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    Unlocking Balinese cuisine

    Pat Tanumihardja

    THE WASHINGTON POST – We arrived at Dapur Bali Mula in the village of Desa Les along the rugged northern coast of Bali just in time to prepare lunch. We were there to cook with chef and village priest Jero Mangku Dalem Suci Gede Yudiawan.

    Once a busy restaurateur in Kuta, Chef Yudi, as he’s affectionately known, has found solace in this tranquil seaside community, hours from the island’s over-touristed beach towns.

    During the pandemic, he opened a small restaurant where he showcases the bounty of his ancestral land: fresh-caught seafood such as tuna and octopus; juruh, a housemade palm sugar syrup produced from lontar palm nectar; and sea salt harvested from the nearby coast.

    Yudiawan led us into the open kitchen with adjacent workbenches, one topped with an enormous volcanic-stone batu base (mortar and pestle) and another with two chunky wooden talenan (chopping boards). Glass jars filled with aromatics and spices lined a shelf at eye level. Woven bamboo baskets hung from the rafters above an earthen stove.

    I studied a large metal bowl filled to the brim with ocher-coloured spice paste: It was, as I learned, base genep, an important, versatile spice paste used in many Balinese recipes, including ceremonial dishes such as duck roasted in palm leaves (bebek betutu) and everyday meals like shredded chicken (ayam suwir).

    Base means “spice” and genep is “complete” in Balinese. And the multilayered paste lives up to its name.

    Yudiawan pointed to an assortment of ingredients in a wooden bowl on the workbench: long red chillis, galangal, turmeric, kencur (sand ginger, Kaempferia galanga), ginger, makrut lime leaf, bird’s eye chillis, lemongrass, Indonesian bay leaves, candlenut, long pepper, black peppercorns, nutmeg, fermented shrimp paste, garlic and shallots. They all have a place in his base genep.

    Combined, these ingredients layer the six tastes of the Ayurvedic tradition: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent. The Balinese also believe that the skin of rhizomes and roots has medicinal benefits and that when left unpeeled, they result in a more aromatic paste.

    While the list of ingredients may seem daunting, spice pastes are the backbone of Balinese – and all Indonesian – cooking, and every Balinese cook has their own version of base genep. I’ve seen recipes with only a handful of ingredients – garlic, candlenuts, kencur and turmeric – and others with even more.

    Traditionally, spice pastes are made with a mortar and pestle. Some pastes, such as base rajang, are finely chopped with a heavy-bladed cleaver called belakas.

    It does take muscle power, but there is a system to the pounding and grinding.

    First, the ingredients are chopped into small pieces. Then they’re added to the mortar with a pinch of salt to create friction. Harder ingredients such as galangal or turmeric go in first, followed by softer ones – garlic, shallots and the like. Dry spices such as nutmeg and peppercorns can be ground separately.

    However, Yudiawan assured me that using a small- to medium-size food processor (not a blender) is okay.

    Still, the rhythmic nature of pounding food with a mortar and pestle can be remarkably meditative: The act of handworking food connects cook and ingredients, allowing them to channel themselves into every dish.

    Hence it’s vital for the cook to have the right constitution: Think good, say good and be good, advised Yudiawan.

    While he uses fresh ingredients – the Balinese way – it’s not always possible outside of Bali.

    In his cookbook Paon, chef I Wayan Kresna Yasa recommended substituting one fresh spice for ground in a three-to-one ratio (the ground ingredient should weigh a third of the fresh one).

    And, like Balinese cooks, feel free to substitute or omit ingredients as necessary. While making spice pastes certainly takes time – you fry the paste in coconut oil anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours – they can be prepped ahead and used at a moment’s notice.

    The longer the paste is fried, the longer it’ll keep, so if you plan to use the paste the same day, 10 minutes should suffice.

    When I asked Yudiawan for the proportion of ingredients that go into his base genep, he shrugged and smiled: Balinese cooks use their fingers as measuring tools and their tongues to taste, cooking with intuition and feeling rather than with instructions.

    This became evident when he performed his culinary magic on the tuna brought in by local fishermen that morning.

    Each dish is braced by base genep, and enhanced with rempah – various aromatic extras such as torch ginger or turmeric leaves – and penyedap, ingredients such as shrimp paste or fried shallots.

    When we sat down to eat, I reflected on what I had learned that morning. In trying to emulate Yudiawan, I didn’t take down exact measurements or cooking times. How was I going to replicate these dishes in my home kitchen, I wondered.

    In some way, I was given the freedom to experiment with what I learned – and my own senses – to create my version of base genep using ingredients available to me, and subsequently a recipe for shredded chicken with Balinese spice paste. So even though I didn’t bring home any written recipes from my trip, I know that with practice and the right constitution, I can cook the Balinese way.


    In Balinese, base genep means “complete spice paste”. While Balinese cuisine has several different spice pastes, base genep – true to its name – is the most common and versatile.

