A Very Bali Christmas!

Excitement pulses in the air.  Merry Christmas! I hear the greeting through my open walls. Will I get used to it…Christmas in the jungle? There are none of the familiar markers, snow, cold, carols playing non-stop in the stores for months. It’s Tess, hanging over her balcony next door, heralding Christmas morning. I step outside into hot sunlight. Nina appears, too. Merry Christmas! Nina will be hosting the party tonight. It’s a potluck white elephant gift exchange. The white elephant concept has been the topic of conversation for weeks. Nina and I, the only Americans in the bunch, understand. Nobody else does. It should be interesting.

It’s a planned potluck as we say in the Midwest, so we all know who is bringing what. I found a recipe for Vegetarian Tofu Green Curry. My task this morning is to cook it so the flavors can blend and intensify prior to serving later on. I initiate step one, grate fresh coconut and toast it. Fortunately, I still have most of the coconut Ketut harvested for me the other day.


The nut scared the daylights out of me when it came crashing into the garden. There is one stately palm beside my house. Every now and then, a mature coconut releases and thunders through the thick foliage surrounding the tree like a stampeding elephant. This one came to rest right by the terrace.

P1050298I retrieve a chunk of it from the freezer that keeps things mildly cooler than the refrigerator but far from frozen, and grate it. The instructions say to toast in a dry wok pan over a medium flame. It works! In no time I have a cup or so of fresh coconut delicately browned. So far, so good.

P1050300I assemble the next ingredients, garlic, shallots, green and red bell pepper, ginger root, lime leaves, and Thai chilis. For extra flavor, I’m using coconut oil to sauté the first ingredients. Fragrant steam fills the kitchen. In the next moment chili essence hits my tender throat tissue.

After a fit of coughing, wheezing, and tears, cooking continues. Vegetable broth with a few tablespoons of fish sauce, green curry paste, coconut milk, and a mixture of spices, cools the heat of the peppers.

I dice an enormous sweet potato, a jumbo carrot, and firm tofu, toss in most of the toasted coconut, then simmer until the root vegetables are crispy tender.

While it bubbles I have a few minutes to escape for another sunshine fix. There’s commotion next door. To ensure that the party goes on rain or shine, Tess and Paul have loaned a tent for the affair, but the tent stakes are missing. Ketut, the master of improvisation, disappears and returns with a handful of silverware. Knife, fork, and spoon handles inserted into the earth become tent pegs.

The smells from Nina’s kitchen make my stomach rumble. I leave the tent-raising and hurry back to my own fragrant stew. Mmmm! It looks amazing! I chop tomatoes and cilantro, squeeze fresh limes, and add these last minute details to the mix.


Wallah! A little garnish with a red pepper plopped on top and my dish is party ready!

Tess, Paul, and I are the first to arrive. It’s apparent that the women got the memo…wear black!


The tent is in Nina’s yard (Nina’s the one in the middle), Tess and Paul are staying upstairs in the house to the left, and my house is behind the tent to the right. We live in close proximity. It’s a good thing we like each other…a lot! And there’s the elegant teepee! So far the weather is ideal. We may not need the tent but it adds an element of security against sudden climate change.


Sudi and Paul chill with a couple of Bintangs as the other guests trickle in. It’s decided that gifts and games come first. Darkness descends so the group moves inside and the fun continues!

P1050312Julie, the neighbor just a little farther down the path, is prepared. She brought games. In animated detail she explains the first one. She calls it Pass the Parcel. It’s like musical chairs but with a wrapped package. As the music plays, the gift is passed from one to the next around the circle. When the music stops, the one holding the gift unwraps a layer only to find another wrapped parcel inside. But a note also comes with each layer bearing instructions that must be followed. This part reminds me of spin the bottle!

To ensure that Dewi, the youngest member of our diverse group, remains engaged and entertained, she is charged with the task of performing every instruction along with the person who was lucky enough to be left holding the box.

P1050326Here Dewi and her Dad dance with a chair. Later, Dewi and Tess lay on their backs and ride bicycles. Dewi is in her element. All agree that she’s a born entertainer. Her antics are rib tickling funny.


Finally it’s the moment everyone has been waiting for…the white elephant! Gifts are taken from their place under the tree and stacked on the table in the middle.

P1050316Everyone has a turn selecting a wrapped package and opening it.

P1050328Stealing is encouraged but I’m the only one who acts on it. Yaniq (in the hat) has unwrapped a jar of peanut butter. There are few things I enjoy more than peanut butter. I really like the photo frame that came in my package, but…gotta have the peanut butter. Yaniq yields his loot without a fight.


The last gift to be opened is a lovely surprise. Ketut made a special trip to Kintamani yesterday to pick up his white elephant. We were all touched and thrilled to get these bracelets, hand-made by his wife Komang, with our names stitched in red letters.

