The Village That Time Forgot – Making Kue – Scritch-Scratch

Morning in the mountains comes early. Abang Songan awakens its people by alarm at 6 a.m.

WeeaaaahhhhWeeaaaahhhhWeeaaahhhh it screams. School children roll out of bed, babies cry, dogs bark, and cooking fires are stoked. The kitchen is the hub of the world. It’s no different here. A stone fireplace with two holes in the top where the pots sit to cook holds a smoking blaze that is fed continually throughout the day. P1060187Someone outside the bedroom door summons Wayan. Without a word, she gathers her blanket and slips out. I linger a few more minutes under my cozy covers, then reach for clothing. Everyone else sleeps fully dressed. I peer around the room looking for signs of my nocturnal visitor. None are evident, not even telltale droppings.

I wipe my face with the still wet cloth and pull out a mirror to inspect the damages of my eventful night. Hmmm. Puffy eye-bags. I grab the fleece jacket and step outside. The mixture of woodsmoke and mountain air smells like fall in Minnesota, but all similarity ends there.


I pause to soak in the hazy purple of Mt. Abang silhouetted against the awakening sky. Majesty. The word springs to my lips and I breathe it out like a prayer. Majesty. But the urgency in my bladder cuts short my meditation. The bathroom is unoccupied. I wonder if I’m the only one who uses it. At least twenty family members live in this compound with only one bathroom yet I never see anyone else head that direction. But muddy footprints on the tile floor assure me that others also heed the morning call of nature.

Voices emanate from the kitchen building and I cross the sun-baked earthen yard and stoop through the doorway. Grandpa is seated on a low stool by the fire, warming his arthritic legs. Grandma, her head in a towel turban, pours rice into massive plastic tubs. I don’t know how I understand what she’s telling me because Grandma speaks only Balinese and I know only a smattering of Indonesian. But it’s clear to me that one tub holds regular rice and the contents of the other is glutinous rice.


As soon as my sleepy face appears, a staccato chorus of voices issues commands. A sister-in-law is shooed off a stool and Grandpa commandeers it. He sets it beside him, close to the fire, and motions me to sit. Grandma bustles and a steaming glass of white coffee with a plate of sweets is offered. It is implicitly understood by everyone here that I am the queen of everything. Heaven and the gods forbid if anything I want should go unattended. I’m always seated first in the best spot. I am fed before anyone else, even the holy man who usually reigns supreme, with portions sufficient to satisfy an entire family for a week.

I eat and converse with Grandpa who, in spite of his age, speaks Indonesian. Most of the elders in this community never attended school and the younger ones learn the language but don’t have occasion to use it unless they leave the village.

English is required for work in the tourist industry. The teens are taught basic grammar by Indonesian teachers. Wayan shows me her workbook from English class. The author is not a native English speaker. I can barely understand it. “What’s the point?” I murmur out loud.

“What?” asks Wayan.

“Nothing,” I say, then add, “Difficult?”

“Yes,” she nods. I would imagine so.

The fire melts me and smoke stings my eyes. Two wives sit in front of huge baskets of garlic and onions, one peels, the other smashes. It’s something I know how to do.


I stand up and tell Grandpa I’m too hot. I move toward the vegetables. The women scramble to rearrange themselves and they clear a spot for me to sit on a higher bench. I shake my head and thank them as I pick up a bud of garlic and begin to lower myself to the floor. Everyone speaks at once. Loosely translated I’m sure they’re saying, “Oh my god! She’s going to sit on the floor! Somebody get that stool under her lily white bum immediately! Do you think she can peel an onion? OH MY GOD!!!” A stool slides under my backside before it reaches the ground. An extra knife appears for me. For the next few hours I’m just a woman peeling onions, or so I’d like to think. I can only stand the boredom of being queen for so long.

The women are rescued from my help when Ketut’s brother sticks his head in and says he’ll take me to the machine. How can I resist such an offer? I bid my co-workers farewell, the queen has been summoned elsewhere.

It’s a quick walk to another uncle’s home. As we pass through a gateway steps lead down the mountainside. Sheets of plywood hold confections that are drying in the sun.

In Ubud where many Balinese women work outside the home, the delicacies needed for offerings are purchased at the market. There simply isn’t time to make them. But that’s not the case in Abang Songan. These women may spend part of their days cutting the long bladed grasses to feed the livestock, pick beans or uproot potatoes, and cook everything from scratch, but they still work hundreds of hours making the various kinds of kue that especially please the unseen deities.

