Don’t Mess With A Bali Girl!

 

My friend’s villa has an oven. In the U.S. an oven’s a necessity. Here it’s a luxury. Balinese cuisine doesn’t use it. If a dish can’t be made on a cooktop, in a rice cooker, over an open fire, or atop a grill, it’s of no use. But times change.

Tourism has brought big hotels. Big hotels need chefs and ovens. There’s a new generation of Balinese who want to attend culinary school with an eye to cooking for five-star luxury: a Four Seasons or a St. Regis. Wayan is one of them.

I met Wayan seven years ago when she was eleven. Unlike other children in the village, she wasn’t afraid of my differentness. She followed me around, called me her big sister, and listened with determined intensity when I spoke English.

After an outing to the friend’s house where the oven lives, I told Wayan I’d like to write down her story. We sat at the dining table and she took me through the events of her life leading up to now. When she finished I asked her if I could share it on my blog. “Oh, yes!” she said.

WAYAN’S STORY

Wayan was born the fifth of six girls. In her mountain village of Banjar Belong Dauh, she walked five kilometers a day, six days a week, to elementary school. From seven in the morning until noon the children studied. After school, Wayan helped cut grass with a short curved knife to sell to neighbors who had cows. That was the family’s income.

After six years, she entered junior school. It was closer, a three-kilometer walk, and classes were from seven until one with a short break for lunch. For many rural Balinese, junior school is the end of their formal education. But Wayan knew she was smart. She had bigger dreams. Her parents told her high school wasn’t possible, they couldn’t afford it. But that didn’t stop her. She got a summer job working construction spending her days carrying buckets of rocks and sand on her head from the road to the building site. In one month she’d saved enough for high school.

At this point in her story she stopped. With sad eyes, she stared down at the table where we were sitting. “Wayan, what happened?”

“There was a family emergency,” she said. My parents needed the money. Of course, I gave it to them. I was very disappointed.”

“Family comes first, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” she said. “Always.”

But opportunity opened another door. One of Wayan’s sisters had married a man from Bedugul. She’d moved there with him and his extended family. The sister told Wayan that she could come and live with them and get a job at Sila’s Agro Tourism in Bedugul.

Wayan made the move to Bedugul and started training with Sila’s, earning a small wage. But just as she completed the first four weeks, word came from home that their mother was sick. Wayan hurried back to help her father and younger sister care for her mother.

“Did it seem like you would never reach your goal? Did you lose heart?” Wayan’s a diligent worker and a stubborn but loveable young woman whose disposition is perpetual sunshine. Yet the setbacks had to have been demoralizing.

“No, Mom,” she said. “I know if I keep trying I will get what I want.”

Shortly after she turned sixteen, Wayan heard of a job in a small local café in the village of Tegallalang about forty minutes from home. She seized the opportunity and located a high school in that area. While working and living in the café, she paid tuition, began night classes, and sent half her wages to her parents every payday.

Wayan had been at the warung six months when Ketut’s helper left and we were short-handed at my house. Ketut suggested Wayan as a replacement.

“No, Ketut. She’s your sister-in-law, too much family, and she’s only sixteen, still in high school.”

Two days later, Wayan came in with a bucket of soapy water. “I will mop the floor now, Mom,” she said.

That was three-and-a-half years ago. Wayan worked days and continued her schooling in Tegallalang at night. She graduated this spring and was thrilled to find a culinary college nearby with evening classes. She registered a few weeks ago and plans to continue working with Ketut until she’s hired by a hotel in Dubai, one of the countries where this school places graduates.

Wayan’s proud of the fact that she’s been able to buy a television for her parents and a new motorbike for herself. She pays for her younger sister’s schooling and continues to share the money she earns with her parents.

My friend with the oven finds Wayan delightful and wants to encourage her culinary dreams. So the other day we were invited to bring a recipe and ingredients for a baking session. I decided cookies would be easiest, and suggested Snickerdoodles. What could go wrong with flour, butter, eggs, and sugar? A date was set.

The recipe was easy to find online. I made a shopping list. We would stop at the grocery store on the way to the villa and collect what we needed. There was one ingredient I knew we wouldn’t find: cream of tartar. I googled it and discovered lemon juice is a substitute. Who would have guessed?

The day arrived and off we went in fine spirits to buy supplies. In the flour aisle, I stared hopelessly at the vast display, an impossible number of choices, all labelled in Indonesian. I’d never had occasion to purchase flour in Bali so I asked Wayan, “For sweet cakes, what do you use?”

She immediately grabbed Tepung Terigu Putih, white wheat flour. The bag had dessert-type pictures on it.

“This is the one? You’re sure?” She nodded.

The next hurdle was tougher. The recipe called for half butter, half shortening. Bali doesn’t have shortening. After stewing over what might be the best of the bad choices, I settled for sunflower oil margarine. It would have to be less oily than butter, wouldn’t it? I remembered as a girl substituting all butter to make my cookies taste even better than Mom’s. When I took them out of the oven, the dough had spread making one giant burned mess that covered the whole baking sheet. Lesson learned.

White sugar, lemons, the rest was easy. We left the store, hopped on the motorbike, and continued out of Ubud to Lungsiakan where my friend lives. She’d fired up her oven and baked a coconut custard cake to test the heat. I took a closer look at the appliance. An army of knobs marched along the oven’s front with dashes stamped on them. No numbers. No Hi, Med, Low. Just dashes.

“How do you tell how hot it is?”

“Trial and error, I guess,” she said, as she opened the door and pulled her confection half-way out, checked the bottom which was getting brown, twisted one of the knobs, and slid it in again. A sense of impending doom settled over me.

Other difficulties presented themselves. The recipe was written using cups. The measuring utensils in my friend’s kitchen were based on grams and liters. We pulled up a conversion chart online and I scribbled the metric equivalent next to each ingredient.

Mixing began.

As Wayan measured the flour she let it mound at the top of the cup. “Here, Wayan. Like this,” I said, taking the flat side of a knife and leveling off the excess. “It’s important to measure precisely.”

When all the ingredients had been added and the mixture was well blended, I could tell from years of Snickerdoodle experience that something was wrong. There was no way we were going to roll that wet, runny dough into balls. I looked at my friend, my friend looked at me. “More flour,” we said. For the next ten minutes, I added indiscriminate mounds of the powdery white stuff while Wayan stirred. So much for my strict insistence on precision.

Finally, the consistency was the way I remembered it. There was only one test left to see how we’d fared. If the cookies held their shape during baking in spite of sunflower seed oil margarine, and if they didn’t become tooth-chipping rocks because of all the flour, I’d consider our bake-off a raging success.

After a trial run to test the oven for heat and length of time – during which one pan of Snickerdoodles suffered burned bottoms – the rest were perfect.

The three of us sat down to tea and coconut custard cake to celebrate our victory and laugh about the sorry attempt to introduce Wayan to the magical oven.


Teatime finished, we left with an invitation to come back and try something else soon. On the motorbike going home, I felt the need to explain. “Wayan…”

“Yes, Mom?”

I searched for words. “You know, culinary school won’t be anything like this.”

She laughed in that knowing, spirited way that defines her. “I hope so, Mom,” she said.

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