P1050343I’m Serry. It’s an upgrade from Zelly. That was Ketut’s first stab at my foreign sounding name!

With all the fun, we’ve worked up an appetite. Christmas smorgasbord in Bali is an exotic feast. The countertop groans with bounty. There is smoked chicken, mei goreng, pumpkin soup, salad rolls, garlic toast, sayur urab, smoked duck, and my green curry. Wine flows freely, as does laughter and conversation. For dessert, Nina breaks out her tins of Christmas cookies, all red and green frosting with sprinkles. We’re stuffed but still manage to put a sizeable dent in the cookie inventory!

Games and gifts finished, Nina disappears with Dewi. The party princess is finally tired and it’s time for bed. I sneak a peak at the clock. Half past midnight! Christmas 2013 has passed. The guests file out, droopy-eyed but smiling. Then Tess and I do what we have probably done after Christmas feasting countless times before…I wash, she wipes, and pretty soon the kitchen sparkles.

P1050334Thanks, Nina, Sudi, and Dewi. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a happy good night!

How to Repair Food

“Hallooo…halloo?” a happy pink apron appears in my doorway. “I’m baking Christmas cookies, do you want to come and chat?” It’s Nina from the Sudi, Dewi, and Nina show next door. They have a real kitchen with an oven. Very few Bali homes have an oven. Mine doesn’t, and as a result I’m spared the task of ever baking anything which makes me very happy. But Nina loves to bake and she explains that her Nana sent a recipe for the traditional, Italian sugar cookies (with anise! Yum!). The dough is ready and she’s about to roll, cut out, and bake.

“Yes! I’ll be right over!”

I grab my sandals and scamper across the yard to the open kitchen door.

P1050288Nana is Nina’s paternal grandmother from Poland. Her grandpa is Sicilian. The recipe is Italian. Grandma Nana wrote the directions longhand, Nina’s dad scanned them, e-mailed them, and here they are on the computer, on Nina’s countertop in Bali.  Technology!

P1050289My friend is already up to her elbows in flour and the big, pink apron has a dusting as well. She mixes and bakes and we chatter about the peculiarities of Capricorns and other zodiac signs. Nina and I are both of Capricornian persuasion and we seem to understand each other quite adequately, even though I was born a generation earlier.

During the lulls (the oven will only accommodate one cookie sheet at a time) she pulls out a little book. How to Repair Food…What to do when you discover that just about any kind of food or drink is…overcooked, stale, burned, lumpy, salty, bland, frozen, too dry, too wet, tough, too thick, too thin, wilted, curdled, stuck together, or fatty. Uh huh. I should have one of these!

I ask if maybe she should set the timer. I seem to be a disturbing element and I don’t want those tantalizing smells to become charcoal. She waves the silly thought away, says she has her eyes on the clock and it’s fine. Okay, Nina.P1050292

But back to the little volume. Just to demonstrate its value, do you know what to do when you burn rice? I so could have used this wisdom yesterday!

From How to Repair Food, and I quote: As soon as you discover you’ve burned the rice again (note the ‘again!’) turn off the flame, place the heel of a loaf of bread on top of the rice, cover the pot and wait 5 minutes. Virtually all the scorched taste should disappear into the bread. Serve the rice to friends and the bread to enemies. The authors, Marina and John Bear, have a sense of humor, right?!

But I digress. Back to cookie-baking.


Nina’s kitchen has a low plastic stool. I think it’s for five-year-old Dewi when she participates. There are no upper cabinets and both Nina and Sudi can reach the countertop, even the icebox, just fine. The stool’s definitely for Dewi. Anyway, that’s where I park whenever I’m ‘helping.’ Sometimes I BYOP, bring my own pillow. Saves wear and tear on the bony buttocks.


Today I assisted by providing the Bintang (Bali beer). Many of the world’s problems get solved in this kitchen with the help of Bintang, or homemade limoncello, or coffee flavored vodka. It’s really best that I keep my fingers out of the dough.

I come from a long line of extraordinary bakers. My grandmother’s lefse recipe is treasured by all those in the family who still haul out the griddle and rolling pins for a marathon lefse bake around this time each year. My mother’s homemade, honey whole wheat bread is heavenly beyond belief. My sister…okay. My sister is the cookie queen. Sorry Nina, but nothing I’ve ever seen short of a professional pastry shop, has pumped out Christmas cookies like Gwen’s.


Gwen’s Christmas Cookies

See what I mean? With a legacy like this you’d think I’d have some culinary talent. But why bother? When you have masters among you, just bow, smile, and feast!  Besides, I’m a Capricorn. I don’t like to compete unless I’m quite sure that I’ll win. Not a chance in this crowd!

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