Mama’s Warung owner, Ni Nyoman Badri, is 73 years young and she is a true force of nature. She is petite, her skin is a beautiful shade of warm brown, and she has the habit of talking about herself in the third person, as if narrating her own story from a distance.
She smiles a lot, gestures around, and for years now she has been cooking with much love and garlic for people from all over the world.
As a beloved character whose presence is an integral part of the lively streets of the Balinese district of Ubud, Mama let us into her kitchen so we could hear her story among stir fry, a hundred flower offerings and a coconut soup!
The sign above the restaurant reads “Nyoman Badri. Homestay and bungalows” and below, bigger than anything else “Mama’s Warung”.
A place for the heart and the tummy
A warung is a modest place that offers local cuisine at street-friendly prices, and it’s an essential and colourful part of Indonesian life.
In the two months we spent around the country, we realised how much of the social aspects of life happen around a warung: it’s a place of connection and nourishment, love and other bonds, where to truly and simply explore the culture through taste. The amount of knowledge you can gather about a country, its culture and people by just observing the relationship with food is mind boggling to me.
As much of the sauce of Italian attitude around food, culture and life in general can be observed while sitting at a trattoria table, the same can be said of Indonesian food and lifestyle, or any other country for that matter.
And Ni Nyoman Badri, alias Mama, had a lot to share with us in and out of the kitchen!
The starter: unripe papaya
Years before she became Mama, Nyoman was a young woman whose father was killed, wrongly accused of being a communist. It was 1965, a difficult time for the entire country, which was swept by a wave of harsh mass killings. Following an attempted coup d’état, a brutal anti-communist politicide began, which also targeted ethnic minorities, left-wing sympathisers, and trade unionists.
Nyoman didn’t speak much in this regard, but it seems like this tragic event was the spark that set off a series of choices and changes that would shape the course of her life. She was 15, she had 7 siblings and her mom couldn’t possibly make ends meet alone. At this point she had no choice but to step up, and indeed, step up she did.
In order to take care of her family, she left school and went on to sell sarongs in the streets without speaking one word of English. She observed older, more experienced vendors and learned a few words that she could use for her trade. She did this until she was 26. Meanwhile, she kept working on her English and honing her cooking skills; what started as a simple means to feed the family would slowly turn into a passion.
Life is full of Sambal
I don’t know whether to call it destiny, whether it’s all chaos or a cooking book with your life’s recipe on it, but with some people, there’s a distinct feeling of a guiding light on their path. It’s as if a gentle wind is pushing them where they need to go in this life.
Looking at Nyoman’s labyrinth from above, I see a certain harmony, a thread of purpose that runs like a stream among the twists and turns of her life. Once again, I find myself thinking that people who live with intention and act without constantly seeking a bigger purpose, end up living more conscious lives than those who set one goal from afar and run after it.
Mama’s life has been a journey of perseverance and growth, loss and transformation. A bit like brewing rice wine, of which — needless to say, Mama makes her own monthly batches! Ironically enough, that wine reflects her personality: genuine and easygoing, with a delicate balance of sweet and tangy notes.
At the age of 29, Nyoman got married and moved into her husband’s rumah, the typical balinese house complex. It wasn’t much, but it was a beginning, and on most days, a beginning is all you need to start something new. Years passed, the family grew, and so did their home, which they expanded, constructing more houses within the complex.
Gradually, Nyoman’s entrepreneurial spirit started to shine. She opened a little restaurant down the road, where she perfected her version of most balinese’s staples recipes: Nasi Campur and Mie Goreng, Ayam Sambal Matah and Gado Gado.
When the lease was about to expire she started to rent out two accommodations within their property, essentially turning part of her place into a guesthouse. With her warm and affable personality, she earned the affectionate moniker “Mama”. Soon enough, the nickname caught on, more and more people began referring to her as Mama, and Nyoman wholeheartedly welcomed this new title.
