A Taste Of Bali On The North Shore

I had my slippahs blown off the other day. It was a lazy, sun-filled afternoon and I was interviewing Yantini Wood of Warung Bali at her home in Kilauea. I had nothing to go on except an invitation from Matt Wood to try his wife’s fare. After one bite, her food grabbed my attention and I was seduced by the fresh, light Balinese cuisine layered with intense flavor. And if you like things spicy, as in burn-your-tongue-off scorching, there are sauces and garnishes to play with. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Historically, Chinese and Europeans called Indonesia the “Spice Islands” for its vibrant nutmeg, mace and clove trade. Indonesian cuisine is diverse, in part because the country is composed of some 6,000 populated islands. The dishes of Eastern Indonesia are similar to those in Polynesia and Melanesia, which includes staple foods such as sweet potato, taro, cassava and breadfruit.

Wood was born and raised in eastern Bali, a province of Indonesia. As a girl with six siblings, she was destined to be a good cook.

“When you live in Bali, all the women have to know how to cook,” Wood explains. Her soft voice struggles to find the right words. Her accent is thick but her voice is light, joyful and patient. “When I was 10 years old, I began helping my mother cook food that she sold at the farmers market.”

Wood uses these family recipes, along with farmers market produce and local fish, to expertly weave spice into her food. On her table, fragrant aromas rise from a large platter filled with popular dishes. Banana leaves have been folded into little bowls and loaded with enticing meat, fish, noodles and vegetables. Four condiments allow you to add as little or as much heat as you like.

Sticky cubes of grilled pork are held together on a stick. One bite of her pork satay and the world disappears. As I savor the moment, I look at the caramelized meat and wonder how there’s so much flavor in the unassuming national dish of Indonesia.

“I cut and marinate pork shoulder in freshly ground coriander, white pepper and lemongrass from my yard that I dried and ground really fine,” she explains, “kaffir lime leaves, also from my yard, and sweet shoyu, which we call kekap manis in Bali.”

Even though the glistening cubes don’t need it, I dunk the pork in a flavorful peanut sauce because it’s there. Wood grinds roasted peanuts and blends the smooth mixture with garlic, black bean sauce, a Hawaiian chili pepper and kaffir lime leaf. It’s a savory combination with toothy bits of peanuts.

Wood’s Chicken Larb, made with toasted rice, kaffir lime leaf, soy sauce, sesame oil, tomatoes, shallots and lemon-grass, is served in a lettuce cup. I drizzle dipping sauce over the larb and the light, fresh dish bursts with flavor.

My favorite dish still stumps me. The meat in the Chicken with Balinese Sauce feels creamy in my mouth, even though there’s no cream. Chicken breasts are poached in turmeric, garlic, lemongrass and salam leaf, also known as Indonesian laurel. After it’s cooled, Wood shreds the chicken and mixes it with fresh lemongrass, garlic, ginger and shallots. The dish is outstanding and has moved to the top of my “Last Meal” list.

Wood makes sambal, a popular chili-based condiment with tomatoes, habanero and Hawaiian chili peppers, as well as a fiery garnish with crunchy nuggets of roasted garlic and dried Hawaiian chili peppers. I find myself adding a dab of sambal or a sprinkle of the roasted garlic blend to every bite I take. I’m so hungry for her food, I ask if she does cooking classes.

She does. “I charge $75 per person for cooking classes, with a minimum of two people,” she explains. “That includes all the ingredients and I go to where they live. Sometimes, they want me to make extra food because the husband doesn’t want to take the class, but he wants to eat!”

Wood is a private chef who cooks for groups of as few as two people and up to 75. Every Saturday at the Hanalei farmers market, she serves a selection of main dishes. One main item ($8) comes with a vegetable side dish and steamed white or brown rice. A combo plate ($10) includes two mains, and if you want a little of everything, it costs only $12. On Oct. 5 and 6, Wood will be serving her food at the Coconut Festival in Kapa’a.

Warung Bali

Marta Lane is a Kaua’i-based food writer. For more information, visit TastingKauai.com.