Boozy In Bali

By Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi

We were lost. In was a pitch-black paddy field criss-crossed with canals. The rice paddies didn't have any artificial light after the sun set. A Balinese farmer was gesticulating wildly at us. How did we get here?

We were in Bali, in a beach resort in Jimbarin Bay and after three days of lolling by the pool and drinking colorful cocktails with paper umbrellas in them, I decided to find some local color and flavor.  The rest of my group was leaving for a Singapore shopfest.  Instead, a friend and I stayed behind, changed out of our flip flops and beach wear into rugged shoes and shorts and checked into an inexpensive hotel in Ubud (a part of Bali town that is not packed with fancy resorts, but instead had small lodges converted from old Balinese homes), for a few nights. We decided to get out and walk in Ubud, checking out the lovely leather and wood artifacts, picking up small souvenirs. Next on the agenda was a mapped walk through the beautiful paddy fields.

It was then that we chanced upon some real local flavor.  No more pina coladas and mai tais - not in Bali at least, we'd decided.  The intrepid saint of travel had heard us and presented us with an opportunity in the form of a small bar serving local wine and spirits. We'd heard about the many kinds of local rice wine brem (pronounced brum) and the many distilled liquors made from the many varieties of rice and palm sap on the island. Bali is the only Hindu island in the Indonesian archipelago, and has more drinking opportunities than the others, which follow Islam.

At the bar we happened upon, groups of Balinese men sat inside shooting the breeze. We sat cross-legged on a cushioned, raised platform, and asked the lone server what was good. He brought us two cocktails made with arak, the local spirit made from distilled rice or palm wine. The drink was served with a twist of lime, seltzer and such fixings.

Brem is Balinese rice wine, made by combining the glutinous white ketan variety, with the expensive black injin variety for color. This is cooked then left to ferment in bamboo barrels for three days until it yields a sweet wine with seven to 14 percent alcohol. Typically fermentation lasts three days, but longer will result in a stronger, more sour drink. It is a wine that grows on you. Brem tastes best when it is not commercially made. Since it is so easy to make at home, I would rather have it with a local who made it, than carry a factory bottle back and drink it outside Bali.

Arak comes from distilling either brem or palm wine. It yields a 40 per cent clear, almost tasteless, odorless alcohol in which you put a sweet mixer or other flavorful fixings. These are both traditional Balinese drinks, served as offerings to the gods and the deceased during festivals. Mere mortals, mostly men, ritually catch up on the day sitting at brem and arak bars, before heading home.

We had a couple of drinks and started walking towards the rice paddies, map from a guidebook photocopied for convenience, in our hands. It seemed poetic that we were going to the place where most of Indonesia's food and drink comes from.  I had a strong sense of connecting to the source of Indonesian food and the anchor of the nation's economy. All that rice would become mee goreng, nasi goreng, rice pudding dessert, and of course brem and arak. We were seeing the budding plants that formed the main ingredient of our drinks earlier that night.

The arak got to our brain an hour after we left the bar. Now a non-English speaking farmer with a torch was desperately trying to help us get home so we'd stop tramping through his fields. There was some pointing towards a canal. Just as we got to the end of the canal and the farm, a light came on. A bunch of naked farmers jumped into the pool of light formed on the water to wash up after their day. Startled at hearing a woman's voice, they did the smartest thing to cover up. They sat down to their waists in the water, just as we rose out of our arak stupor and walked home laughing.

Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi was the Food and Shopping sections' editor and the restaurant critic for Time Out Mumbai for three years before she followed her dream of studying at the French Culinary Institute. After graduating recently, Roshni is hoping to help her passport and pencil catch up with where her palate has been.