Balinese culture adheres by Tri Hita Karana, a traditional philosophy in which everything is sacred. As such, all food, and in particular rice, is sacred. We express our gratitude to food in our offerings–food is what keeps us alive, so it’s important for us to honor this.
A contemporary Balinese family goes in and out of the compound all day, at different times. Some work the land while others work in tourism. Typically the mother or grandmother of the house makes an early morning trip to the market and then cooks for the day. This food is stored in containers and everyone helps themselves, depending on their schedule. There are no designated dining rooms like in the West. We just sit down and eat anywhere. We enjoy our food for the purpose of enjoying food, and not for the conversation or the ambience.
Cutlery is a new concept in Bali, and now many people use it. When I was a child, we lived simply, scooping up our food with a coconut shell onto a banana leaf plate. We used our fingers instead of cutlery, so there weren't any dishes to wash. Everything was natural and compostable. Also, back then, we didn’t have glasses to drink with–we would either scoop from a big clay pot, or pour from a clay pot with a small opening and drink from that.
Many cultures talk while eating. For us, it’s a little different. When we’re eating, we’re just eating–not socializing. In fact, the only time we eat together is when we have a big ceremony of between 50 and 100 people, and we sit in small groups on the floor. We then place the dishes in the center of the circle and eat family style. During these meals, we scoop our food onto banana leaves from a communal basket (just like the old days). We call it magibung. There is a specific rule, which is that we eat together until everyone has finished: no one can stand up and leave until everyone is done eating.
In the old days, we only ate rice at ceremony time, but now we eat it every day. This is unfortunate because the quality of rice now is very poor. The white rice lacks nutrition, and as you have probably seen in the rice fields, the crops are all sprayed with chemicals. Also, now many Balinese are buying instant noodles and junk food that is full of sugar and chemicals. This food comes in cans and cardboard, which is contributing to the garbage problem. I also worry about the amount of imported and fried food we consume. For example, gorengan (snacks) are very popular, but they're deep-fried and unhealthy.
Although our ancestors didn’t think of nutrition as we do today, they knew how to farm organically because that was the only option. They ate less food but they were stronger. When I was a boy, we ate only twice a day. Although there is some nutrition taught in school now, the Balinese are basically blind to it. I have learned all that I now know from reading and talking to Westerners.
Sang Tu is the cultural liaison and facilitator at Bali Silent Retreat. For more information go to balisilentretreat.com and visit the Library Articles to read more articles written by him.
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