Bali from the kitchen benchtop

My sister used to make a magic lemon meringue pie when we were teenagers: the perfect balance of tart lemon curd, buttery pastry and billowing meringue that she whisked to an impressive height. This firmly entrenched food memory – one i’ll remember on my death bed, i’m sure (thanks Sister Darling) – meant Janet De Neefe’s lime-papaya meringue pie, in her new cookbook Bali: Food of my Island Home, had a lot to live up to. I wasn’t disappointed.

I first stumbled across De Neefe’s work in 2003, when – ahead of a trip to Bali – I read her memoir Fragrant Rice, in which the Australian-born cook explained how she fell in love with the island paradise and a Balinese man, and went on to run successful restaurants and a cooking school in Ubud in the foothills of Bali’s volcanic mountain range. During that trip I sought out, and participated in, one of De Neefe’s cooking classes and ate at her café. Her cookbook brought those memories flooding back.

De Neefe’s cookbook neatly packages her 30-year food history with the island nation. She shares the recipes and knowledge of Indonesian cuisine that she has accumulated over the years. She discusses the country’s culture and traditions at the beginning of each chapter which lends the book a narrative feel. Likewise, each recipe begins with an explanation of its origin, or importance, or ingredients – something that makes it more than just words on a page.  Mark Roper’s photography is stunning, encapsulating the Balinese culture, people, and of course the country’s spice-loaded food.

A whole chicken braised in spices was supposed to be shredded after cooking, but it practically fell off the bone. The recipe – which included a small mountain of red chilli – resulted in subtly spiced chicken flesh that was slightly yellow in colour from fresh turmeric. It yielded several litres of broth, much of which I ended up freezing. I’ll poach chicken in it for a quick after-work meal. A friend, who made the recipe before me, added coconut cream to his leftover broth, which he served with chicken in a variation on De Neefe’s theme.


Braised chicken with balinese spices by Mark Roper

Chilli beef noodles were heavy on chilli and hearty due to the inclusion of Chinese cooking wine and seeded mustard. There was a lovely soupy slurpiness to them due to the incorporation of the wine and several sauces. Leftovers were boxed up for lunch the next day.

The lime-papaya meringue pie was a huge success: the red papaya flesh gave the curd a wonderful orange hue that didn’t taste as tart as the traditional lemon variation. My meringue deflated a little post-cooking but that was down to my novice egg white whipping abilities. In the twitter sphere later that day @Bridget_Cooks tweeted on how to make the perfect meringue. Perhaps De Neefe could have included some foolproof tips with her recipe.

De Neefe’s savoury dishes include lots of kaffir lime leaves, chillies, lemongrass, ginger, galangal, and garlic. They require plenty of pounding, blitzing and fine chopping. But the results are worthwhile. I’ve already bookmarked the pages for pork belly with Balinese spices, spiced roasted duck, and coconut panacotta – I’m looking forward to putting those recipes to the test.

If I could change anything about the book it would be its size. It found it unnecessarily big (on the tall side) making it a little impractical on the kitchen bench. There’s a lot white space on the recipe pages, which indicates it could have been condensed in size. But with its glossy cover and beautiful photography it’s certainly an attractive inclusion to any recipe collection. It may be some years since I visited Bali, but De Neefe has re-stirred memories and a taste for meringue pie.

Bali: The Food of my Island Home
Pan Macmillan
RRP $59.99

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Filed under Book Reviews

14 responses to “Bali from the kitchen benchtop

  1. Great reading, as always. Love the candor in your reviews. Your sister’s lemon meringue pie sounds divine!


    • Thanks Lizzie – i enjoy writing cookbook reviews partly because i find good one difficult to come by when i’m considering buying a book.
      Food magazines/newspapers usually devote a couple of paragraphs – or regurgitated media release waffle – to cookbook reviews, and there is little room for honesty!


  2. I feel like the only Australian who has never been to Bali, which naturally means that I have never tried Balinese food. It sounds delicious, though! I love anything with those ingredients you listed.

    It’s interesting that you commented on the size of the book. In fact, I am relieved! Quite a few chefs have brought out these massively sized books which are perhaps good for the coffee table, but what’s the use of a cookbook on the coffee table? I have in mind Peter Gilmore’s Quay and David Thompson’s Thai Street Food … the latter being a book which I am hoping will be released in a “normal” size before I purchase it. Big is not always better 😉


    • Exactly, i have several large cookbooks that just sit on a shelf unused because they’re so pain in the butt to handle on the kitchen bench.
      I have to say, i am a HUGE fan of David Thompson’s Thai Street Food, which sits on my coffee table. However, while i cook from it, it’s always a bit of a fight in the kitchen.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  3. Thanks Lizzie – I enjoy writing cookbook reviews, partly because I find them hard to come by when I’m weighing up whether to buy a book or not. Cookbook mags tend to give them two paragraphs – in which there is little room for negativity.
    Of course, it’s also an excuse for trying some of the recipes!


  4. Great review-very honest, there are so many cookbooks to choose from nowadays! I love visiting Bali, it’s such a magical place.


  5. I’ve actually never been to Bali, but it’s a place I’ve been wanting to go to for a long time. Great review on the book as well! Makes me want to buy it. 🙂


  6. A beautifully written review! I remember reading about this book elsewhere and having a good impression of it. I haven’t been to Bali but I have no doubt I would like the food there, and the dishes you mention here sound delicious.


  7. Oh, it’s such a long time since I was in Bali – and I can’t see myself getting there any time soon, sadly. I might just have to hunt down a copy of this one to rekindle my memories – thanks Rachel.


  8. Lindi Sheehan

    Thanks for a great book review.
    With your recommendation in mind, I had peep throught the book today and it is gorgeous – lovely photos. I’ll have to add the book to my wish list for 2012.
    I do agree with you re the size of the actual book though


    • Hi Lindi
      Thanks for checking in at The Food Sage.
      You can borrow my book whenever you like!
      I am just about to return to Sydney from a trip to Burma and I have Burmese food on my mind and a new cookbook in my backpack, so Balinese cooking won’t get a look in for a while!!!
      Speak soon x


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