Bountiful Spices From a Fragrant Land Flavor Bali Cuisine

Lilies Garden restaurant entices diners with intriguing dishes

For Ida Ayu Candrawati, the day hasn't started until the offerings of flowers, rice, and fruit are placed at the shrines near her Lilies Garden restaurant.

As a thread of smoke from an incense stick swirls over the offering, Mrs. Candrawati, wearing a batik sarong, pink and purple blouse, and yellow sash; first lays the bananas, lychees, and brilliant blossoms on coconut palm leaves before the main Hindu altar and then quietly redistributes them to smaller shrines around the compound.

``Every day we ask our God to make our lives peaceful,'' she says, opening the restaurant for another day of business.

Candrawati's bamboo-and-thatch food haven beside a rice paddy is among an array of eating establishments that has mushroomed in Ubud, Bali, in recent years. When the Lilies Garden opened six years ago, this island cultural center nestled into the lush hills of central Bali had only about 20 restaurants.

Today, Candrawati says there are about 200 restaurants, a sign of the tourist and development boom that has crept up from the Balinese coast during the 1980s. It has made Ubud's characteristic tranquility increasingly elusive.

``When we built this, there were not too many restaurants in Ubud,'' says the restaurateur, whose husband also owns a bookstore and a transport company. ``Now there are so many, almost too many.''

But on any given velvet night, as a gentle breeze cools the air after the day's heat, you can take a walk down a narrow alley off Monkey Forest Road, turn right at the first rice paddy, and walk through the heavy carved wooden doors into the calm of Lilies Garden.

As the staccato sounds of frogs and crickets punctuates the quiet from the surrounding rice fields, and gamelan music tinkles softly in the background, Candrawati's waiters serve up a Balinese feast: siap base kalas - juicy chicken in spiced coconut milk with vegetables and rice; nasi urab - a Balinese style of mixed rice with green coconut, bean sprouts, and garlic sauce; siap sambel tomat - chicken wrapped in a banana leaf with tomato sambal or sauce. They also bring soybean curry with Balinese vegetables and brown rice; and beef satay with rice and peanut sauce.

A Lilies Garden specialty, Balinese smoked duck, must be ordered a day before to allow time for preparation.

Since morning, the restaurant staff has been at work in a kitchen where visitors choke for air amid the nose-tingling aromas of Balinese spices. Daily, the spices so crucial to Balinese cooking are gathered from the Ubud spice market where mounds of purplish shallots, pearl-white garlic, and an array of chilies compete with the rich fragrances of lemon grass, peppercorns, lemon-scented basil, pandan and salam leaves, and laos, turmeric, and kencur roots.

``The spices are the most important part of Balinese cooking,'' says Candrawati, watching her three-year-old daughter, Ari, play among the restaurant tables.

Balinese cooking re-flects the island landscape which is a tableau of abundance.

Among the verdant rice paddies and graceful coconut palms are orchards of tropical fruit trees, coffee plantations, and vineyards.

Rice is the centerpiece of Balinese meals, accompanied by small amounts of meat and poultry and an assortment of vegetables, including the wild leafy greens that people gather, spicy condiments or sambals, and extras such as peanuts and fried shallots.

Despite the rich fishing grounds surrounding Bali, people don't eat much fish because there are no natural harbors, the waters are dangerous for boats, and Balinese believe that the sea is haunted by evil spirits.

But people here do enjoy fare that many Westerners might hesitate to sample, including dragonflies, small eels, frogs, crickets, flying foxes, and some kinds of larvae.

Balinese eat only two meals a day with plenty of snacks, such as crisp fried crackers called krupuk; a bowl of mie bakso (meatball and noodle soup); or a sliced rujak fruit with pungent sauce. Food is cooked in the morning after a trip to the market and then left for the family to eat when they're hungry.

For the many festivals celebrated during the year, Balinese prepare lavish foods to present at religious rituals. At elaborate temple ceremonies, brightly dressed women form processions to bear artistic towers of fruits, flowers, and food on their heads and present them as religious offerings.

A few years ago, with the mass influx of tourists and growing disruptions of religious ceremonies, Ubud authorities put their foot down and now only allow foreigners in appropriate Balinese dress to watch.

Still, Candrawati says the tourist flood to Ubud, which did not have electricity until the 1970s or telephones until a decade later, is changing the town as well as her restaurant.

A few years ago she hired a visiting cook from California to teach her staff how to prepare western dishes. These appear on the Lilies Garden menu and are important in the increasingly competitive restaurant business in Ubud.

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