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.