Feeding the soul and belly! Celebrating Galungan in Bali

Next week marks the most important Balinese holiday of the year. Galungan day occurs once every 6 months (give or take) and celebrates the victory of dharma over adharma (call it old fashioned “Good over Evil”). It’s such a powerful time of year in fact that the Balinese believe their ancestral spirits come back to visit the island during the whole 10 days of celebration. That makes for a full house! 10 days of feeding the Gods and 10 days of feeding the Family. This is a celebration we can relate to!

Here at Big Tree we’re also getting ourselves ready to take part in Galungan with the production of offerings beginning in the afternoon and the selection of and then erection of a beautifully decorated bamboo pole called a penjor which will be adorned with naturally harvested and crafted gifts representing life, the universe, health and happiness, education and bounty.

Galungan street scene

Balinese offerings of fruit and food

In Bali, food is more than just for human consumption. Balinese Hindus use food as yadnya, a sincere sacrifice offered to God, people and Bhuta Kala (negative forces). Offerings can be as big as meter tall stacks of fruits, topped with a roasted chicken or duck, or as small as a piece of banana leaf with a few grains of rice and other little things. Offerings vary in size depending on the type of ceremonies and the family’s financial ability. The most important ingredient, however, is sincerity when the offering is made.

Food Balinese Offerings

Galungan festivities revolve around food and brings new meaning to 'food of the gods'. All activities focus on feeding the spirits, feeding the families that come home in full force. Across the island, kitchens will be busy from 3 or 4 am. Imagine a dark, warm space, with bamboo and rattan workbenches, dominated by a large mud-brick fireplace. Every surface near the fire covered in a fine layer of soot, even the masses of cobwebs high in the rafters. The food being cooked in big, soot-blackened pots, balanced on the top of the fireplace; the fire being fed with with coconut husks.

Every day smells good in a Balinese kitchen, but the day before Galungan is extraordinary. The kitchen filled with the caustic aroma of chillies and terasi (shrimp paste) hitting hot oil; the heavy scent of hot rice and the sometimes fragrant, sometimes acrid smoke from the wood fire. The sheer quantity of the ingredients for the different dishes being prepared is awe-inspiring. The floors and benches covered with bags of groceries and heaps of raw ingredients waiting to be washed and peeled. Mounds of freshly grated coconut (shredded on flattened, recycled biscuit tins with holes punched through them) and piles of dark green vegetables: daun nangka (jackfruit tree leaves), paku (fern tips), kangkung (water spinach) and coils of snake beans.

Knives of all types are everywhere; fierce-looking machete-like cleavers and smaller blades for fine work, like peeling the turmeric and ginger to be added to the bumbu (spice base).

There is always a huge quantity of raw rice grains being washed and whirled around in bowls, before being drained into conical, woven baskets called kukusan. The baskets are then set to steam on top of specially-shaped pots (payuk)—designed to accommodate the conical baskets—filled with fiercely boiling water. The rice goes through two stages of cooking before it is ready; it is given a preliminary steaming until it is ‘padat’ (half-cooked) and then it is temporarily removed from the kukusan, rinsed in hot water and returned to the fire to be steamed again. The rice takes about an hour to cook through. Families cook around three and a half kilos of rice for each day of the Galungan festival. 

Rice in Balinese prayer

Rice is also used within the prayer rituals each person undertakes during this period as they welcome their ancestors back to this world. As a symbol of life, after each person has prayed they are given grains of wet rice to stick to their forehead, for good thoughts, and three grains to eat, to ensure good behavior.

Feeding the soul and feeding the belly- no wonder we look forward to this Balinese holiday!

For more on the food of Galungan, read this article