March 22, 2011
Last fall in the mountains of Bali, we tasted a local delicacy that we ended up dreaming about for months: lak lak, small crumpet-like cakes made from rice flour. P, the kids, and I were all smitten and found ourselves scarfing down these Balinese tea cakes as though we hadn't eaten in ages. When we returned to Mount Batukaru last month, we knew we had to eat more lak lak. Johnny, our ever-gracious host at Bali Eco Stay, not only plied us with daily doses of these fresh Balinese cakes topped with palm sugar syrup and shredded coconut, he arranged for Lilah and I to go and cook with the lak lak lady.
It turns out there are lak lak all over Bali, with many regional variations, but Ibu Yoga is the lak lak goddess of Kanciana village. She makes hundreds daily to sell nearby. Being invited into a traditional Balinese kitchen was a first for me, and I was psyched. Ibu Yoga's kitchen is without fancy gadgets, electrical appliances, or even running water. Everything is cooked over a fire. I was awed by the beauty of the walls blackened with years of smoke and wondered just how many lak laks had been cooked there.
With very little verbal communication possible, I studied Ibu Yoga's technique and tried to glean her recipe. I watched closely as she made the batter. With her hands, she mixed only two ingredients, rice flour and very warm water, until the consistency was like watery paint. When I saw her special terracotta lak lak pan, I asked if there was somewhere I could buy one. She ended up giving me her old pan (the one used in these photos) assuring me she had a nice new pan for herself. I treasured her soot-covered ceramic pan and hoped that all its memories of lak lak-making with Ibu Yoga would lead to success in my own kitchen.
When we got back to our little Bali kitchen, I was itching to try my luck at lak lak. I knew that cooking over a wood fire was essential to Ibu Yoga's cakes. An open fire, aside from camping, is not the norm for me - so I put Ibu's pan over the gas flame and got cooking. Like Ibu, I heated water up in a kettle, chopped candlenuts for seasoning the pan, then I mixed rice flour and warm water with my hands until the consistency looked like the Ibu Yoga's batter.
My first few attempts at my own lak lak were not great: the cakes were too thick, chewy, or under-cooked. But after a couple of tries, I felt as though my brief training with the master paid off. Now, after school, I fire up the lak lak pan and my kids and their buddies line up panting and chanting for lak lak. Sometimes we top them with palm syrup and coconut in the traditional fashion. Otherwise we use a dollop of coconut cream and a sprinkling of coconut sugar, or even just a smear of Nutella.
In this year of traveling mostly in the world's rice belt, I have come to see rice and rice flour as astonishingly versatile ingredients. I never would have guessed that rice flour mixed with water could be transformed into something as delicious as lak lak. Even if Ibu Yoga's ceramic lak lak pan does not survive our journey home, I am going to try a cast iron aebleskiver pan on my gas stove top in Berkeley. We cannot live without lak laks.