Sunday, October 26, 2008

Interview with Janet De Neefe - Fragrant Rice

Fragrant Rice -By Janet De Neefe

Interview by Tamarra Kaida

(Interview takes place at Casa Luna Restaurant starting with plates of Turkish bread and guacamole and chilled Chardonnay)

TK- You are a talented painter, successful restaurateur and cooking teacher. What factors brought you to write your memoir, Fragrant Rice.

JDN -I had wanted to write a cookbook about Balinese cooking. Then when I was teaching my cooking classes I talked about cooking, my life in Bali and about raising my children here as Balinese. People would say “Oh, but you must include the stories about your life.” People were intrigued with what life was like for a westerner in Bali. So, my cookbook developed into a memoir.

TK- So your students inspired you to become a writer.

JDN- Oh absolutely!

TK- Food is the element that sifts through your book and your life in Bali. To what do you attribute this passion for cooking and food?

JDN- I think you are born with your passions, especially if you have an artistic bent. I was born with a passion for food. It has always been an important part of my life. When I was young I was always experimenting with pastries and god knows what else. When I was about twelve I was always making up cookbooks, cutting and pasting recipes
together. I drove my mother nuts. When I came to Bali with my parents, I was fifteen and discovered peanut sauce and curry. I just loved it. I was comfortable with Bali and right away I felt I could live here at the drop of a hat. When I came back in 1984. I still had that thought of writing a Balinese cookbook. I knew I wanted to do that.

TK. So you have a lot of different passions. Where does painting fit in?

JDF Actually, it was my primary passion and I wanted to pursue a career in art. I never studied cooking in school as I thought no one needs to teach me that. So yes, I have many passions.

TK- When you are not cooking Indonesian, what kind of food do you like to make?

JDN- I cook a lot of food. When I am in Australia I cook a lot. I don’t have time to cook here, as I am director of cooking in the restaurants. but when I am in Australia I cook everything under the sun. I do lots of Mediteranian dishes. I make Risotto and I make casseroles. I just love it. I love experimenting with curries and sauces. I like cooking for my Mom and Dad. Usually they cook for themselves. But they are getting old so I like doing the best I can for them.

TK: So is cooking is a way of showing love?

JDN-Oh, totally, absolutely.

TK -What do cooking and writing have in common for you?

JDN- They are both creative. When I get on a roll with writing, I love it so much! I am painting in my mind. And I am mixing and sifting and it is like cooking. Combining words is like mixing ingredients. In the end you have some thing that is… well your own. Writing is so personal. It is a very intimate relationship you have with your mind, your pen and a piece of paper. It is very personal. And then you publish it and suddenly BAM! Everybody knows about it. I never really thought about that and why would you want to publish that? … But yes, cooking and writing… I love writing about cooking. It is a passion.

TK- In your memoir you write about falling in love with your Balinese husband, Ketut, and about living with your in-laws in a Balinese compound in Ubud. You tell about your four children. What were the easiest and the hardest issues to write about?

JDN- The easiest are the joyful incidences. The ceremonies, the weddings, those everyday sorts of occurrences. The hardest was revealing more about my relationship with Ketut. Not that I went into it that much. It was no longer just about me but the family. I wanted to be respectful of their feelings. The most sensitive thing was writing about the bomb. But that was different. It was a sad kind of thing. The last sections I wrote were about Ketut.

TK- So, you wrote it in sections, not straight through.

JDN – Stories about Bali and stories about the kids I wrote years ago. I went over sections. I rewrote and fine-tuned previous writings. I decided to write more personally when it felt important to answer all those questions people asked about my life with Ketut. So I wrote about how we met and all that. I figured if I was asked those questions again I could just say. Please read the book.

TK- Did Ketut agree to that?

JDF- No of course not ! (Some laughter) He felt all that had nothing to do with the book. Then one day we had a good friend visit us and we were talking about writing about me meeting Ketut and our friend said, “What do you mean that has nothing to do with the book, Ketut, you are the book. She wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.” Ketut thought about it and just nodded his head. He didn’t say anything but from then on I knew I could write about it.

TK- Has he read the book?

JDN- No he already knows what’s in it and he only reads books about religion anyway. My son Krishna saw the book on the kitchen table and said hey, there’s my picture. How did that get in there? And suddenly I realized that I had sort of exposed the kids to public platform and I had never really thought about. I hadn’t asked them, they were young and wouldn’t have understood but I had to wonder what had I done?

