Tempeh matters: the launch of Janet De Neefe’s Bali: The Food of My Island Home

Angela Meyer

Recently I attended the launch of Janet De Neefe’s new cookbook Bali: The Food of My Island Home. De Neefe moved to Bali 26 years ago after falling in love with the place and with a local man. She has founded two restaurants in Ubud: Casa Luna and Indus. She also founded the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, which I have attended twice: once as an audience member, once as a guest of the festival.

Gado Gado in Ubud

Her large and lavish launch brought a bit of the Ubud Writers and Readers Fest to Melbourne. We sampled tempeh, arancini balls, beef carpaccio with garlic aioli and potato, shallot and paprika tortilla, among others. I drank the De Bortoli Emeri Sparkling (there were also Mud Club wines on offer). There was a performance by two beautiful Balinese dancers, which took me back to my two trips to Ubud. Though there wasn’t the heat, the smells, the sounds outside of clucking chickens and hooting monkeys.

Speeches and performances were hindered by the large crowd but Ezra Bix did a great job MCing and shushing (besides a slight faux pas introducing the director of international tourism promotion for the Indonesian Ministry of Culture and Tourism Nia Niscaya as the wrong sex). Niscaya said in her opening speech there was ‘no more sincere love than the love for food’ and she hopes De Neefe’s next book will also explore other parts of Indonesia (outside of Bali). I hope to explore other parts of Indonesia, and South East Asia, one day too.

Nam Le gave the launch speech, where he compared the multitasker and ‘woman of many names’ De Neefe to the Great Gatsby. There is ‘some essential mystery’ about her, he said. They both own property, are unflappable, ignore the rules of time, are self-made, larger than life and have some darkness in their pasts… It was all very tongue-in-cheek, of course (and much better expressed that I’ve put it here). Le was a guest of the Ubud Festival last year.

Janet De Neefe

But there is some essential mystery about Janet. She manages to hold so many balls in the air, and essentially remain generous, calm, and a friend to so many. Family matters to her, writing and art matter, Indonesia matters, people matter, parties matter. And food matters.

Lily Yulianti Farid read a story about three women in one house in Makassar. Farid is the director of the Makassar International Writers Festival, and she told us she was encouraged by Janet to start this festival in her home town.

The final performers were some of my favourites: Emilie Zoey Baker, with her poem ‘Wet’, and Sean M Whelan and Isnod with three pieces about love and loneliness (find one here: ‘They Don’t Love Blue Like I Do’).

I feel lonely today, at the time of writing this. My sister has just left the house. She’s flying off to South East Asia for three months: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia. Not Indonesia, this trip, but I have told her some of my Bali stories to get her excited. I’m going to miss her a lot, as we have a nice rhythm working in the house together. She designs; I write.

I wish I were going, too. It’s only three months since my partner and I got back from a 10-week tour of Europe, so I really can’t complain, but I long to have that experience again: of new sensations, fun, openness, discovery and even a little bit of anxiety. Being on edge. New tastes and smells. There’s no routine, and there’s often a culture shock element, and you’re out of your comfort zone. And that is so good for you.

Imagine if, as Janet did with Bali, my sister just decided to stay over there. We never know what’s around the corner. I’ve fallen in love with a place, too: Scotland. I could give many reasons but they wouldn’t fully explain to you why. I want to go and live there, for a while at least. There are many other places I could live: Budapest, Berlin, Brasov, Ubud (that’s just of places I’ve been to) but the pull for now is for sparse moors, deep lochs, castles and whisky.

This was supposed to be a post about a launch, and it’s become a ramble, because today is a little hard. A little sad. Sometimes I just think about how strange it is that we naturally put ourselves in positions where we miss people. It’s necessary, to be whole. Moving away from our parents, living where we like or where we need to be, going overseas. One relationship of mine cracked because of my burning desire to move to Melbourne. I’m glad it did, now. But isn’t it strange how many of us seek new places? We want to learn about how others live but we also want to find out who we are in these places that – often for an unknown reason – we’re drawn to. My grandparents came from Norway and from Holland. They travelled all the way to a strange land to make a new life. And then, of course, there are people who move or are moved by force. One person I met at Ubud, Mo Tejani, is a Ugandan refugee who was at first forced to move, and later decided to make the world his home.

Since I was a child I’ve dreamt of a (moveable) house containing all the people I love and admire.

More delicious Balinese food

When I think about Janet, this is exactly what she has created. Her festival. It’s where the people she loves and admires congregate, to talk about meaningful things and also to play (the parties at UWRF are the best). The writers are from all over the world. And the festival is moveable. There was a small part of it in Melbourne last night. Many of the attendees travel together around Indonesia. Alumni run into each other at other writers’ festivals in Perth, Byron Bay, Sydney and in Singapore and India. Janet is often there. She brings her family with her.

Perhaps my sister and I, and all of you, can meet up in Ubud.

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