Into the Kitchen: Snapshots of a Balinese Paon

Indonesian-Australian writer Tjok Maya Kerthyasa journeys from mist-cloaked mountains to sandy shores, encountering spice pastes, forest foraging and elaborate ceremonial celebrations, as she explores the kitchens of Bali for a new cookbook.

Paon is the Balinese word for kitchen. My personal understanding of the kitchen is that it is a universal symbol of our interconnectedness with nature. It's where we take the fruits of nature and alchemise them into nourishment and medicine with the help of the elements. It's also where living plants and animals sacrifice their lives to sustain ours.

In Bali, we honour the various energies in the kitchen who help us turn food into nourishment by placing offerings near the water source or beside the flames. So, the Balinese kitchen is a cooking space, but it's also a place of inter-dimensional communion where we recognise that our food is not the result of our efforts alone, but of the entire ecosystem that comes together to help bring it into being. In short, we see it as a place of creation. And that's one of the reasons why it's so integral to life in the region.

I feel the world still has a lot to learn about true Balinese food. Our culinary heritage is one of provenance and reverence. All the best cooks I knew growing up (and know today) work mainly with foraged or home-grown ingredients such as papaya leaves, banana-tree trunk, bamboo shoots and torch ginger flowers. These kinds of foods are far more common in home kitchens than they are in restaurants, and so my hope is that, through this book, more and more people outside Bali will want to access them and appreciate them in the same way that I do.

Here, food is medicine; food is a vessel for expression; food is an offering. Sometimes it serves as a ceremonial invitation, other times it's prescribed to cure ailments. Different dishes possess different meanings and energies that are tailored to go beyond feeding the human being. So, while we do eat for pleasure and for sustenance, we also cook for the nourishment of the Universe as a whole. I think that's really special.

I decided to write a cookbook with Wayan [I Wayan Kresna Yasa, the Balinese chef behind Pererenan restaurant Home] about "real" Balinese cooking to share the wisdom and teachings that exist within the country's culinary universe. We have such a unique culture here. It binds us to the land and our community, as well as the unseen and the divine. Writing this book allowed me to deepen my understanding of this and communicate the importance of preserving these practices in our modern lives. And then, of course, it was also about sharing the foods I love and grew up eating with people around the world.

The Lowdown

Paon: Real Balinese Cooking by Tjok Maya Kerthyasa and I Wayan Kresna Yasa is published by Hardie Grant Books (£26) and is available to purchase at Follow @mayakerthyasa on Instagram.