The Washington Post
The spice paste at the heart of Balinese cuisine
Cooks use intuition and feeling to create their versions of this multilayered, all-purpose seasoning
We arrived at Dapur Bali Mula in the village of Desa Les along the rugged northern coast of Bali just in time to prepare lunch. We were there to cook with chef and village priest Jero Mangku Dalem Suci Gede Yudiawan.
Once a busy restaurateur in Kuta, chef Yudi, as he’s affectionately known, has found solace in this tranquil seaside community, hours from the island’s over-touristed beach towns. During the pandemic, he opened a small restaurant where he showcases the bounty of his ancestral land: freshcaught seafood such as tuna and octopus; juruh, a housemade palm sugar syrup produced from lontar palm nectar; and sea salt harvested from the nearby coast.
Yudiawan led us into the open kitchen
with adjacent workbenches, one topped with an enormous volcanic-stone batu base (mortar and pestle) and another with two chunky wooden talenan (chopping boards). Glass jars filled with aromatics and spices lined a shelf at eye level. Woven bamboo baskets hung from the rafters above an earthen stove.
I studied a large metal bowl filled to the brim with ocher-colored spice paste: It was, as I learned, base genep (pronounced baa-ser geh-nep), an important, versatile spice paste used in many Balinese recipes, including ceremonial dishes such as duck roasted in palm leaves (bebek betutu) and everyday meals like shredded chicken (ayam suwir).
Base means “spice” and genep is “complete” in Balinese. And the multilayered paste lives up to its name.
Yudiawan pointed to an assortment of ingredients in a wooden bowl on the workbench: cabe merah (long red chiles), lengkuas (galangal), kunyit (turmeric), kencur (sand ginger, Kaempferia galanga), jahe (ginger), daun jeruk purut (makrut lime leaf ), cabe rawit (bird’s eye chiles), sereh (lemongrass), daun salam (Indonesian bay leaves), kemiri (candlenut), tabia bun (long pepper), lada hitam (black peppercorns), pala (nutmeg), terasi (fermented shrimp paste), bawang putih (garlic) and bawang merah (shallots). They all have a place in his base genep.
Combined, these ingredients layer the six tastes of the Ayurvedic tradition: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent. The Balinese also believe that the skin of rhizomes and roots has medicinal benefits and that when left unpeeled, they result in a more aromatic paste.
While the list of ingredients may seem daunting, spice pastes are the backbone of Balinese — and all Indonesian — cooking, and every Balinese cook has their own version of base genep. I’ve seen recipes with only a handful of ingredients — garlic, candlenuts, kencur and turmeric — and others with even more.
Traditionally, spice pastes are made with a mortar and pestle. Some pastes, such as base rajang, are finely chopped with a heavybladed cleaver called belakas. It does take muscle power, but there is a system to the pounding and grinding. First, the ingredients are chopped into small pieces. Then they’re added to the mortar with a pinch of salt to create friction. Harder ingredients such as galangal or turmeric go in first, followed by softer ones — garlic, shallots and the like. Dry spices such as nutmeg and peppercorns can be ground separately.
However, Yudiawan assured me that using a small- to medium-size food processor (not a blender) is okay.
Still, the rhythmic nature of pounding food with a mortar and pestle can be remarkably meditative: The act of handworking food connects cook and ingredients, allowing them to channel themselves into every dish. Hence it’s vital for the cook to have the right constitution: Think good, say good and be good, advises Yudiawan.
While he uses fresh ingredients — the Balinese way — it’s not always possible outside of Bali. In his cookbook “Paon,” chef I Wayan Kresna Yasa recommends substituting one fresh spice for ground in a 3-to-1 ratio (the ground ingredient should weigh a third of the fresh one). And, like Balinese cooks, feel free to substitute or omit ingredients as necessary.
While making spice pastes certainly takes time — you fry the paste in coconut oil anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours — they can be prepped ahead and used at a moment’s notice. The longer the paste is fried, the longer it’ll keep, so if you plan to use the paste the same day, 10 minutes should suffice.
When I asked Yudiawan for the proportion of ingredients that go into his base genep, he shrugged and smiled: Balinese cooks use their fingers as measuring tools and their tongues to taste, cooking with intuition and feeling rather than with instructions.
This became evident when he performed his culinary magic on the tuna brought in by local fishermen that morning.
Each dish is braced by base genep, and enhanced with rempah — various aromatic extras such as torch ginger or turmeric leaves — and penyedap, ingredients such as shrimp paste or fried shallots.
When we sat down to eat, I reflected on what I had learned that morning. In trying to emulate Yudiawan, I didn’t take down exact measurements or cooking times. How was I going to replicate these dishes in my home kitchen, I wondered.
In some way, I was given the freedom to experiment with what I learned — and my own senses — to create my version of base genep using ingredients available to me, and subsequently a recipe for ayam suwir (shredded chicken with Balinese spice paste). So even though I didn’t bring home any written recipes from my trip, I know that with practice and the right constitution, I can cook the Balinese way.