, and for an otherwise creative person, my breakfast isn’t. I’ve eaten a quarter of a papaya with Bali kopi every morning for the past four years. Somehow I manage to open the fruit, extract seeds, peel and cut into bite-sized chunks with perfect results every time.

But besides clouds, the vast selection of exotic imported foods in the local supermarkets also fascinates me. Spice traders seeking cinnamon and chocolate, passed through Bali and brought with them strange and wonderful things from their own lands. The world has shrunk considerably since then and odd bits of it wind up on the grocery shelves. It’s a favorite pastime of mine to stroll and observe, not only the regional wonders but also the latest foreign arrivals, avoiding the meat case at all costs. Raw flesh and random body parts, waxy yellow chicken feet interspersed with bug-eyed, gelatinous sea creatures guarantees night frights later on.

This time, though, I was on a mission: I craved granola. That taste treat isn’t native to Bali but I found it and the price tag made me wince. It was the equivalent of $10 U.S. for a tiny bag that might stretch to 1 1/2 servings. The raisins, dates, cashews, and almonds, scattered among plump grains roasted to a mouth-watering golden, stared at me through the cellophane bag. My entire grocery bill for a month comes to about that. Granted my shopping list doesn’t include the nuts and berries in the little package. It features produce from area farms, fresh, mostly green, and when Wayan and Ketut have worked their spells, yummy!

P1110401I turned to walk away and the word Monster caught my eye. What was a monster doing in the cereal aisle? Moving to inspect, I found an uncooked, five grain product sans the extra goodies, made in Australia and offered for a respectable price.

I flipped the bag over and scanned the cooking instructions. They seemed manageable: add 2 cups water and boil 5 minutes. The list of proteins, fats, blah blah blah was acceptable, and unlike similar porridges, this one contained a bare .3 grams of sugar. Sold!

P1110403I couldn’t wait to make my first batch. Memories of cold Minnesota mornings, sitting down to a bowl of hot oatmeal mixed with sauteed bananas, apples, and cinnamon topped with a dollop of yogurt made me drool. There was fresh Cheese Works yogurt in my fridge and I imagined the taste of hot cereal with the creamy cool of dairy and drooled some more.

This story has a happy ending. I didn’t burn it. It turned out well. But it had not one iota of flavor. Zip. None. The plain yogurt added an essence of sour milk. My taste buds registered a complaint. Not happy. They had imagined something quite different.

The next morning my eyes landed on a container of mango juice, no sugar added, in the ice box. Hmmm. What if…? So I did. I substituted one cup mango juice for one of the two cups of water, mixed in the tasteless grains and boiled. The steam rising from the pan hung in the humid air, fruity and rich.


I dished up a healthy portion and took a bite: the moment of truth. It was textured and sweet on the tongue. A faint lacing of mango cut the tang of yogurt but still left a surprised wake-up tartness. Perfect! About that time Ketut walked in.

“Wat you make?” he asked and eyed the dish suspiciously.

“Porridge from Australia with yogurt! Here, try!”

To my astonishment he accepted a spoon full. The moment the yogurt touched his tongue his eyes popped wide, a grimace unlike anything that has crossed his placid countenance previously, warped his face. With a strangled gurgle he mumbled something Balinese that sounded like, “OH MY GOD YOU’VE POISONED ME!” and dashed out.

My reputation is secure. And after all, I don’t want anyone getting the mistaken idea that I can cook.  I much prefer watching clouds.



You only think you know what you want: Lesson 2

A flyer sits in my e-mail box. It’s from a friend in Australia who holds retreats in Bali. Spring is in the air…it begins. For a hair’s breadth I think, “She needs to update her website. It’s September. Spring is in March…April latest…OH!” Whoops! Southern hemisphere, the seasons are up-side-down. She’s absolutely right, in Australia (and Bali) it’s spring.

This gives me pause. How often, I wonder, do I pass judgment based on my frame of reference?


It’s one thing to study different countries and cultures in books. It’s another thing entirely to relocate your life to a place on the opposite side of the equator from the familiar comfort zone. My understanding of how things should be is challenged daily. Two recent occurrences come to mind, ceremonies and sleeping arrangements.

Someone said that to the Hindu, life is ceremonies and everything in between is just filler.  The truth of that statement cannot be fully appreciated until it’s experienced. In my white Anglo-Saxon Protestant past, church on Sunday was the tradition. It was an hour of sitting in respectful silence and listening to the sermon with the occasional call-response or hymn to break the monotony. When the pastor said, “Go in peace, serve the Lord,” it was my signal to stop daydreaming, find the page for the last song, and make sure my legs hadn’t fallen asleep.

Not so the Hindu. Rituals are not an hour on Sunday morning. Ceremonies can last hours, days, sometimes even weeks. The priest may be ringing his bell and chanting Sanskrit prayers but men and women continue to gossip and laugh and virtually ignore him.


At first I’m appalled. What disrespectful people! How can they offend the priest like this? Why doesn’t he say something? All the while I sit piously, hands folded in my lap, paying rapt attention. But the holy man never appears to be offended and as soon as he finishes he joins in with his own jokes and good humor.

I’m an expert at imposing assumptions from my narrow experience on a culture that doesn’t share that experience. Their reverence is shown in ways that I’m only beginning to understand. But I’ve taken note and I’m loosening up.

Yesterday posed a different problem, however, and I tried to play the I’m-not-Hindu-so-that-doesn’t-apply-to-me card. It had to do with the orientation of my bed. The Balinese are adamant about sleeping arrangements. The bed must be positioned so one’s head points either east or south, and I’ll qualify that by saying it depends upon where a person lives on the island in relation to Holy Mount Agung. In Ubud, Agung is to the east. Because of the configuration of the bedroom, however, I want the head of the bed on the west wall.

“Not possible,” says Ketut.

“I know, I know,” I gear up to hold my ground. “But I’m not Hindu so it’s okay for me.”

“No good,” he continues. Impatience rises up at his inflexibility on this topic but I try to reason with him.

“Look, if I put the wardrobe here on the short wall, and the bed here, it’s easier to get to the bathroom. Otherwise too crowded.”

“Ya, but no good.”

I want to say, Why not, dammit?! But instead I offer a meek, “Why not?”


“Machine. Too much noise. No sleeping.” For a few brief seconds I try to make sense of how a machine has worked it’s way into this spiritual conversation. Then it dawns. The neighbor’s washing machine is directly behind the west bedroom wall. An early morning spin cycle, a little off balance, would be sleep disturbing. I feel the defeated grin spreading across my face as I shake my head.

“Why do I even argue with you?” It’s a rhetorical question, but Ketut has the answer.

“Maybe you forget machine,” he says.






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