She took a break after the first restaurant, but in 1986, she decided it was time to get back behind the stove and do some magic, so she rented a piece of land on the main road to open her new place.
Mama’s Warung was born!
Mama runs cooking classes, for those who want to learn about local cuisine. It’s a warm day of October when we meet for our lesson; we join her in the courtyard of her house around 9.30am, and she starts by showing us two plates full of ingredients and spices: galangal, garlic, lemongrass, a chicken breast, a pineapple, dried spices and fresh herbs.
And as she teaches us how to make the most thick and delicious spicy pineapple soup, she tells us about how nice it is to share daily life with her family. People spend a lot of time together, playing cards, crafting flower offerings, and chatting, but every family still has their own space, their own kitchen.
I take notes while Jyl help to chop, dice and cook. She smiles as she fumbles in the kitchen with high flames, mysterious sauces and burning woks and I think that, if only those pots could talk, an encyclopaedia of cooking would come out!
The scent of gratitude
Every morning at 5 o’clock, Mama is already on her scooter, heading to the market to buy fresh ingredients for the day. Smiling, she admits that she gets very little sleep. But she doesn’t mind, this is her life and she’s thankful for it. Somehow, I am sure she will do as much as she can for as long as she can.
When the food is ready, we sit down and take a moment to admire and smell, before eating with appetite.
A dish of cuttlefish rings and rice, called Cumi-cumi Bumbu Bali, flavoured and spicy; a delicious chicken recipe, and the famous pineapple soup invented by Mama.
We finally feast, trading stories while savouring every bite with gratitude.
After Mama closes the kitchen for the afternoon, she joins a few relatives in her backyard to help them assemble the flower offerings. Together, they create hundreds of them, which will be used or sold at the market the next day.
With it, daily blessings are performed, to honour, protect and sanctify the spaces, and to turn gratitude into a practice.
And you know what? It works. And the reason it does is that this is about flowers and not sins, saying “thank you” and not “sorry”, “please” instead of “forgive me”, and it makes a huge difference to participate in a religion that preaches gratitude above guilt.
A million spirits
Of the almost 18 thousand islands that make up Indonesia, Bali is the only one with a Hindu majority. I believe that what initially attracted and fascinated people from all over was the care and devotion with which the religion is integrated into people’s lives.
Many families, including Mama’s, make their own votive offerings at home: baskets of palm or banana leaves filled with flowers and which are placed around the perimeters of houses, streets, gardens, and temples, every single day. And in these gestures there is everything that matters for people. There is kindness, humanity, hope, and care.
This takes time, commitment, calm and perseverance, and I cannot help but think that offering flowers to the earth in gratitude, several times a day, profoundly affects people’s lives. Is that why, in Indonesia, I had the impression of meeting the most joyful people in the world?
A Mama, a friend, a grandma
Mama was a sister to seven brothers and three more sisters; she got married, had two children, travelled to neighbouring countries as well as to Europe. Mama worked hard, and when it wasn’t enough, she worked harder: from cleaning rice for the local market to selling sarongs to cruises of tourists docking from Malaysia. She never worked for someone else, she was always Mama’s own boss. As I learned more about her journey, her true colours, her spirit shone brighter and brighter.
After a day with Mama, I had the impression of having spent it discovering the flavourful banquet of experiences that made her life the adventure it came to be.
The determination with which she sailed the seas of life and her ability to commit to something while wearing her trademark smile, reminded me of my dear grandmother Luciana. And so, overcome by warmth and familiarity, I found myself asking her if I could give her a hug.
I don’t know if she needed a granddaughter that day, but I certainly needed a grandmotherly hug. Perhaps, at other times, for someone else, she may have been like a mother, a sister or a friend. And maybe someone else has been all that for her.
So can we all agree to be for each other what we might need for a brief moment? Can we offer one another a little benevolence even when we do not know each other?
We asked Mama, and it turns out that yes, of course we can, we must.