    It is used to flavour meats and seafood, or to make soups and curries. While spice pastes are traditionally made with a mortar and pestle, food writer Pat Tanumihardja uses a food processor, though if you’d like to flex your muscles, by all means go for it.

    If using a mortar and pestle, don’t grind the harder herbs: Instead, slice the galangal into a-quarter-inch rounds, smash the lemongrass bulbs and add them when frying the paste.

    Tanumihardja prefers to keep the skin on the rhizomes as it’s believed the skin has extra nutrients and medicinal qualities, but feel free to peel, if preferred.


    – Five ounces shallots, peeled and coarsely chopped
    – Eight cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
    – Two long, fresh red chillis, such as Fresno or cayenne, stemmed and seeded, if desired
    – Four fresh red Thai chillis, stemmed and seeded, if desired
    – One (four-inch) piece fresh turmeric, coarsely chopped
    – One (two-inch) piece fresh ginger, coarsely chopped
    – One (half-inch) piece galangal, coarsely chopped
    – Two lemongrass stalks, outer layer removed, tops and bottom root ends sliced off (reserve the tops), tender white bulbs chopped into thin slices
    – Four tablespoons coconut oil, divided (may substitute with another neutral oil such as canola or safflower)
    – Half teaspoon shrimp paste
    – Two makrut lime leaves
    – Four cloves, finely ground
    – One teaspoon grated nutmeg
    – Quarter teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


    In the bowl of a food processor, combine the shallots, garlic, red and Thai chillis, turmeric, ginger, galangal, chopped lemongrass bulb, two tablespoons of coconut oil and shrimp paste, if using.

    Pulse (don’t process) until a smooth paste resembling cooked oatmeal is formed – a few coarse bits here and there are fine.

    In a large skillet or wok over medium heat, melt the remaining two tablespoons of coconut oil. Add the spice paste and cook, tossing constantly to ensure it doesn’t burn, until fragrant, three to four minutes. Add the reserved lemongrass tops, lime leaves (crumpled to release their essential oils), cloves, nutmeg and black pepper and continue cooking, stirring every few minutes and adjusting the heat as needed to prevent the paste from burning, until it turns several shades darker to golden brown/ocher, about 30 minutes.

    Remove from the heat and let cool completely. Discard any large herbs, transfer to a lidded jar and refrigerate until needed.

    Recipe adapted by food writer Pat Tanumihardja from chef Jero Mangku Dalem Suci Gede Yudiawan of the restaurant Dapur Bali Mula in Desa Les, Bali.


    In Bali, this simple dish is usually served with a scoop of rice and a side of fresh vegetables called lalapan – food writer Pat Tanumihardja prefers sliced cucumbers and tomatoes. A superb way to use up leftover rotisserie chicken, this recipe also works well with canned tuna. For a cross-cultural culinary twist, serve ayam suwir as a taco filling!

    You can use brown sugar instead of coconut or palm sugar, but consider using just half teaspoon of brown sugar because brown sugar is sweeter.

    If using cooked chicken, simply shred it as directed, and where the recipe calls for reserved cooking liquid, use water or chicken broth.


    – One pound bone-in skin-on chicken thighs or breasts or two cups shredded cooked chicken
    – Two makrut lime leaves, divided
    – Half teaspoon fine salt,
    – Six tablespoons base genep
    – Quarter cup unsweetened full-fat coconut milk
    – One teaspoon coconut or palm sugar
    – Two teaspoons fresh lime juice
    – Quarter cup chopped red bell pepper (optional)
    – Sliced long red chillis (optional)
    – Cooked jasmine rice, for serving
    – Sliced cucumbers, for serving
    – Sliced tomatoes, for serving


    Place the chicken in a small saucepan and add enough water to cover by one inch. Crumple one lime leaf and add it to the saucepan, along with a pinch of salt. Set the saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil, skimming off any grey scum that rises to the surface.

    Cover, remove from the heat and let sit until the chicken is cooked and registers at least 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the chicken away from the bone, 15 to 20 minutes. The juices should run clear when you pierce the chicken with a knife.

    Let sit until cool enough to handle, then shred the chicken with your fingers or two forks and reserve the cooking liquid.

    In a medium skillet over medium heat, stir together the base genep, coconut milk, two tablespoons reserved cooking liquid and the remaining lime leaf, and bring to a simmer.

    Add the chicken, sugar and half teaspoon of salt. Adjust the heat as needed to maintain a simmer, and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated but the chicken is still moist, five to six minutes.

    Add the lime juice, taste, and season with more sugar, salt and/or lime juice, if desired. Stir in the bell pepper and chilli, if using, until combined and remove from the heat. Remove the lime leaf.

    Divide the chicken among shallow bowls and serve with rice and vegetables.

    If using cooked chicken, simply shred it as directed. Where the recipe calls for reserved cooking liquid, use water or chicken broth.

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