Rice enchants the senses
Text: Ann Bouwma
Photography: Roy Tee
Rice is one of the most important crops on earth. It is daily food for more than half of the world population and more rice is needed every day. On Bali rice is not merely on your plate, it is all around you. In fields, in temples, on foreheads. Rice here is a wealth, the centre of culture.
“Awas, bu!” When you have only just arrived on Bali and the tropical heat is embracing you sweetly, you sometimes don’t pay much attention to where you walk. Thus I have landed my feet on an offering. Not that this is a difficult task to perform. The main religion on Bali is Hinduism and the feats of folded palm leaf and coloured rice are often placed in the middle of the street, preferably in front of an entrance or exit. “Maaf, ya”, I mumble nodding at some young Balinese women, who watch my clumsiness with a smile.
The charm of the island does not take long to reveal itself. After leaving the southern tourist area behind, the landscape unfolds in eternally tilled rice fields (paddies), linked villages, bending bamboo bushes, heavy laden fruit trees and the mysterious shadow of the holy waringins.
On mountain slopes the paddies are terrace shaped, fields enclosed by earthen banks that bend and bow in compliance with the curves of the mountain. As if an artist has been moulding the soil with his bare hands. Sometimes the terraces slant downward into an emerald green amphitheatre.
In flat regions the paddies more often have a square shape. Still barren, they lie on the land like mirrors. In the morning you may find them wrapped in a haze, a few lonely palm trees stretching their fingers in the air as landmarks. And in the evening these paddies set an unimaginable fire to the landscape when reflecting sunset.
Team of oxen
This beauty presents itself as a denial of the hard labour of those that work the land. Farmers live a tough live. Traditionally rice cultivation in Indonesia is small scale, including fields for family consumption.
The farmers or petani’s work the land mainly by hand. They first plough the soil with a team of oxen. Then with a little pressure of their big toe they dig a hole in the ground in which the seed is to be dropped. The tiny blades later on have to be relocated in the rice fields. That is mainly a woman’s job. For hours they stand bent forward to put the little plants in long rows in the bubbling soil.
Usually farmers live in the villages nearby. On larger fields however, workers sometimes live on the spot. A folded sailcloth on poles, a couple of cooking pots and a ditch. A young woman is washing her baby in the brown water as we pass by. She does not raise her eyes. Others are busy in the field, wearing pointed hats and towels wrapped around their heads against the sun.
Workers in the field
Not everything is simply called ‘rice’ in Indonesia. The crop on the field is called padi, the grains that are harvested are gabah, rice as it is for sale in the shops is beras and boiled rice is known as nasi. In the process of reaching these different stages every spot available is used. Often the gabah is spread to dry alongside the road on straw mats or stretches of agricultural plastic.
When taking a walk over ladangs, the small footpaths between rice fields, you will see many balehs. These resting places are used to guard the crops against intruders that try to steel the ripened grains, such as the little birds called “prit-prit”, that go on rice hunt in swarms.
Also there is the constant sound of gurgling water, caused by an ingenious plan for water supply that runs its course from one terrace to another. This irrigation system is managed by a subak, a farmers union for the water board district. The subak also decides where temples should be built and when rituals are to be performed in honour of Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice, to beg for a prosperous harvest.
Drying the rice
After China and India, Indonesia is third in place on the list of most important rice producing countries in the world, Vietnam coming up fast at the rear. However in the top ten of exporting countries Indonesia is nowhere to be found.
For reasons such as small scale production and high population density the whole yield is processed and consumed at home. On the average Indonesians each digest 150 kilograms of rice a year.
With an ever growing world population more and more rice is needed. The United Nations pronounced 2004 to be the Year of the Rice, to call attention to the question how to increase rice crops in a durable manner. New species have been introduced, and although ranking higher in resistance, these are of course still depending on the use of fertilizer and pesticides.
At all events, the traditional Balinese rice, growing one and a half meter in height, sagging its tops when ripening, is almost ousted. Well, almost but not quite. North of Tirtagangga this traditional variety is still cultivated as far as the eye can see when standing on the road that curves in rear of the water palace.
In favourable weather conditions the traditional rice can be reaped twice a year. However, competition with the new variety is tough. The main kind IR36, on Bali simply called tiga-enam, grows merely half as tall and can be harvested three times a year and results in a higher yield per acre. But what about the taste? “Not half as good”, foodies will tell you.
Realising how important rice is for the planet, you come to a greater respect for every step of the way, from seed till grain. The fields, the rituals. The shape, the taste.
When a Indonesian eats with his hands, he folds four fingers together like a cup to form a small ball of rice, which he then shoves in with his thumb. Easily done, isn’t it? But for the western tourist eating like this is a miracle of skill.
It is only every so often that you do manage. One time we stopped over at a little restaurant by the roadside, attracted by three cooks that where stirring up a fire under huge frying pans. Wooden bridges over a fishing pond connected different dining corners, of which one was taken by a company dressed in uniforms.
We stared at the menu, counting more than twenty different dishes. Thanks to the wonderful aromas passing our table while saucers were being transported to the other guests, we discovered just in time that here you only order one specific dish: the fish that swims beneath you. Gurami, served in three variations. We chose the fried one, that came with water spinach (kangkung) and hot sauce (sambal). The gurami was notched and fried dry, so you could peel off slices smoothly. Ball of rice, bit of fish, dip in and relish!
First published in ‘Te Gast in IndonesiÃ«’ (Uitg. IVR, may 2008; ISBN 978-90-76888-91-0)