The thrum of a motor comes from one of the buildings. I’m invited inside to see the machine. And what a multipurpose contraption it is!

The large silver box in the forefront houses sharp blades that turn coconut flesh into dust. The far end has a funnel where rice is dumped and comes out the bottom transformed into flour. The middle chute is for grinding coffee beans into the powder that makes the thick, black, Bali kopi. Uncle dumps several cups of rice into the far chute. The operation takes mere seconds and the flour is ready.

The coconut dust is returned to Grandma’s kitchen where moisture is squeezed out, handful by handful.


I can’t believe it’s still morning. There’s a bamboo structure going up in the space between houses and the men have strung a blue plastic tarp over the top.

Low tables appear out of nowhere and are placed in the shelter. Around noon, men with knives assemble. Woodchips fly as they carve the hundreds of sticks needed for chicken and fish satays. One uncle is a renowned singer. He serenades with Balinese songs while the men whittle away.

Meanwhile, the coconut sans it’s milk, and the rice flour, have been pummeled with a heavy mallet in a stone bowl until the remaining moisture in the coconut melds with the flour and a fine textured substance forms. The dough-like mixture is rolled into logs and sliced into round chunks with a string. Each round is placed inside a banana leaf collar that was made earlier for this purpose. Then the contents is maneuvered by hand until it perfectly fills the collar. The same process is used to make caramel colored kue by adding palm sugar to the already tasty mix.

At another table, rice, coconut, and sugar, are being blended with coloring for a rainbow-like kue. First the white mixture is spread in the bottom of a round pie-plate followed by two colored layers.

Ibu lowers the finished product into one of the steaming kettles and covers it. One hour later it’s removed, sliced diagonally into striped pieces, and wrapped in cellophane. This presents another opportunity for me to assist. Only the most basic, mindless activities are available to me.  Everything else requires a skillset that I don’t possess…may never possess. I’m quite sure you have to be born with it.

Just when I think I’ve seen it all, that no way could there be another kue process today, I stick my head back into the kitchen. There’s Komang slicing banana leaves into small squares. Her mother and sister-in-law are shaping balls of sweet rice with shredded carrot mixed in and wrapping them in the leaf squares. They’re secured with a needle sharp sliver of bamboo. These will also be steamed to perfection and served to the workers and guests who will descend on this compound tomorrow.

And where are the children during this process? There are two under the age of two, one five year old, one six year old who is my favorite. He has Downs Syndrome. And there are two more who attend grade school. Wayan, my fourteen-year-old roommate, is only here to help out with the ceremony. Usually she lives with her mother three miles away.

The children, even the youngest ones, rarely cry. Sometimes they ride in a scarf sling across the chest of a family member. But most often they entertain themselves outside, with a ball, a tricycle, or a training bike. Oh, and the fingernails! Probably something left over from Nyepi, the night of the ghouls. These are the only toys unless they’re lucky enough to snag a smart phone from Bapak! They know how to manipulate the games and music, a feat that, once again, is far beyond me.

This fascinating day seemed endless before breakfast. As the sun sets I think longingly, with a little apprehension, about bed. I wonder if the mystery guest will return. Maybe it was a one night stand. I can only hope. But any thoughts of an early lights out is short-lived. “Go to…what word?” Ketut says, expecting me to somehow read his mind and fill in the blanks.

“Where?” I ask.

“Play play,” he says. “Need money a little.”

All I can do is repeat, “Play play?” with a question mark.

“Ya, you go,” he says.

I stuff some rupiah in my pocket and Wayan grabs my arm. We join the family heading out the gate and down the road. Then it gets trippy. Really trippy! In the distance I can see what looks like…it couldn’t be…

P1060262…a fair?

There’s a merry-go-round and all the horses are white. Solid white. There’s a tent full of balls and bouncing children. There are food vendors, a ring toss and various other opportunities to try to hit items with green tennis balls. But the crowning glory, chugging and belching diesel fumes, is the ferris wheel. In America where there are regulatory laws, safety standards, certain expectations of mechanical proficiency even at the County Fair level, I’m still wary of the ferris wheel. It’s enchanting from a distance but as we approach I get a severe case of the willies. P1060263It’s held together with screwed on pieces of wood and lengths of chain. Wayan, still gripping my arm, hauls me to the entrance. There’s no line and only a handful of the little gondola cars, swinging and wobbling around and around, are occupied. “Saya takut!” I shout over the din of the engine. I’M SCARED!

