A warm introduction
One of the first things you notice in Bali is the smiles. People are so incredibly friendly and a smile is never more than a second away. It’s great to step out of the airport, into the warmth of the Bali sunshine and warmth of the Balinese people.
I first visited Bali about 18 months ago with my sister; I think we were among only a handful of people from Perth who had never been to Bali. We’d both left Perth to go our separate ways around the world many years earlier. At that time Bali had the reputation of being a bit of a boozy outpost for Perth school leavers and giver of upset stomachs (‘Bali belly’ was rather ubiquitous). At just over 3 hours flying time from Perth, it was quicker and cheaper than travelling to the other side of Australia, so many did just that (and still do).
Fortunately by avoiding Kuta, you can avoid too many boozy youngsters if that’s not your scene. Bali is in fact a very beautiful place with jungle, beaches, temples and, of course, delicious food at incredibly reasonable prices. I very quickly fell in love with both the place and the people. Oh, and the very cheap massages.
A trip to Ubud Market
My latest visit was again only a brief one as it was a side trip during a visit to my family in Perth. I didn’t have time to fit in a cooking class first time around, so even in the short time I was there, I made sure it was on my itinerary. There are many classes on offer and after a bit of Tripadvisor searching, I decided on Payuk Bali. As a lover of spicy Indonesian food, I looked forward to getting some hands on experience from a local cook.
The feisty cockerels near our little villa meant we were in no danger of not waking up early enough for our morning class. The price included a pickup from the Ubud area so we bundled into a mini van with our fellow food lovers and headed to Ubud Market. As much of the food market becomes an art market later in the day, it was good to be up and able to see what was on offer.
Our smiley (of course!) guide explained that many Balinese visit the market at 6am to get the best produce. As it was around 8.30am by the time we arrived, it wasn’t too busy. A lot of the other people there seemed to be in similar groups to us having a market tour ahead of a class.
A lot of the produce was familiar, but in some unusual sizes and colours. The pineapples and finger bananas were small, but the juicy papayas (paw paws) were huge! We also had the treat of trying something a little different: snakeskin fruit. Taking its name from the scaly outside skin, the segments of white flesh inside was crisp and lightly sweet, a mix between a guava, pineapple and under-ripe pear.
Spicy Balinese sauces in the sunshine
After our whistle stop tour of the market, we headed off to the pretty Laplapan area of Ubud for our cooking class. Payuk Bali runs the classes from an open ‘kitchen’ perched above the Petanu River. As with so many experiences in Bali, you learn a little about the people, culture and history in all that you do. Therefore before getting on with cooking, we were taught how to make the traditional Bali offering baskets (canang sari) that you see all over the island.
These little baskets, normally made from palm leaves, are filled with flowers and other small items, such as grains of rice, crackers and coins. They appear on fences, footpaths, tables and steps, and people can make 25-50 a day as part of Hindu practices. It was an appropriate pause before we moved on to the main event.
It was then time to get down to some cooking. Ketut, who led our class of 11, was a jolly chef with a huge smile and mischievous chuckle. He talked through the main spices and flavourings we’d be using, and we had the chance to smell and taste them before setting to some chopping, grinding and pounding.
It was great to get to grips with some of the basic sauces, including a big portion of satay sauce, which is one of my childhood favourites (yes, this is true though I’m not sure if that’s possibly a little unusual?). As with Indian food, it’s all about the blend of ingredients and getting them as fresh as possible. You don’t always realise until you make these types of dishes just how many ingredients going into making a sauce delicious. It isn’t complicated, but it does mean you need to have bits of this and that to get the flavour balance right.
The one essential ingredient for Balinese cuisine, which we used across all the dishes, is coconut oil. Coconuts flourish in Bali; we were even given a freshly cut coconut with straw on arrival at our villa to sip on (and given how humid it can get in Bali, it was very welcome). Earlier, we had stopped on the way to the kitchen for a brief overview of how the oil is extracted. It basically involves lots of grating, heating and pressing to end up with the clear oil that most food is fried in. With its high smoking point, coconut oil is a good option for frying quickly at high heats.
Creating (and eating) a Balinese feast
I was impressed with the number of dishes we made in a relatively short space of time. They included a soup, satay skewers, deliciously moist steamed tuna in banana leaf, fried chicken curry (I had tofu and tempeh instead) and a spicy mix of coconut, beans and sprouts. I was the only non meat eater in the class, but this wasn’t a problem. I easily substituted tuna for chicken in the soup and tofu / tempeh for chicken in a couple of the other dishes. This flexibility is great and not something that’s always possible in a cooking class.
My favourite part of the class was getting hold of the giant ‘pestle and mortar’ to create the basic Bali sauce, with its total of 17 ingredients. The pestle was almost as tall as me! Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but it did almost come up to above my admittedly short legs and I needed both my hands to press and smoosh the ingredients into a paste. This colourful and aromatic mix was very versatile as it then became the base for a few different dishes. We also created a thick fragrant satay sauce and the Indonesian chilli staple, sambal oelek, using a more regular sized pestle and mortar (or ‘Balinese blender’ as Ketut joked).
Overall the class was relaxed, well organised and, most importantly, fun. It’s a great thing to do as a couple or with friends. I often go to cooking classes on my own, so it was nice to share this with my husband. There were plenty of spare hands to help out so we could just concentrate on cooking and eating.
It was also a treat to cook semi-outside with the rustle of wind in the tall palms behind us and the odd monkey running across the branches. We had plenty of time after all the cooking to sit down to a delicious lunch of all the food we had prepared (with a little extra help from the team at Payuk Bali).
We ended the class with happily full stomachs, hugs and, of course, smiles. I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of Indonesian cuisine and it’s left me wanting to discover more. I think the only sensible solution is another trip back to this lovely island and its equally lovely people.
Bali flavour focus
Some Bali-inspired recipes will be coming very soon to Food At Heart, but until then here are some essential ingredients you’ll need for replicating Balinese food at home:
– Coconut oil, coconut milk
– Turmeric, ginger, galangal, garlic, chilli, lemongrass, lime
– Dried shrimp / shrimp paste, kecap manis (sweet soy sauce)
If you’re interested in booking your own Bali cooking experience, just email the team at Payuk Bali