“BALINESE cooking is easy. Just relax and have a good time,” begins Agung Darma Wijaya with a reassuring smile the moment he arrives at the main table.
The Puri Santrian Beach Resort’s executive chef must have noticed my nervousness while he was putting on his disposable cap and apron.
Unlike the rest of the confident few in the group, I feel like a complete novice. Cooking has never been my forte. The sight of all those spotless woks surrounded by neatly stacked plastic containers filled with ingredients is rather daunting. I pray hard that I will not make a fool of myself today.
At the same time, I kick myself for signing up for this at the heat of the moment after returning from a trip to Sindhu market earlier in the morning. Even before dawn, this traditional shopping area, famous for its fresh fruits and vegetables, was a hive of activity. The ever present aroma of fresh herbs and spices wafting in the still morning air was simply delightful. The entire place felt like
an open air spa!
After soaking in the atmosphere and scrutinising the many different types of fresh produce, I was naturally inspired to, at the very least, learn to cook a traditional Balinese meal and hopefully be able to replicate it when I get home. My resolve at that point in time was unwavering, to say the least.
COOKING UP A STORM
Fortunately, my fears start to dissipate once the cooking class starts in earnest. Wijaya’s crystal clear instructions and friendly demeanour turn the interactive cooking class into an informal and fun
Extensive experience allows him to effortlessly slip in amusing anecdotes while at the same time inspiring his audience to grasp the essentials of Balinese cuisine. The lesson, held outdoors under the
protective shade of towering casuarinas, with a cool breeze coming in from the picturesque Sanur beach nearby, starts with the preparation of Bumbu Bali.
“Do you all want to know the key to exquisite Balinese cuisine?” Wijaya suddenly exclaims. Needless to say, we all nod our heads in unison. “When cooking Balinese food, it’s of utmost importance to take special care when preparing the Bumbu Bali which is the basic sauce,” he begins, before adding:
“Bumbu Bali, which forms an essential part of almost all dishes, consists of a combination of typical Balinese ingredients including galangal, turmeric, candlenuts, shrimp, salam leaves, chilli, shrimp paste and palm sugar.”
Pointing to the ingredients, Wijaya explains that Puri Santrian places emphasis on organic produce. “We go to great lengths to make sure that the ingredients we use in our restaurants are grown naturally and are free from harmful chemicals.”
I empty the container filled with the ingredients carefully onto my mortar before starting work with the pestle. “Move your pestle in a continuous circular motion. Stop only after the ingredients have
been reduced to a smooth paste,” Wijaya calls out as he starts inspecting our efforts.
The first few minutes turn out to be rather fun but after that my muscles begin to feel the strain. For some inexplicable reason, the bits of candlenut, ginger, shallots and turmeric stubbornly refuse to blend.
My exasperation is compounded a few minutes later when Wijaya announces: “This lady is a natural. Very good!” Like the rest, I look up to see a middle-aged Japanese woman beaming from ear to ear.
Determined not to be left out, I return to my task with renewed vigour. Sadly though, even that tapers off a little later.
Just when I’m about to resign myself to the fact that I cannot cook, Wijaya suddenly appears by my side. It seems that he has been observing my actions for some time. “Do not just move your pestle in the same direction. You get things done faster by varying your movements,” he suggests before moving on to attend to the Caucasian man next to me who appears to share my predicament.
The chef’s helpful suggestion works like a charm. The next few minutes I find myself happily sauteing the paste in a hot wok. Confidently, I start putting in crushed lemongrass and salam leaf together with a little bit of water before allowing the mixture to simmer for 10 minutes.
“Your Balinese Bumbu is ready now. Remove it from the wok and set aside to cool. By the way, you can sample your labour of love with the fish crackers on your table,” announces Wijaya before telling us to start preparing for the next item on the menu.
Expecting a disaster, I apprehensively pop a half-filled cracker into my mouth. The result is nothing short of surprising. My Balinese Bumbu is really delicious! Wijaya’s advice to go slow on the taste testing comes too late. By then, I’d already finished three more pieces!