“Sama Saya!” she yells back, SO AM I. But it appears that sheer terror isn’t enough to get me out of this one. Two more members of the family crowd behind us and I pay the 20,000 rupiah, about $1.75 U.S., for four riders. P1060267Wayan and I step through a creaky door into our chariot. I flash a quick photo of Wayan’s serene face as the car shudders, groans, and begins its ascent. How did I get myself into this? It’s my last thought before our rickety bucket sways to a stop at the very top.


I have a handy trick when things in life get too difficult. I take a short vacation from my body. It often feels a little like this as we hover in that swaying cab high above the twinkling darkness. Typically I love a bird’s eye view, a lofty perch. But this is a nightmare! Wayan and I get my money’s worth. We circle for thirty minutes or more. Are they doing it for the benefit of the only foreigner ever to set foot in their precious ferris wheel? Who knows? But I kiss the feet of the tattooed goth who finally frees me from my horrible cage!

P1060268Oh what a night. On legs more than a little shaky, I allow myself to be led to another ride where we wait a small eternity for the children to finish their turn. It has almost stopped when a group of giggling youth bound up to Wayan. She shrieks, hugs her friends, then turns to me, “Maaf,” she says, SORRY, and departs with cheerier company.


It takes so little to make these children happy. One ride on the green caterpillar and they’re ready to go home. One ride on the nasty wheel and I’m also ready. I join them for the trek back along the rutted road in the dark. Someone switches on a phone light for me. It seems I am not endowed with telepathic night vision like my Balinese friends.

My room awaits. I thank my guides for getting me home and the gods that I survived the ferris wheel. There’s no pretense of a bedtime wash-up tonight. I pull on my night shirt and leggings, peel back the blanket, and sink my weary bones into the mattress remembering as I do, the light switch 7.5 feet away. In a replay of the pevious night, I lunge, hit the switch, and fall back onto my pillow. Ahhhh. At last. I begin to drift. Scritch-scratch…

COMING…DAY THREE: The great chicken massacre etc. etc.

Night Visitor

“Will your mother show me how to make this?” It is an innocent request. I love the coconut and rice flour kue, especially when it’s crispy fried. I’ve never seen it anywhere else in Bali.

“You come for six month ceremony. My mother show you,” Ketut says.

A child has four important birthday ceremonies, one each year for the first four years. The Balinese calendar has six months of thirty-five days each. It’s time for Ketut’s baby to celebrate her second six month birthday.

Ketut says that he’ll be leaving for his village, in five days. “We come back in morning after ceremony,” he tells me.

I know it will involve spending the night in his family compound. But just to make sure we’re on the same page, always a good idea here, I beckon Ketut to the calendar, “Show me,” I say.

He points out the dates, “Go to village here, come back here.”

“That’s three nights Ketut, yes?” my stomach is doing little flips.

“Ya, it’s okay,” he says.

Ya it’s okay with whom, I wonder. With him? With his mother? With me?

Ketut’s village, Abang Songan, is off the grid. Literally. There is no internet period, full stop, forget about it. There’s also no running water unless you count the hose hanging from the outdoor cistern. The bathroom’s only fixture is squat style, with the dip and pour bucket beside it. But the door locks from the inside so the things a strange white lady has to do to make that facility work for her are done in complete privacy. And in case there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind, don’t forget to BYO TP.

I pack light. We’re going by motorbike and I’ll need a few changes of clothes, my computer for downloading the pictures I plan to take, and gifts for the family. By the time they’re assembled the three stuffed bags are all squished between my stomach and Ketut’s back. We head out of Ubud.

The family greets us when we arrive. I’m ushered into the room that Ketut and his wife and baby share with a bed, a TV, and a wardrobe.


Presents, boxed and wrapped, are unheard of but Nengah is undaunted. She rips into her gifts like a pro. Traditionally, the Balinese don’t celebrate birthdays with the exception of these first four ceremonies.


Komang disappears for a minute and returns with food for me, a huge bowl of rice, soto ayam which is chicken soup made with lemongrass, lime leaves, and garlic, and wrapped sweets. I plough through the delicious flavors until I’m stuffed. Then they bring coffee and more treats. This is to be the theme for the duration of my stay. It is as though there is an unspoken code: When you don’t know what to do with her, feed her!

