Hooked on quack: a blessed Bali high
The duck is revered in Bali. For the duck, that's unfortunate. Unlike India's sacred cow, which often roams the chaotic streets unchecked, the Balinese duck is venerated only after it's dead and on the dining table.
The Indonesian island enjoys a seemingly non-stop cycle of ceremonial days. The mix of Hindu, Muslim and Christian religions means a diverse cavalcade of processions of gods and goddesses, births and deaths, rice harvests and the triumph of good over evil. Unsurprisingly, food is the backbone of many of these observances, and the duck is a particularly prized ingredient. As the scrawny quackers waddle through rolling rice fields, they extract the most nutritious nuggets from the mud.
'This is seen as an ability to separate that which is pure from that which is poison - mertha versus wisya,' says restaurateur and long-term Bali resident Janet de Neefe, in her comprehensive cookbook Bali: The Food of My Island Home.
This old-school organic rearing places the duck at the top of the menu for ceremonial meals intended for priests. One of the most elaborate of these is bebek betutu, a time-consuming smoked duck dish.
'We used to [make] bebek betutu to be brought to the temple or during a ceremony as an offering,' says I Made Ardana, a chef at the InterContinental Bali Resort in Jimbaran Bay, who still shares the dish on special days with his family but also prepares it for guests at the seafront hotel.
These days, bebek betutu can be ordered at many restaurants around the island, but the nature of its preparation means that it can't be ordered on a whim.
'Two of the keys to the dish are the slow cooking of the duck over a fire of coconut fibre and rice husks for a minimum of eight hours, and the deep flavour and almighty aroma of coconut oil,' de Neefe says in her cookbook.
Also fundamental is a heady seasoning mix. Like all good traditional recipes, this varies between families and chefs, but usually includes the typical Balinese fresh blend of power-packed turmeric, shallots, garlic, chillis, ginger, candlenuts and peppercorns. These aromatics and other flavoursome essentials such as galangal and tamarind pulp are pounded in a mortar and mixed with fresh coconut oil.
'The foundation is coconut oil,' de Neefe says. 'It carries the weight of the spices.'
The wet paste is inserted into the cavity of the duck, which is then traditionally wrapped in thick bark from the coconut palm. Banana or even betel leaves can also be used. A terracotta lid is placed over the package, which is slow-cooked under those coconut fibres and rice husks. 'It's a tough sort of meat, so it needs a slow cooking process, which tenderises the flesh,' says de Neefe.
A modern-day shortcut substitutes the bark wrapping and open flames for a casserole dish and a moderate oven, but purists believe all of the original components create a moist, sophisticated dish that should melt in the mouth.
At Kafe Batan Waru in Ubud, it does. Ordered a day ahead, the waiter walks through the traditional airy thatched-roof restaurant proudly carrying the large platter. The duck rests in a fragrant oil with a yellow-green hue thanks to the concentrated goodness of all of the Balinese aromatics and the paste is now a brown pulp; it's not the most attractive of dishes, but that's all forgotten with the first mouthful.
The meat is smoky and intense, with the coconut oil achieving a depth of flavour that makes it difficult to pinpoint any one ingredient. There are lots of little shards of bone, but persistence is rewarded with moist dark meat, particularly on the fattier thighs.
The side dishes help enliven the table and are an ideal accompaniment to the complex duck. Steamed yellow rice soaks up the oil. A salad of young jackfruit and young papaya is a fresh contrast. Longbeans with chilli and coconut is a textural contrast, with the crunch of the beans and the burn of the chilli offsetting the soft meat. Three different intensities of chilli paste are also served.
De Neefe says bebek betutu is often enjoyed the day after Saraswati Day, which pays homage to the Hindu goddess of knowledge.
Understanding the story of the duck and its journey to the table does make the dish that little more enticing. But then, that's the beauty of the island with its many deities and tales. 'Everything has a story in Bali,' says de Neefe with a smile.