Murni’s Warung, Ubud, Bali
Janet De Neefe
Garuda, The Magazine of Garuda Indonesia, July 2009
“The story of my life is a long and complicated one” she said softly. And thus began my interview with the legendary Murni of Murni’s Warung in Ubud.
Many of my fondest memories of Ubud in the eighties are wrapped up in the walls of this multi-levelled eatery that is perched beside the Tjampuhan suspension bridge overlooking the Tjampuhan River. I remember spending oh-so-many lazy afternoons there when Ubud was a sleepy village, reclining in that tropical let-the-world-float-past way on creaky bamboo furniture. We’d sip on freshly squeezed lime drinks brimming with crushed ice eating Nasi Campur or Nasi Goreng. Lunchtimes drifted into dinner and it didn’t matter. There was nothing urgent to be done except chat about life, love and cosmic heroes – no mobile phones, internet, emails, reality TV, not even Facebook! Life was suspended between our daily routine and fairy tales.
The ground floor pavilion of Murni’s Warung was our preferred haven. Like the inner sanctum of a temple, this cosy space inspired discussions on all things sacred and profound. Ketut, my husband, any number of friends and I would gather at our favourite table and listen to never-ending tales of Ken Arok, one of the most powerful rulers of Indonesia in ancient times, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The tales would almost lull me to sleep as I listened to the ongoing treacheries, tragedies and majesty of Ken Arok, the extraordinary beauty of his wife Ken Dedes and Hindu epics of family betrayal and bravery.
The seething jungle around us and the surging sound of the Tjampuhan River below enhanced the dramas. Nature seemed to grow before my eyes. I absorbed all that I could in what became a crash-course in Indonesian history and Bali-Hinduism.
Sitting with Murni in the downstairs Lounge Bar at Murni’s Warung that has now replaced our favourite retreat. Murni chatted about her life, treading delicately through sad memories of her childhood that have laid deeply buried in her heart for so many years. But on this breezy day, they bobbed to the surface and floated around us as if we were in a time warp. In those days, life in Bali was often arduous, unforgiving and heartbreaking for many.
Murni touched on the tragedy of 1965: the communist coup that saw more people slaughtered in Bali than any other part of Indonesia. She spoke of the nightmares that continued to haunt her for such a long time and the many wounds that have been patched superficially but not healed. The tale of being taken from her mother at the age at seven left us silent.
After three hours of emotional chatter we dried our eyes and steered the conversation back to the incarnation of Murni’s Warung.
“I wanted my own business in Ubud so I rented this small Warung from Pak Munut. Victor Mason, who, believe it or not, is still alive and well in Ubud, gave it the name, The Black Stump. He said, just call it that and I did. But I had no idea what it meant!” she said.
“At first I had one bamboo table. I had started to sell sarongs, paintings and carvings. I didn’t plan to have a warung and I am not at all a chef. My future husband Pat would sit in the shop with me. He wanted to drink beer and eat sandwiches so I made these for him. Guests who came into the shop would ask if they could buy some too. “
“I eventually opened a little kitchen and began to sell beer and sandwiches. Every morning I caught the bemo to Denpasar to buy tomatoes, cheese, ham and bread and would come straight back home to run the business. I borrowed beer from my mother who had a shop in the market. We made ice boxes from cement and filled it with ice.”
The following year in 1975, Murni bought the property and changed the name to Murni’s Warung. Slowly the business expanded. Murni had clearly acquired the business acumen of her mother and years of a Cinderella-type childhood living with her father’s family in Denpasar (before the handsome Prince) had prepared her for an around-the-clock shop-keeping routine.
“My guests taught me how to make everything. They taught me how to make guacamole because I had an avocado tree. But when they made it I couldn’t eat it because it reminded me of a Balinese poultice they make here for pregnant women. We were the first in Ubud to make yoghurt. The culture was brought from Holland for us. I eventually bought a fridge and made jackfruit and white mango ice cream,” Murni reminisced.
But it was Murni’s cakes that I loved to the most. She was and still is famous for them. In the eighties you were lucky to find anything more than fried bananas on local menus. Murni’s Warung was one of the first to serve a selection of international sweet dishes to appease cake eating, chocolate-craving gluttons like me. Her chocolate brownies and home-made pies saved many a home-sick traveller.
Murni’s Warung quickly became an institution and remains so to this day. It is an Ubud icon. Back then, I remember that one of the greatest joys about visiting Murni’s Warung was simply Murni. She used to sit at the front desk and invariably wander up to your table and have a chat. When Murni wasn’t there holding the fort, Nyoman, the head cashier, was there taking her place. Now there was a girl with her own brand of dry humour but she’s another story!
There is so much about Murni to love. Whether it be her heart that’s as big as the moon, her gentle nature, grace or soft humour ….or the combination of these matched by her lovely soft round face…whatever it is, it’s infectious.
Murni’s moving tale of longing, separation and hardship stays with me. Her struggles and subsequent battles laid the foundations of her success. Here is a woman who has learnt to straddle two cultures, for better or for worse. She created an iconic business, single-handedly, that helped put Ubud on the map. And for all these reasons, and many more, she is and will always be one of my favourite mothers in town.
Murni’s Warung, Ubud, Bali