“A Feast for the Spirits” – Balinese Food Traditions of Galungan

Central to Balinese culture is the belief in spirits. Taking multiple forms, they are regarded as Gods, ancestors, and energetic forces. They are believed to be everywhere – existing internally and externally, found within each person and also amidst the outer world. The religion of Bali is distinct from other islands of Indonesia; it is a unique version of Hinduism, found no where else on earth. Intrinsic to the culture are numerous rituals and ceremonies that occur throughout the year, spanning from daily offerings to more colorful, elaborate holidays.

Occurring twice a year on the Balinese calendar is the occasion of “Galungan”, when it is believed that ancestral spirits visit the earth. Decoration, celebration, and religious processions all welcome their presence. The holiday also symbolizes good (dharma) winning over evil (adharma). Visits to temples take place on the main day, but ceremonial activities commence days before. A highlight of the occasion is a family feast of “Babi Lawar”.

“Babi” means pig or pork, and “lawar” refers to a mixture of minced meat, shredded coconut, rich spices, and vegetables. It can be created with any meat, but for Galungan the traditional meal revolves around pork. The process begins two days before the actual holiday, a time known informally as “slaughter day”. Groups from each neighborhood collaborate in the process, sharing the meat among a number of families. Its the men of the village that perform the process, but not until the pigs have been ceremoniously blessed. Flowers and foods atop a banana leaf basket are placed on the animals along with Chinese coins (a symbol with deep ties to Balinese history). A spritzing of holy rose water completes the blessing.

Now ready to be sacrificed, the pigs are weighed then transported to a distant location in the rice fields. It is there that they will be slaughtered and cleaned, before the meat is carried back to the village for preparation. Sizes vary, but on average one pig will feed about twelve families.

“Slaughtering the pig represents killing the bad spirits. Families believe that it brings good luck for the future.”

Early the following morning, the culinary process ensues as the meat is readied for the feast. Within each home, the men of the family can be seen sitting cross legged, energetically preparing a multitude of ingredients. One is finely chopping chili peppers, another is cutting the flesh of young jack fruit, while someone else prepares the green papaya. Large pieces of coconut meat are toasted on the fire, then shredded by hand. Multiple parts of the pig are each prepared separately – meat is minced, boiled skin is finely chopped, and fat is diced into pieces. Raw pig’s blood is mixed with the shredded coconut, yielding a colorful combination to be later incorporated in each dish.

Next come the herbs and spices, which add depth and rich flavor to the creations. There are finely chopped lime leaves, freshly torn bay leaves, fried red onions, salt, palm sugar, and “terasi”- a savory, fermented shrimp paste. Another bowl is filled with “base gede”, a potent mix of Balinese plants that includes multiple varieties of turmeric, ginger, galangal, garlic, and chili, plus herbs like lemongrass, clove, and nutmeg. It’s a staple of Balinese cuisine and a critical component of “babi lawar”. It also functions medicinally – these plants help to kill any bacteria that may be lingering in the food.

Bowls and plates of the carefully crafted ingredients become scattered around, waiting to be involved in the final stage of mixing. It is a multi-step process that is handled methodically by the master mixer, typically the eldest male of the family. The herbs and spices are tossed with the meat, conjoined with Balinese coconut oil. Then, the mixer will intuitively draw from the bowls around him, sequentially combining ingredients to create a series of lawar dishes. One includes jackfruit, another green papaya, while another traditional dish utilizes crunchy mung beans. As the flavors are combined, the mixer periodically tastes his work, sharing samples with other family members and asking for feedback. By the end, five or six distinct dishes have been created.

The culinary process, which takes hours, is finalized by a relatively short feast. Everyone lines up to taste the spread, sampling each lawar variety atop a bed of rice. In traditional Indonesian style, families will sit together, cross-legged, devouring the food by hand. For Galungan, additional plates of food may be served for family members that have passed. Placed symbolically in the eating area, the food welcomes the ancestral spirits who are visiting for the special occasion.

Here’s the process in action:


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