By Jo Cooksey
Having sampled the delights of cooking in a Moroccan kitchen in June, my recent trip to Bali could only be enhanced by a similar experience. I love South East Asia, the people, the culture, the climate all fascinate me. Above all I love the food with its light, citrus and herby flavours and an emphasis on ginger, galangal, tamarind, coconut and lemon grass. The region has also embraced many outside influences in terms of its cuisine. From the filled French baguettes of Vietnam to Indian influenced curries and spicing from Persia. Protein choices include fish, chicken and tofu with beef and pork served mainly for the tourist market.
Prior to departure I trawelled the internet looking for an authentic Balinese cookery class and found the Jambangan Bali Cooking class. What appealed to me about this school compared with the others I found was that they take you a Balinese market prior to class and introduce to the ingredients you will be using. Also that it takes place in the home of the school’s owner, Rakesh.
On the appointed day we were picked up at our hotel at 9.30am by Rakesh and driven to the market. During the journey we passed many paddy fields and he explained that each home owns their own field, where they grow the rice for the family. The fields will produce two crops per year with a yield of about 100kg of rice. The crop takes five months to plant, grow and harveste, then in the fallow month the family will put their ducks into the fields to eat the insects and fertilise the ground. I asked Rakesh how many grains of rice an average plant will produce and was surprised to find it was only between 10 and 15. Traditionally the Balinese eat rice with every meal, even breakfast. It is their staple food.
On arrival at the market we met some of our fellow classmates; a jolly bunch hailing from all over the globe. Rakesh’s cousin, Capung, himself a chef showed us around the market stalls and explained what the various goods were on show. Capung means dragonfly in Balinese and the name suited him, as he darted about and made us smile.
After the market, we were driven to the house where we were welcomed with a cool drink and Rakesh explained the layout of a traditional Balinese compound. There isn’t one house in the complex but four and each has a different purpose. In the south is the wedding house, which the family use for eating and celebrations. In the East is the honeymoon house, where the newly weds start their married life. To the North is the children’s house and to the west is the kitchen house. There is also a temple, usually built before the houses and the rice house to store the family’s food supply.
At this point another group of pupils arrived, a gaggle of elderly Australian ladies who were travelling together. Once everyone had settled we were introduced to the lady who was going to be our teacher for the day. Our first task was to weave an offerings basket, which we did to varying levels of success and then fill them with flowers, in order to bring success to our endeavours in the kitchen. The kitchens themselves were open air, although with a roof and the lady went through dishes we were going to cook.
Vegetable Soup - vegetables and mushrooms in a chicken broth, Sate Empol - traditional minced chicken kebabs with a peanut satay sauce, Lawar Bali – an Indonesian salad, Gado-Gado – an Indonesian salad of steamed vegetables, tofu, hard-boiled eggs served with a peanut sauce, Tempe Manis – Fried soya bean curd in a sweet and sour sauce, Ayum Curry – This is nothing like an Indian curry. It is much more delicate and fragrant than that, Tum Ayum – A popular Balinese dish of chicken steamed with spices and coconut in banana leaves and finished on the barbeque. This dish is often made with fish too, Banana and Jack Fruit with a caramel sauce. – The fruit is poached in water, sugar and cornstarch and served with a palm sugar caramel sauce.
We were soon split in to teams and put to work slicing, chopping, and mixing, using traditional methods, with not an electrical gadget in sight. The chicken was put into two big stone mortars on the floor and then pounded within an inch of its life with two 6-foot long wooden pestles. We were certainly working up an appetite. Between us we created the base of a lot of Balinese cuisine, Basic Yellow Sauce, (or Gede Bumbu Kuning). It is a mix of shallots, garlic, turmeric roots, candlenuts, galangal, ginger, chillies, lemongrass, spices and palm sugar and it is fragrant and flavoursome.
The first dish to be finished was the soup and once dished up we were invited to sit at the large communal table in the wedding house and enjoy it together. It was light and delicious and we soon got to know our fellow diners, who included natives of Korea, Japan, Germany, Denmark and a Geordie lass.
Then it was back to the kitchen to prepare our main and dessert dishes. Everyone was encouraged to get involved, taking it in turns to cook and add ingredients. The Sate Empol kebabs were shaped from balls of the chicken mix on to flat bamboo sticks and then cooked on a BBQ over smoldering coconut shells. The Balinese certainly don’t believe in waste, using the whole of the palm tree and its fruit in one form or another.
Again we sat at the communal table and enjoyed our feast, with a cold Bintang beer and a feeling of self-satisfaction that we were all now authentic Balinese cooks.
After the meal was finished and with no washing up to do Rakesh drove us back to our hotel. This fabulous, fun-packed, educational day, with transport and a full belly, cost us the grand sum of £22. An absolute bargain and the best day out of our trip.