Now that I’ve got the hang of things, preparing the second dish seems relatively easy. I breeze through the steps in making Pepes Ikan. The local red snapper slices used to make Pepes Ikan are very fresh. The ground spice paste which is primarily made up of galangal, kencur root and turmeric gives the firm fish flesh a colourful orange tinge. Prior to wrapping everything up in fresh banana leaves, Wijaya reminds us to include the tomato, red chilli and lemongrass garnish.
“Also remember to make your own personal markings on the banana leaves. These can be in the form of torn portions of the leaves or broken off parts of the toothpicks used to hold the leaves in place. Otherwise, all the Pepes Ikan will look more or less the same when they come out from
the steamer,” quips Wijaya while clearing his table.
Taking advantage of the unexpected breather, I cast my gaze at the azure sea fringing the south eastern coast of Bali. Sanur Beach, which borders the resort, is a popular tourist destination famous for its white sandy beaches and magnificent sunsets. It certainly forms the perfect backdrop for this cooking class.
A few moments later, the session resumes. “The next item on the list is Bumbu Ayam. This is going to very easy to prepare,” reassures Wijaya. “All you need is a tablespoon of the Balinese Bumbu
you prepared earlier and mix it well with the pre-prepared shredded chicken. As for the other ingredients in the container, just put them in. No grinding is required this time.”
The Bumbu Ayam dish is ready to be served after allowing the mixture to simmer in coconut milk until most of the liquid portion has already evaporated. I learn that freshly squeezed orange juice
is sometimes added to add fragrance and flavour.
The lesson ends with the preparation of the popular Sate Ayam. After skewering the marinated chicken strips, we all have a great time at the nearby makeshift grill. Before long, the air is filled with
the wonderful smell of barbecued meat.
By this time, my perception of the cooking class has changed. Gone are the apprehensions and fears. Instead I find the warm feeling of success and achievement. This experience, which feeds both the mind and soul, is an excellent introduction to Balinese culture.
The moment of truth arrives when we head off to Puri Santrian’s beach-side coffee house to sample our creations. The entire restaurant, including the intricately-woven plate mats on our table, shouts Balinese elegance. Coupled with the fantastic view of the ocean and soft gamelan music playing in the background, I feel like I’m in paradise.
We can hardly recognise our creations when they arrive. The kitchen team has arranged everything so attractively that the food looks as good as it tastes. During the meal, everyone concurs that attending this cooking class had been time well-spent. Like me, they all put away their precious notes for safekeeping with the intention of preparing the same meal for their loved ones back home.
The Puri Santrian cooking class formally comes to an end when Wijaya presents each of us with a certificate. “You’re all now certified Balinese cooks. Go home and show your families your culinary prowess. And... don’t forget that you all learnt it all from me!” he adds, eyes dancing in jest.
Go to www.santrian.com for details.
RECIPE 1: BALINESE BUMBU
Makes one portion
1 large chilli
1 clove garlic
3 red shallots
Half of a small red chilli
Half piece small candlenut
Pinch of nutmeg (ground)
Small piece of ginger
Small piece of kencur root
Small piece of turmeric
Small piece of galangal
½ tsp tamarind puree
½ tsp palm sugar
1tbsp salad or peanut oil
1. Clean all ingredients.
2. Chop all ingredients and grind until smooth.
3. Add “A” to a hot pot and sautè.
4. Add “B” and simmer for l0 minutes or until the water has evaporated.
5. Use as needed (only in small quantities).
Chef’s note: This paste mix can keep for up to two weeks in the refrigerator provided there is an oil coating.
RECIPE 2: PEPES IKAN
(Fish wrapped in banana leaf)
Makes about one portion
150g snapper or sword fish
6 whole shallots, sliced
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1g turmeric, chopped
1g kencur root, chopped
1g galangal, chopped
1 whole small chilli, sliced
2 sprigs lemon basil, sliced
1 stalk lemongrass, sliced
½ tbsp tamarind pulp
1 tbsp salad oil
1 tsp lime juice
½ tsp shrimp paste
Salt to taste
For the garnish
2 slices tomato
2 slices large red chilli
1 stalk lemongrass bruised
1 salam leaf
1. In a small bowl crush ingredients A with the back of the spoon until completely bruised.
2. Add part B and mix.
3. Add fish and mix.
4. Lay two pieces of banana leaf flat and put the garnish in first and then the fish mixture. Roll and fasten the ends with toothpicks.