TK. Well, you have to be a risk taker to get things started.

JDN- Yes, I am impetuous. It is the same with the Festival. If I get an idea, I just do it and deal with the repercussions later. I have to say “ maaf, maaf” (sorry) to a lot of people later. I do what I do with the kindest, sincerest intentions, but I don’t always think it all through beforehand.

TK. What do you think is the most important aspect of Fragrant Rice?

JDN- Oh, the stories. I see my self as a person who stratles two cultures. I want visitors to understand Balinese culture better. I guess I’m an interpreter. I saw it in the cooking classes. I realized my job was to inform people and help them to understand the richness and beauty of Balinese culture. The book is an extension of that realization.

TK- In what ways did publishing your book “’Fragrant Rice” affect you starting and directing The Ubud Writers and Readers festival?

JDN- Well, even before” the Bomb” I was thinking of how there was no active tourist body/ office that actively promoted Bali. We are on our own. India has a huge promotion agency. I felt Ubud, in particular, needed a stronger identity. When people think of Bali they think of Kuta.They think of beaches, braids, and bars. No one thinks of Ubud. So I started to think of how the culture and arts could be brought up front. After “the Bomb”
we were all talking about how there are no festivals in Ubud. Byron Bay in Australia has a festival almost every week. I love Ubud and the people and I want to promote it. When I published the book I started to think about starting a writer’s festival in Ubud. I knew I would be invited to other writers festivals and I thought why not one in Ubud? Ubud needs something that works with its character. It needed something for the thinking person. I talked to my friend Heather and we decided to do it. There it is. I just jumped in off the deep end.

TK- I’m glad you did. One of the reasons I volunteered to work on it is that it is an idea whose time has come. The mix of Indonesian, Western/ Asian/ writers, poets is already unique and valuable. It is time for Ubud to benefit from its bicultural creative, intellectual persona and come into the twenty first century as a positive image of Indonesia. We need a new image of Ubud. One that goes beyond the 1930’s, Walter Spies and all that creative ferment. There are exciting people from both East and West here and it feels like the time for a renaissance is possible despite the bomb and the economy. Something new needs to be born. Maybe we need to revisit the Phoenix bird. The symbol is powerful and appropriate.

JDN- Yes, Ubud is home to writers and artists. As we know Writers Festivals create a huge audience and bring in all sorts of creative people. I wondered, how could I make a lasting effect on this community, where I could eventually step back and let the locals reap the rewards? And also as a mother with children, how could I benefit their lives and effect the education process etc. It was one of those things where you try and work on many levels at once. That is why we have a children’s education program and why we have special Indonesian panels and discussions events. We are working from an inclusive multi- cultural model.

TK – What do you hope will develop from the Ubud Writers Festival?

JDN- All sorts of things. I think this could become one of the most important events in Southeast Asia. Ubud is a showcase for Balinese culture. We have dance, art, performance, and music. It is important to not underestimate these things. And most important we have the hospitality of the local community. We have rooms donated, food donated. Help of all kinds you don’t always get that in other festivals. There is great potential here.

TK –So you feel supported by the local community?

JDN-Totally, I mean a new idea always has people on the edge who are unsure of what is happening. Perhaps I did things the wrong way. Because as I said I’m impetuous and I have jumped in off the deep end, but eventually the Festival will have such wide reaching benefits that people can’t refuse that. I apologize if I made mistakes and I am sure I made many. But nothing ventured nothing gained. All I can do is try and follow my vision

TK- What is your hope for the future of the festival?

JDN- Eventually, I want to be able to step back from it. I want it to be under the umbrella of the Saraswati Foundation.

TK- What are some of your other dreams for events in Ubud?

JDN- Eventually, I want to see more arts and literary events happening in Bali so that we can bring in writers from all over the world who may be on there way elsewhere but would come to Bali for a workshop or reading. I would also like to bring the food element back in and have special events with food writers and famous chefs.

TK- So, food remains the center of your creative vision.

JDN. Munch, munch, munch. Yes, I guess it does
(The interview concludes with mango tarts and hot frothing cappuccino.)

1 comment:

kesha said...

A simple plain basmati rice infuse with the flavour of a few spices is all that is needed with many Indian dishes.Fragrant basmati rice complements dishes rather than compete with them.The rice should have evaporated and the rice should be tender.Remove the spices from the pan and serve.