As the weather in New York City grows colder, my mind wanders back to Bali. This past summer, I lived in a house with my friend Glenn, who has a wonderful cook everyone calls Madé Geg (Madé means second-born and Geg, short for jegeg, meaning "pretty," signifies an unmarried woman). The soul of Madé's cooking is her spice paste, called bumbu. And like most Balinese cooks, the most imporant part of her pantry is a basket containing the ingredients to make bumbu, including an array of spices and aromatic rhizomes.
Most spice pastes start with red shallots, garlic, chili, candlenuts, fresh turmeric, ginger, fermented shrimp paste, and a redolent white root called kencur in Indonesian or cekuh in Balinese (“c” is always pronounced “ch”). Cekuh seems to be similar to lesser galangal, although I’ve also heard it referred to poetically as the "root of the resurrection lily." Occasionally, a bumbu will also include lemongrass, coriander, cumin, salam leaves, cloves and black pepper, as well as several things for which I have found no English equivalent. To crush the spices, Madé uses a large mortar and pestle, roughly hewn from black volcanic rock.
Here is a dish Madé made for me, called sayur urab, which is a stir fry featuring spinach and long beans mixed with shredded coconut and lots of bumbu.
Jaen pesan, Geg! ("Very tasty, Miss!")