Learning to cook – Balinese Style

Earlier this year, I made a short trip to Bali. Now, Bali, as is usually imagined is rightly the land of beaches and the seas. There were some wonderful beachy areas there and I did stay in one of them called Jimbaran Bay. Of course, I should probably mention here that there is not much one can do in Jimbaran except enjoy the beautiful sandy beach and some of the wonderful sea-side restaurants there are considered a seafood lovers dream.

There is also a small fisherman’s colony that can be visited early on in the mornings to look at the fishes being hauled in and the catches being sold there.

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I am a vegetarian and by that I don’t even eat seafood. But that did not hamper me at spending time in the fishermans colony or not eating at the seaside restaurants. You basically have to learn to live with other peoples culture. And no, I didn’t eat seafood. They did vegetraiize some Mei-Goreng and Nasi-Goreng for me, which, believe me, was an absolute experience by itself – dining on portable tables and chairs with candlelight on the beach, right at twilight and with the sea swishing water by your feet. It wasn’t a fancy, glitzy set-up, but extremely local and that for me, what Bali is all about.

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Beach Restaurants – Jimbaran
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Mie Goreng

I travelled onward to Ubud , which I am sure everyone would have assumed that I did because of the book “Eat,Pray and Love”. But no. I had shortlisted Ubud for my trip way before I read the book. I had actually planned the trip to happen in February sometime but then I realised that the weather would basically be wet and humid there owing to the monssons…So, plans changed to April when it would be nice and sunny. That is when I saw the movie on TV and it struck that Ubud was actually a pretty famous tourist destination.

Anyway, I landed in Ubud with the sole intention of learning a couple of crafts and taking an Authentic Balinese cooking class. Ubud is actually the local cultural centre of Bali and is filled with rice terraces and local farms. There is a burst of Organic agriculture there and the locals have participated enthusiastically as the expats to set-up small Café,s Yoga retreats, Spas and more. There is also a local museum there that teaches you varied arts and crafts such as Balinese paintings, making the traditional Flower offering baskets for gods, Sculpting, Wooden carving etc. There are also other ventures that teach you how to make your own handcrafted Silver jewellery.

I did want to learn quite a few things but I realised I would need at least a month in Ubud to do all of that at peace. So, I opted for the cooking class – which was basically a daylong plan and something that was of interest again.

There are quite a few locals there who run cooking classes aimed at tourists. The class I had initially opted for cancelled my booking at a day before it was scheduled leaving me stuck. My heart was set on it and I had been looking forward to it for a while now. I went back to the trusted world of the internet and hunted for another class called “Payuk Bali”. It also helped that the hotel gave a very good recommendation for it and those lovely people also helped me make a booking with the class (considering my Balinese language skills were terrible).

Payuk Bali is a home-run class set-up located a bit in the interior of Bali. On the destined day, a gentleman from the class arrived to pick me up at the hotel from where we made our way to the local vegetable market. There we met up with other people in the class that day and took a tour of the market, learning the names of some local fruits and vegetables, picking up some of the stuff (I made a 2nd trip back to this place after the class to hunt more stuff) and also bargaining with the people there (Friendly tip – they do bargain a lot).

After the market visit, we were taken on a short visit to some of the rice terraces en route and introduced to some of their farming techniques and special ways of irrigation as well. Apparently, Ubud grows a major chunk of rice that is supplied all around Bali.

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Rice terraces in Ubud

The class location at Payuk bali is a wonderful traditional Balinese home. Once there, we were served a wonderful glass of herbal tea and were immediately given a short lesson in the culture of a typical Balinese household.

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The Tea and Balinese floral offerings

As in a good chunk of Asian cultures, the joint family system is quite prevalent here. All members of the family stay together and every son’s family has s separate area to stay in the main house. The kitchen is in a separate area as is the Worshipped deity of the God that the family follows. You can say it is more like different clusters in a house brought together. The Balinese home also has norms in directions by which the family stays. For example, the Oldest parent couple stays in the North (I hope I got that correctly) and similarly, other directions for the other family members. Much more was discussed after which, we were taught how to make a traditional Balinese floral offering that we presented to the Home Deity before proceeding for the actual cooking lesson.

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Central area in a Balinese House

I had pre-requested the class to Vegetarianise for menu for me and believe me, it was a wonderful feast. We started off with the absolute basics in the class with each of us being given herbs or a spice of a vegetable to chop. We smelt and tasted as we went along. There were loads of Bright red chillies, Galangal, Lemongrass, Garlic, Turmeric, Lime leaves and stuff that we chopped, sliced or ground. One lesson I learnt about Balinese cooking is that, every product used is fresh. If there are chillies, then they will be the fresh red chillies and not the dried stuff. Same for spices such as turmeric or coriander. None of them were available in the dried or powdered form..Everything was fresh.

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Fresh Spices and Herbs

The spice mixes were ground using the traditional mortar and pestle..There was also a larger version where you actually had to use a pestle that was life-size and sort of grind using that. Good exercise for all the arms I must say.

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Every person in the class was given something to look after in the cooking zone. I learnt how to make a Cucumber soup in a turmeric broth and then some bean curry, Tofu satay, Mushrooms in a spicy paste wrapped and grilled in a Banana leaf (which I have to mention was the best of the lot) and a tofu curry during the day and although the creations were so simple to the eye, the flavours were all enough to shake ones soul from its slumber.

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Tofu Stay
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Mushrooms in Banana leaves

We were then taught how to make rice- again Balinese style. Apparently, rice are thrice cooked in steam using a cane mat converted into a small conical basket. The rice are washed and put into this cone shaped mat and this is placed over a steaming vessel of water. About 20 minutes into the process, the rice ar taken out in a bowl and hot water with added flavourings (lemongrass or usually a bit of Kaffir lime leaf) is added to this rice and cooked on a stove again. 15-20 minutes later, the rice are again transferred to the mat to drain out the water and rested for a while after which they are ready to serve.

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The Balinese style of Rice cooking

All of us sat down for lunch following the brilliant cooking session and it was amazing how much we were able to cook in such a short amount of time. Balinese cooking is extremely simple and makes use of all natural ingredients – something that I usually abide by in my style of cooking.

For dessert, we were served a traditional Balinese dish made using sweet potatoes, coconut milk and palm sugar or Jaggery (as we in India call it). We didn’t exactly make it ourselves but the sweet people at Payuk Bali demonstrated it for us and to think that 3 simple ingredients could give out such bursts of flavour was unimaginable. The texture of the sweet potato, the creaminess of the coconut milk and the caramelised sweetness given by the palm sugar are something that you have to experience yourself to believe. (I made another trip to the local market specifically to buy chunks of palm sugar after the dessert experience.

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Sweet potato dessert

At the end of the class, we were all handed recipe compilations of the goodies that we had cooked in the day and with a promise that could be contacted anytime for more traditional recipes.

I have travelled to quite a few places and have experienced different cultures and different foods. But learning cooking from a local in a local setting is something that everyone should do when they travel. It teaches you a lot about the local culture; their way of loving, breaks communication barriers and introduces you to world cuisine. After all, as I say, food of a region is representative of its local culture.

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