A Little Journey: Balinese Gado-Gado
March 24, 2014
Germany is a country of church bells. They ring the hour languorously – glottal chimes layered one upon the other, deep, dull peals. From my apartment, I can hear three distinct churches. The large, loud bells from the church nearby, which sets off the next two bells like dominoes. They’re further away. One like gleeful wedding chimes, the other low and bored.
The sound of the bells transports me to another part of Germany, to Bremen, where I first recall really feeling the bells. For three summers, my family lived in the city, and I’d wake to their morning clang. The Teerhof, where we lived, was close to the inner city and its many old churches. Maybe because I was young, probably because I was reading a lot of Victor Hugo, Bremen was a magical, romantic city. And when I hear the bells today, I’m swept up in nostalgia. I can smell the moist, rain-laden air and the river, the sweetish apple smell wafting from the Beck’s brewery down the way.
For some reason, I notice the bells more in summer. The weather has been gorgeous in Berlin. Though it’s just the beginning of spring, it feels more like summer. On the spring’s first official day, I walked through the city in a loose blazer, feeling the warmth of the sun on my face and the sweet breeze.
Berliners love the outdoors when it’s sunny. At the first wan hit of sunshine, they flock out to sit at sidewalk cafés, to lounge in one of the city’s many parks, to wander along the Spree. The bike lanes are choked with cyclists. Even though the weather might not be all the way warm yet, they anticipate the heat. That peek of sun wakes memories of summer lakes and grilling, cropped shirts and sandals. They’re prematurely transported into summer.
I met a friend for lunch, and we sat outside on a bench warmed by the sun, eating fresh green salads and drinking peach juice cut with fizzing seltzer. We wandered up to the canal, stopping for the first ice cream cone of the season. Two scoops, of course – dense pistachio topped with icy-sweet coconut.
The Turkish market along Maybachufer was in full swing. Between the swooping awnings, shoppers pressed up against stalls selling eggplants and tomatoes, fresh herbs, buttons, knick-knacks, bolts of cloth, zippers, apples and chard, spices tied up in plastic bags, mounds of cheeses and butchered chickens, kilo-bags of black and green olives, giant rounds of fluffy bread. There’s an endless chatter of sellers hawking goods and couples or friends trying not to get separated in the crowd. Inside the Turkish market, you’re in another world, a mini ecosystem inside the city.
As I made my U through the market, I picked up ingredients for dinner. A bundle of cilantro, fat and stubby carrots, green beans, garlic, three giant cucumbers, leafy spinach. I’d planned my own journey from the city in the form of gado-gado, a Balinese beachside meal which consists of a tossed salad of cold vegetables topped with warm peanut sauce and garnished with fried tofu, hard boiled eggs, and cilantro, among other ingredients. The peanut sauce is a medley of East Asian flavors, featuring tamarind, coconut, lemongrass, and tiny, spicy birds-eye chilis. It’s unbearably good and impossibly addictive. The first bite is like sinking your toes into warm white sand, like seing the sweet green-blue of tropical waters.
Without having left Berlin, I spent the day traveling from one place to the next. From a childhood city to a future summer, from a dusty Istanbul market to the beaches of Bali. I just took one breath after the next. I just left myself open.
This salad supposedly feeds four people. But the peanut sauce is so addictively good, you’ll keep dipping back into the pot for more. So, if you’re not very good at restraint, double the proportions for the peanut sauce. This quantity makes enough for two very greedy eaters (ahem…) or four responsible noshers.
1 cup bean sprouts
1 cup sugar snap peas
1 cup thinly shredded Napa cabbage
1 cup green beans
3/4 cup skinned, roasted peanuts
2 tsp. tamarind pulp or paste
2 lemongrass stalks, white part only
1 large red onion
3 garlic cloves
5 red birds-eye chilis
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 tbsp. soy sauce
½ cup coconut milk
2 tbsp. crunchy peanut butter
2 tsp. packed brown sugar
Salt to taste
4 hard-boiled eggs
1 large handful stemmed spinach
1 cup firm tofu
1 large onion
Handful of fresh cilantro
Begin by preparing your salad. Peel carrots and cucumber, then slice them into matchsticks. Add sprouts, peas, and cabbage. Trim green beans and quickly blanch them by placing them in boiling water for 3 minutes, then draining and dumping into a bowl of ice water to cool. Add to the salad, toss, and set the vegetables aside.
To make the peanut sauce, place the peanuts in a food processor and process until finely ground. Set aside. Dissolve the tamarind pulp or paste in 2 tbsp. of water, and set aside. Slice lemongrass stalks down the middle and crush with the butt of your knife, and set aside. Coarsely chop onions, garlic, and chilis, then puree them in the food processor until they form a paste. Heat oil in a wok over high heat, then add onion paste. Stir constantly for 1 minute, until fragrant. Add ground peanuts, soy sauce, tamarind mixture, coconut milk, peanut butter, sugar, and lemongrass. Cook gently over medium heat until the flavors have melded together, and the sauce has thickened. If it starts to become too thick, add a little water as necessary. Turn heat to low and simmer.
Prepare your garnishes. Quarter hard-boiled eggs and tomatoes, and set aside. Wash and shred spinach leaves, and set aside. Slice tofu into bite-sized strips, season with salt and fry in a bit of sunflower or vegetable oil. Set aside. Thinly slice onion and fry in a hot, dry skillet over high heat until crisp and brown. Set aside. Chop cilantro and set aside.
Once you’ve prepared your garnishes, remove the peanut sauce from the heat and begin assembling salads.