Creative Vegetables

Sick of vegetables? Well, they don’t always have to be seen as staple ingredients for healthy meals — they can actually be used by anyone to pretty-up an otherwise dull dish — and that’s before they’re eaten. Chilies, onions, carrots, cucumbers and many other vegetables are willing objects. An otherwise-boring vegetable, like the radish, can be transformed into a stunning masterpiece.

In Indonesia, the Balinese are noted for their highly artistic abilities, along with their neighbors, the Thai and the Chinese as gastronome and epicurean el supremo Suryatini N.Ganie explains.

I am often asked to judge competitions for the best vegetable or fruit carver and it never ceases to amaze me how swiftly and accurately my Balinese compatriots handle their carvings. Balinese vegetable carving is different and unique — though some people say vegetable and fruit carving hails from the land of the White Elephant, Muangthai. Regardless, the Balinese have a different style, as do the Chinese, who like to cover their fish dishes with an intricate net of carrots.

Now as an example, lets take a simple lobak — alabaster, white, long-shaped Chinese radish — one that you might see on any day at any vegetable stand. Though pale looking, this vegetable is always bought by people selling foods including noodle soups — or anything that cries out for its mild, tangy flavor. It’s also often used to prepare sweet and sour pickles.

History tells us as the lobak found its place throughout Indonesia, its popularity was dependent on the region and the number of Chinese ethnic inhabitants, because it is very specifically a Chinese vegetable. In Cantonese it is called loh baak and is also used as a meat tenderizer. It is an ancient vegetable and its siblings are available across the globe.

In Japan it is grown into an extra large radish and called daikon and at the end of a meal many Japanese nibble a bit of pickled but raw daikon . And in local cooking, the daikon or the lobak Jepang and the lobak are mostly grilled and eaten with a dip in sambal — or made into a soup dish. Back let’s go back to vegetable carving and my first lessons on how to carve a radish. If all you want to do is enhance the presentation of a dish, the Chinese radish can be cut into a simple flowerette. Or perhaps you’re serving a fish dish — then a fish shape can be cut from the vegetable.

Our teacher was my friend from Ubud, Pak Agung, an outstanding Sous Chef. First of all, he said, “One has to have some patience and precision in carving and of course also the will to make some artistic result”. Then he gave us some cutting utensils. The bunga lobak , or a flowerette, was the simplest lesson — so here is how you do it. First, take a suitable lobak and cut it into 3 centimeter-long pieces, peel and rinse. Then cut the sides of the 3 cm parts into five petals. Cut them a bit deep so that they will open. Then make again five smaller petals above the first cut ones and the rest is shaped into a round piece.

In the advanced lesson we learned how to make a fish, which will be shown and explained below. Whilst cutting and shaping we all hoped something quite artistic would be the result, but it wasn’t as easy as it looked