Making coconut oil in a Balinese home


It was hardly a tough afternoon’s work, and coming away with two bottles of coconut oil seemed like a generous reward for doing little more than sitting in the sun. But what was offered as a coconut oil making workshop turned out to be just as much about an intimate look at Balinese family life.

The Kali Manik resort is on a remote stretch of black sand beach on the north coast of Bali. The owner is a straight-talking Austrian lady who set up the 3-room hotel with lofty social and environment aspirations. As she told me, “If I wanted to make money I would have built more than 3 rooms.”

One of the features of the property is the range of activities which guests can do within the local community. It was one such option which appealed to us and resulted in an afternoon at the home of an extended family in the village to learn the craft of making coconut oil. Asri greeted us with a warm smile, her thin face accentuated by her two front teeth, which stood like steadfast beacons in a row of long-gone teeth. 

As Asri sliced open the coconuts her grandson Kulik introduced himself. His English was limited, but he provided a useful if sometimes uncertain explanation of what his grandmother was doing. She worked on the shaded veranda of the family house, and one by one other family members began to appear: babies and toddlers, grandfathers, uncles, other grandmothers. In fact only the middle generations were unrepresented, with parenting duties seemingly the job of older siblings and grandparents. 

Apart from Kulik’s commendable efforts at communicating with us, nobody in the family spoke a single word of English. Sign language can get you so far, but we had to accept that the finer details of how to extract oil from a coconut would remain a mystery. The preparation phase of the process took around an hour, and this was followed by a two-hour wait while the solution slowly boiled away to leave the clear oil sitting on top of the white residue.

Two hours sitting watching a pot boil can pass very slowly in the company of a dozen or so people with whom you don’t share a common language. What made this less uncomfortable was the action taking place around us. The courtyard enjoyed the partial shade of a mature tree which dominated the garden. A cockerel strutted around the yard keeping check on his harem of chickens, while two small pigs sniffed their way across from time to time, eager to snap up the scraps which they knew would come their way at the end of the oil-making session. 

The young children played in the yard, crawling and tumbling in a shared space with the pigs and chickens – I marvelled at the immune systems they were doubtless developing, but more impressive still was the ease with which they mingled with an extended family which lived in this and the adjacent houses. I may have been an outsider to the chitter-chatter which continued in the shade of the old tree, but it was hard to resist smiling along with the contented glow which the afternoon sun appeared to cast over Asri’s family members. 

Three hours after we arrived the oil which had been separated from the boiled mixture and left to cool was poured into two plastic bottles. We shook hands and finally left the family in peace, carrying our two bottles of pure coconut oil. But the reward of the afternoon had extended beyond our freshly-made oil; a slice of Balinese family life had come as an unexpected extra.



Bandar Seri Begawan

Royal Brunei Airlines has positioned Brunei’s sole international airport as a Kangaroo Route node for years. It operates this long haul via Dubai, however. That additional stop doesn’t exactly work in its favour; as a result, the airline doesn’t quite measure up next to those airlines linking the UK and Australia on a single connecting flight.

For those who find themselves in Brunei due to an opportune fare – or simply out of curiosity – or via the Navigator round the world - know that Bandar Seri Begawan is a spotless, sober, and ordered place. Brunei is a Sultanate, not in the slightest bit democratic, with a very generous social welfare system. Thanks to oil and gas, it is one of the world’s richest countries. It is also one of its most devout. Alcohol is strictly forbidden, though that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The country is currently in the process of integrating Sharia law into its penal code. 

Leisure tourists are, perhaps unsurprisingly, few and far between. There is a small but steady stream of adventure-seeking tourists – hailing mainly, my hotel receptionist tells me, from Australia – who travel to Ulu Temburong National Park to experience untouched rainforest. But very few tourists comb through central Bandar Seri Begawan to visit its mosques, museums, and shopping centres.

In terms of actual tourists sights, there’s not a lot in the city that dramatically jumps out. The Jame Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, free to visit, is likely the most impressive spot in the city. 29 golden domes crown it. Its marble floors are striking and its ceilings appear to glow. It is absolutely worth a stop. A guard accompanies visitors on a short, very limited tour.

For the capital of such a rich country, Bandar Seri Begawan’s malls are almost entirely devoid of luxury chain shops. This distance from contemporary luxury culture is one thing that makes Bandar Seri Begawan so interesting. (There is a stultifying sameness, is there not, to luxury mall culture?) Bandar Seri Begawan could probably haul in vastly more visitors were it to morph into a Dubai-like open-air amusement park of a place. But is that something desirable, all things considered? 

The malls are in fact quite interesting for this reason alone. They are full of unusual shops. One sold honey from Yemen; another fine goods from Iran. Stylish, very modest women’s clothing is sold throughout.

And then there are local things to buy, too. There are handicrafts, to start. On the ground floor of the Yayasan shopping complex, a cart sells delicate baskets and boxes made by Ridah Handicrafts. Nearby, in the supermarket in the basement of the Hua Ho Department Store, there are local biscuits to be had: butter cookies heavy with powdered sugar and cigar-shaped coconut wafers. (For more serious handicraft hunters, there is an Arts & Handicrafts Training Centre in town, where swords and hand-woven cloths can be purchased for huge sums.)

The city’s spotlessness had me hankering for something unruly. I found just that on a cul-de-sac at the end of a long, poorly lighted road just beyond Bandar Seri Begawan’s Radisson. This unlikely place is home to Lim Ah Siaw, the Sultanate’s only – or at least its best known – pork-serving restaurant. It huddles in the dark, devoid of signage that might make its presence known at night, sitting across the street from a shabby apartment building. Only the presence of cars parked outside suggests that it is anything but empty.

Inside, bright fluorescent light is overpowering. A television blares. The chairs are plastic and the floors are tiled. The net effect is coolly ad hoc, like a pop-up that could be disassembled in a second. The setting is unobtrusive in tacit recognition that its very presence is breaking the rules. Chinese patrons are seated by a Filipina waitress, who guides newcomers towards spare ribs, pork in a gentle buttermilk sauce, and vegetables stir-fried in garlic. Everything is delicious. Mugs of a beer-hued liquid find their way to other tables. I didn’t ask and I didn’t order, but it certainly looked like ale. (Beyond that, the only alcohol I saw in Brunei was in a duty free plastic bag carried by the British wife of a Royal Brunei Airlines pilot.)

At the register at Lim Ah Siaw there are cheap sunglasses for sale, presumably for those wanting to exit the restaurant with an added measure of anonymity.


By Alex Robertson Textor


You can get Brunei included on the Navigator round the world

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