Sweet Rice Pudding with the King
It was awkward.
There I sat, next to the King of the Village, two advisors and several wives and I was about to make a face as welcome as a wet fart in polite society.
Welcome to Bali, Indonesia.
It had been a turbulent twelve months prior to my arrival in Indonesia. I had traveled through Philippines and then Australia with a friend from the UK. We had parted company in spectacular fashion resorting to acrimonious name calling. I was on my own for the first time in over a year and chose to dip my toe in a relative safe environment such as Bali.
I still carried an air of naivety and goodwill towards all people. The misplaced belief that everybody had the same moral code I adhered to. Within a day I was in a backwater shack playing a card game for high stakes and about to lose everything.
I was suckered into losing a fair chunk of my funds and wandered Ubud (north of the capital, Denpasar) feeling sorry for myself.
I got chatting to a friendly local. He offered to show me around the place, take me to his village. I hadn’t yet become a harden cynic aware of ulterior motives and suspecting everybody. These were my halcyon days when anything and everything could happen because the universe wanted it to be.
It was pleasant. A much needed break between bouts of loneliness and travel fatigue. We wandered aimlessly with my guide pointing out local customs.
Soon we reached his village. It was like arriving at a surprise party where the guests sat around waiting for the birthday boy to turn up in order to surprise them. It was that moment before they hid. No one looked like they were informed ahead of schedule that a visitor would show. Everybody rushed around with sudden haste, desperately trying to remember where they should stand and what they should say.
Was I being cynical again?
I brushed off the feeling as I was led to a fancy wooden chair sat high on a stage. I was bequeathed in flowers and adorned with an elaborate headpiece. I was then introduced to the King who sat beside me. A large man with a rotund waist which suggested he ate well in comparison to the other villagers.
Green tea was served. There was lots of waving and assorted hand gestures as the locals went through some ad-hoc ceremony. I hate green tea, but not wanting to appear rude, I gulped the putrid liquid down. Smile firmly plastered to my face.
The King didn’t speak English. My friend interpreted his mood.
“He is happy to have special guest” he translated. “The village will bring food.”
I couldn’t wait. I was a starving traveler on an extreme budget. Here I sat, beside a King! I imagined a plethora of food that would be breathtaking. Each course more scrumptious than the last. In my mind, I was about to become the star guest of an exotic ten course feast.
Instead, all they brought was rice pudding.
Black glutinous rice pudding.
A delicacy called Bubur Pulut Hitam.
The rice pudding is prepared by using the black glutinous rice which is blended with coconut milk, Pandan leaves, Gula melaka ( Palm Sugar) and is garnished with a dollop of coconut cream and banana slices. It is a must to soak the black rice for a minimum of six hours over night. This particular dish had no banana slices or coconut cream.
I hate rice pudding. It makes me gag. This was fast becoming an international crisis.
The King looked and beckoned me to eat the pudding. No spoons. I simply had to cup the bowl and slurp down the sweetened black mass. I lifted the bowl slowly towards my mouth. The locals had all stopped to stare. They too were urging me to eat. Their eyes pleaded with mine to make the King happy.
I did what any sane person would do.
I theatrically had a coughing fit. Not any run-of-the-mill cough from the Am-Dram society. A full-blown chest burst with accompanied dry retching and tears streaming down my face. I coughed so hard, legends were to be written about the day an Englishman nearly died in their village. It was a performance so grand, Leonardo Dicaprio would later name-check those fateful five minutes for an Oscar nomination.
As I struggled to breathe, I could see the displeasure etched on the King’s face. The pudding was to be the moment I would be in his debt. A well-fed traveler is hungry to please. He wasn’t happy.
After downing several cups of water, I made my apologies and turned to head back to the hostel. My ‘friend’ had disappeared. The minions were alarmed. The King was barking orders. I had officially outstayed my welcome.
I was never invited back.
Reuben can often be found avoiding small-talk at parties, chowing down at the buffet with a large red wine held firmly in his paws.