Two new rooms have been added to the family compound. One is a house for the sacred writings (lontar) and the kris (sword). The other is for me. I’m ushered into a 8 x 8 foot space with a bed and a whimsical side table for my computer. I take note of the writing on the headboard: Lovely Sheep, Lovely Sheep! An offering has been placed in the corner.


I leave my bags and join the family outside. They’re sitting beside a pile of husked coconuts, talking and laughing as they cut off the brown leaving only milky white meat. This, I am told, is the first step in the lengthy kue process.


By now my camera is a familiar friend and an uncle hams it up for me.


The coconuts, peeled and ready, are turned over to Komang. She fills the plastic basin with water and rinses off fingerprints and remnants of fiber. Coconuts are plentiful in Bali but they don’t grow at this altitude. These have been purchased from the local market.


Rinsed and clean, they’re set aside to await the next steps in the process. I can’t stifle a huge yawn and I’m hustled off to my room for the night.

Alone at last, I pull out a bottle of drinking water, wet the washcloth and dab a corner of it on the bar of soap I’ve brought with me. The coolness feels good as I swab the shine off my face. With another damp corner I wipe off the soap. A little toothpaste on my electric toothbrush and my mouth is as fresh as my face. I swallow since there’s nowhere to spit. My filthy feet aren’t going anywhere near that pristine, white washcloth! I swing them onto the bed, tuck the fleece blanket around me and realize the light switch is 7.5 feet away.

I lunge toward it and flick it off. In the dark I rustle around with the plastic mattress cover crackling beneath me until I find just the right position. Deep breath, sigh. I try not to think about how much I’d like to pee. Then I hear something. It’s a scritch-scratching somewhere over my head. The sound stops. I relax and begin to drift off. Out of nowhere a rather small, lightweight beast runs across my blanketed legs. My right knee flexes and I haul off with a mighty kick. I expect to hear a thud as a furry body hits the wall. Nothing. I think about the light switch 7.5 feet away. Nah. I don’t really want to know the damages, and if I don’t see anything maybe there is nothing really there. I’m drifting again, my arm flung over my forehead, almost asleep. This time the wee beastie uses my arm as a bridge. I don’t scream, but I do grab the edge of the blanket and throw it over my head.

Around ten p.m. the door opens and the light goes on. It’s Wayan, Komang’s fourteen year old sister, looking for a place to sleep. She throws her blanket on the ceramic tile and pulls it around her. “Wait, Wayan! You can’t sleep on the floor. I’ll move over…”

“No,” she says. “I stay here.”

I argue but she’s adamant, telling me she moves a lot and doesn’t sleep well. She falls promptly to snoring while I lay suffocating with my head stuffed under the blanket against further invasion. Wayan sleeps like a rock. I know this because every dog within ten miles barks all night, non-stop, and I hear them. There is, however, no more scratching. It becomes essential to breathe and I eventually uncover my head.

Next post: Day Two in Abang Songan


Purple-blue turns pale. A palm in silhouette salutes the sunrise as awakening creatures spill their joy in raucous sound. It’s Bali, and it’s morning!

The morning view from my pillow

The morning view from my pillow

There is nothing quite as delicious as waking up with the sun. My circadian rhythms are synced with dawn. I can’t help it. Once the sky lightens, further effort to sleep is futile.

I love breakfast almost as much as I love morning. The two are inseparable. And the only thing that could improve upon breakfast is having it prepared FOR me and served TO me. (But not in bed. I’m not a fan of breakfast in bed.) So when Belos peeks his head around the corner at about 8:30 a.m. and asks if I want makan pagi, life is very good indeed.

There is always a bowl of fresh pineapple, banana, and papaya. But the main dish is a new treat every day. Here are some photos of what’s been on the menu lately.

Toast with banana filling

Toast packet with banana filling

Everything tastes wonderful when it’s served on the balcony. And there are no flies. Those nasties ruined more than one picnic in Minnesota!

Over-easy egg on toast

Over-easy egg on toast

The egg is perfectly round. Belos cooks. I’ll have to ask him how he does that!

Banana Pancake

Banana Pancake

There’s nothing that says Bali better than a banana pancake! It’s crepe-like and stuffed with bananas that have been lightly sautéed in palm sugar. There’s a mound of fresh shaved coconut on top and a palm sugar syrup that beats maple all hollow! I feel porky just looking at it! This dish is guaranteed to put meat on your bones!

