Preserving culinary culture in an Indonesian idyll
It’s day four of an ACU study tour to Bali and the 14 students on the trip have already sampled 35 different dishes, including traditional Balinese food, meals from the Indonesian mainland and neighbouring islands, and tropical fruit like durian and mangosteen.
“We tend to sample a lot of food,” says Sharon Croxford, Associate Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics at ACU, who led the group on the three-week international study experience to the Indonesian idyll. “It’s important to give students an opportunity to try the dishes and witness different food systems in action, because it helps to build food literacy and cultural awareness.”
With funding from the Commonwealth Government through the New Colombo Plan (NCP) and the Destination Australia Cheung Kong Endeavour Program (DACKEP), the study tour had and overarching theme of preserving food cultures and sustainable food systems.
Students who took part got an up-close look at the many differences between Bali’s culinary culture and ours.
“We gained such an insightful perspective on different cultural practices and ways of living, as well as learning new culinary skills and sustainable ways to eat and live,” says Alexa Carey, a Bachelor of Nutrition Science student at ACU’s North Sydney Campus.
“I thoroughly enjoyed all of the delicious food and was able to understand the huge difference between meals that are harvested straight from farm to plate, compared to meals made from the ingredients we buy in the shops here in Australia. The taste was out-of-this-world amazing!”
At the Casa Luna Cooking School in Ubud, students learnt traditional cooking methods like char-grilling sate lilit (minced meat skewers) on coconut husks, and using an ulekan and cobek (mortar and pestle) in a rolling-motion to make sambal.
“It was a lively and unique experience,” says Melinda Kouch, a Bachelor of Nutrition Science student at ACU’s Melbourne Campus.
“Learning to cook authentic cuisine is an activity I would recommend to everyone when visiting a new country, and just witnessing and experiencing the daily lives of the Balinese at a local level and not as a tourist was a humbling experience.”
Students getting their hands dirty.
Students were also exposed to the differences in eating patterns in Bali. While people in Western countries tend to value commensality, or the sharing of food with others, this practice is much less common among the Balinese. Meals are typically prepared in the morning and left in the kitchen for family members to help themselves.
“The tradition is to eat when you’re hungry, and often that’s done quickly and alone, and you are communicating with God as part of that experience,” says Associate Professor Croxford, whose research has explored culinary culture, beliefs and food habits in many parts of the world.
“That’s a huge contrast to how most Australians view eating, and this allows students to challenge their own lived experience and biases around the ways foods are consumed and produced.”
Students visited communities that were almost completely self-sufficient, using a blend of traditional and contemporary farming practices to achieve a sustainable food system.
“Apart from coffee and sugar, they grow and rear all their food within the village,” says Associate Professor Croxford, “and there’s a lot of sharing, too – ‘I’ll give you some tomatoes for some eggs’. It was really valuable for students to see that type of food system in action.”
But while a small number of villages have maintained the features of traditional Balinese communities, much of the island has suffered from the effects of mass tourism and intensive farming. Alongside the island’s transformation in recent decades to accommodate millions of tourists annually, a quarter of which are Australian, the “Green Revolution” of intensive agriculture has significantly damaged traditional farming practices.
As a result of both of these factors, the island’s culinary culture is at risk of being lost.
This shift away from traditional practices, along with the increased availability of Western-style foods, has had a negative effect on the health of the Balinese.
“There is research showing that the younger generations are embracing more Western-style eating, and that is impacting their health,” Associate Professor Croxford says. “We are starting to see increased rates of non-communicable diseases, particularly metabolic diseases like diabetes, and we’re yet to see the full impact of these shifts.”
Tourism has also had a detrimental effect on Bali’s landscape. As part of the tour, students visited communities where families rarely have enough drinking water to meet their daily needs. According to experts, the island’s water shortages are so dire that they’re affecting world heritage sites, food production, and Balinese culture.
“Tourism development plays a role, but part of it is just nature, because it’s very hilly and there aren’t many natural water catchment areas, and climate change is also wreaking havoc,” says Associate Professor Croxford, who along with ACU students joined villagers and representatives of Surge for Water in Seraya for a ceremony marking the completion of a water catchment and storage system.
“Being there gives you the full realisation that you can walk through a green paradise and not really understand that it’s dry, because it can be hard to fathom that a place that is so lush is lacking fresh water.”
The visiting students often got their hands dirty, working closely with I Made Chakra, who founded Tri Hita Karana to promote sustainability and environmental awareness projects in Balinese communities. They planted fruit trees in villages to support agroforestry, built and hung bee boxes for honey and pollination, and helped with manual weeding in rice fields.
“My favourite experiences were the ones that not all tourists get to experience,” says Alexa Carey, “like running through the jungle under the shelter of big palm leaves while it poured down on us, or getting all muddy and hot while weeding the rice farms.”
After the trip, many students arrived home with a commitment to serve as advocates for Bali, doing what they can to promote a different tourism experience to Australians who visit the island.
“Many Australians consider Bali a place for a short getaway filled with cheap food, bartering at markets, and a place to drink and party the night away – and I used to be one of them,” says Melinda Kouch. “Embarking on this study tour has enlightened the way I now see Bali, and it has so much more to offer.”
The fact that Bali is such a close neighbour and a popular tourism destination, as well as its rich culinary culture, make it an ideal choice for the study tour, says Associate Professor Croxford. She adds that repeat trips to Bali were being planned for both undergraduate and postgraduate students, with an application for additional NCP funds in progress and hopes that additional funds will become available through DACKEP.
“Australians have contributed to both the prosperity and the destruction of Bali, and this group of students represent a hope that, little by little, visitors to this island might play more of a role in helping Bali’s culture and environment to prosper,” she says.
“If we understand Bali more deeply, if we value its culture and traditions, we might be able to support positive change a bit more.”
Keen to explore a career in nutrition, dietetics or public health at ACU? Explore the options.
Find out more about the New Colombo Plan and the Destination Australia Cheung Kong Endeavour Program.