Green Omelette

Green Omelette

Here’s another scrumptious favorite!  Water spinach, leeks and green chilies are added to the eggs. If I had prepared this, it would look more like the state of Alaska than a golden half-moon!

Balinese Kue

Balinese Kue

But Balinese Kue is my favorite and it’s always different. Sometimes it arrives wrapped in steamed banana leaf packets held tight with slivers of bamboo. Inside is glutinous rice with various fillings, coconut, peanut, palm sugar, and mung bean to name a few.  Another variety of kue is made with agar-agar, a gelatinous seaweed extract. The end result resembles jello jigglers. Yet another type shows up in stripes, typically green and brown or pink and brown. Maybe it’s bean paste. Maybe not. Then there are sesame balls stuffed with something delicious that shall remain a mystery! But this morning kue was a fried coconut patty and two fluffy confections called Kue Mangkok. And because I just know you are dying to make this yourself, here’s the recipe! Sorry about the metric measurements! Google conversion charts and you’ll be fine.



350 grams rice flour
some water
150 grams all purpose flour
400 grams sugar
200 cc warm water
2 Tsp baking soda
250 cc club soda
200 grams fermented cassava / tapioca (tape singkong)
1 Tsp vanilla
food coloring (your choice of 3 or 4 colors)
salt to taste


Add enough water to the rice flour so that its weight increases to 500
grams. Add the all purpose flour to the rice flour mixture and stir
well. Add the fermented tapioca and sugar. Mix well. Add the warm water
and work the dough for about 10 minutes.-Add the baking soda, the club
soda and vanilla. Mix until everything is evenly distributed. Finally,
add the food coloring and blend until smooth. Warm the cup molds for
about 5 minutes and fill it for about 4/5 full. Put in a steamer with
the water already at a rolling boil. Steam for about 20 minutes.

I’m told these can be made in a rice cooker. It will never happen in mine! I failed to get the domestic goddess gene. My sister has it, as do my three daughters. Even my brother can do cartwheels around me in the kitchen. They love to cook. But me? I love anyone who will cook for me!

The “Never-Look-At-A-Scale-Again” Diet

I’m tired of hearing it. “I hate you! Look at what eat! How can you be that skinny?” So here it is…my SECRET.

But first a very short, albeit necessary, tirade.

Scales weigh things to establish their worth. A 5# bag of apples, for instance, has a price. A kilo of grain, a liter of laundry detergent, all are weighed and assigned a value. How many women step on the scale each morning, step off to find their glasses, step on again, step off to clean their glasses, and step on once more finally assessing their self-worth according to the number displayed. Too many.

I was curious. Who was the sinister and diabolical genius credited with inventing this tool of torture? I had to chuckle at the irony of my discovery. Leonardo da Vinci built the first self-weighing scale around 1500 AD. This master artist, brilliant inventor, and tireless student of anatomy, was fascinated with the human body. It makes total sense that he would figure out a way to determine its weight.

I, too, was once a slave to the bathroom scale. But I have a thing about obsessions. I’m wary. It’s almost tangible, the urge, the pull to repeat an action, to yield to a habit. It has a slimy feel about it. Insidious but recognizable. It flashes a warning that freedom of choice is slipping away from me. It came to a point where I feared that more than the magic number on the scale. The scale went in the dumpster.

I made another decision that day. Going forward:

I would not eat anything

WHITE (potatoes, pasta, ice cream, bread)

I would eat as much as possible of everything

GREEN (vegetables, sea weed)

and plenty of


I would eat foods


I would not eat foods that were


I would not eat or drink things with


I would not eat


It is a simple plan, a big picture plan, and it has kept me physically healthy and weighing between 105 to 110 lbs. at my yearly physical check-up for over 40 years. It also allows me to indulge when I am confronted with my sister’s Death by Chocolate Cake, or a plate of ‘snake’ that could feed a Balinese family of 8 for a week. Which I had this morning, by the way. I told Ketut he really shouldn’t give me so much, “Two, maybe three treats enough!” I said. He smiled and replied, ” Okay today, many many day not okay.” Which lets me know that he has no intention of changing my portions. I’m secretly delighted.

That’s it. That’s all there is. Throw away the scale. Follow the NO WHITE diet, and only stray from the path when you know it will be worth every morsel…like snake, for instance, or Death by Chocolate Cake!

Balinese kue fondly known as ‘snake’

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