I just watched the sun rise over the crashing waves at what is easily the most beautiful waterfront resort I have ever stayed in. I’m here in the off season, so in addition to paying a criminally low price I am also the only person staying on this property of thatched roofs, ornate outdoor bathrooms, and absolutely spectacular views of the ocean crashing on the rocks below. The small hotel in a fairly untouristed part of East Bali is a Westerner’s stereotype of exotic tropical bungalows set on a beachfront and they’ve gotten every detail right: open air waterfront yoga platform (mats in all the rooms), reflecting infinity pool jutting out over the water, stone paths winding through the palm trees, and wide benches with cushions ready for lounging in multiple scenic spots.
On a trip that is primarily backpacking through Southeast Asia, how did I wind up in such inexpensive and remote luxury? Because I decided to take classes at Bali Asli, a unique cooking school in a fairly undeveloped part of East Bali that focuses on experiential cooking. From what I understand, I’ll spend a morning fishing with one of the local fishermen and then we’ll cook what we catch (augmented, I’m sure, by lots of other deliciousness!). Another morning is spent on a local farm, and then we’ll cook some of what we’ve harvested. And the first day is spent hiking to a local village and tasting the local wine that is harvested from palm trees. I’m very curious to see what that’s all about!
Ready to report back: the first day at Bali Asli was fantastic. Penny, the Australian chef who owns the cooking school and restaurant picked me and an Australian couple up and took us to her beautiful restaurant overlooking Mount Agung, with a view of yellow-green rice paddies leading all the way up to the mountain’s edge. Mount Agung plays a prominent role in Balinese culture and religion. Situated in the northeast of the island, the volcano serves as “North” across the island and people will refer to their direction based on their relationship to the mountain, rather than cardinal directions. The temples in Balinese family compounds are also oriented to the mountain, and offerings are made in that direction each day.
We started the day by hiking to a nearby village and learning what tuak is and how it is made. The drink is a milky white carbonated low alcohol drink that is harvested from the branches that suspend palm sugar flowers. A farmer has to climb the tree daily and pound on the branch while it is producing the sugar, and when the flowers fall off, it is ripe for harvesting. We tried a little from a coconut shell bowl and it was tangy and yeasty. When it is distilled, it becomes the liquor arak, and when it is boiled until it caramelizes, it becomes palm sugar used for cooking.
We continued our hike through tall grasses shaded by wide banana leaves and visited a family home. To me, the home seemed more distinctly rural than it did particularly Balinese. Like rural homes in India, it was built with a mixture of mud, stone, and tin, and had a small hot room blackened with soot from years of cooking. Unlike a rural Indian home, it had a second small building used for sleeping.
We continued walking and saw a clear canal gurgling with fresh water – this is the local women’s bath and it is where most people in the village come to wash since they don’t have running water at home. We also passed a man up in a tree snacking on juet fruit – he tossed some of the dark berries down to us and they were very tart and caused a drying sensation in the mouth similar to waking up after a night of heavy drinking.
After a final uphill climb we reached Bali Asli and were rewarded with a ginger, lemon, and poached snakefruit drink served with a sugarcane that is extremely refreshing. We began our cooking class under the shade of the tall a-frame bamboo roof. The first thing to prepare was bumbu Bali, the base sauce for all of Balinese cooking. This sauce is in most dishes, yet the combination of other ingredients keeps each dish tasting unique. It is a mixture of different types of chilies, gingers, spices, and shallots and is flavored with the distinctly Balinese roasted shrimp paste, which has an intense fermented smell that it’s better not to take in too much of. We made the paste by grinding it on an ulekan, a flat Balinese mortar and pestle that is made from volcanic rock harvested from near Mount Agung. I’ve now heard from chefs in Europe and in Asia that food simply tastes better when things are ground or minced by hand, rather than by machine. Most restaurants and homes usually use food processors, which significantly cut down the time to prepare food – I’ve always done this at home and never thought twice about it. I definitely don’t think I’m going to become a full mortar and pestle convert for weeknight cooking, but I do think I will consider it if I’m preparing a really special meal or have the luxury of lots of time to cook.
Our next dish was sate lembat be siap, or Balinese minced chicken satay on lemongrass skewers. We added the bumbu to minced chicken with coconut milk, freshly grated coconut, lime, and lime leaf and then learned how to put it onto the skewers, which we then grilled over smoldering coconut husk charcoal.
And what is satay without peanut sauce? I’d learned in my class at Paon Bali that Indonesian satay (chicken cubes) uses peanut sauce as a topping, while Balinese satay (minced chicken) does not, but in today’s class we combined the Balinese satay with peanut sauce and it was delicious. We made the peanut sauce by grinding fried peanuts with chili, fried shallot, and garlic and then heated it with with water and lots of seasoning spices. Penny told us that every dish has to have a balance of sweet, salty, and sour and the way to tell if your dishes are off balance is to see if one of those flavors is dominant. This is a really helpful cooking tip that cuts across all cuisines and I like it as a way to figure out what’s missing from a dish that doesn’t taste quite right, even when you know you’ve followed the recipe.
Pesan be pasih or spiced fish fillet in a banana leaf parcel was up next. We learned a great trick for working with banana leaves – hold them over a flame for a few seconds until you can see the leaf release its oils, which softens it and ensures it won’t break on you as you fold it into fancy triangles and parcels. The fish preparation was simple, mixing swordfish slices with bumbu, lime, and coconut milk then flavoring it further with garlic, shallot, tomato, lime leaves, and lemon basil leaves. We folded up the banana leave, secured it with toothpicks, and then steamed it. Although made with a different type of fish, this dish was very similar in texture and flavor to the tuna I prepared at Paon Bali.
For further practice at banana leaf origami, we also made tum tahu, or spiced tofu steamed in a banana leaf. Also simple but with a fresh ginger flavor, we made this dish by mixing tofu with coconut, coconut milk, fried shallot, lime juice and lime leaves, and of course, bumbu. We also learned some fancy footwork to fold it into a purse shape.
Last was urab paku kacang merah or fern tips salad with grated coconut and red beans. This tangy and refreshing dish is made with blanched fern tips, which I’ve never had before and are sweet greens a bit like the thin stalk on a broccoli raab or like tendrils from fresh peas. We combined the fern tips with grated coconut, fried shallots (which seem to be in basically every dish), lime, shrimp paste, bumbu and red beans and mixed it together.
Everything tasted fresh and flavorful, with the distinct flavor of the Bali lime, which is similar to a kaffir lime or a key lime, and played a strong role in many of the dishes. The view was beautiful as we ate – the clouds lifted from the peak of Mount Agung, revealing the magnitude of this enormous mountain. After a lovely day of cooking, I headed back to my little resort for a rough afternoon of reading, swimming, and watching the sun set over the water.
***Blogsy, the app I used to post my blog on the ipad, is eating my photos. So sad! Hopefully a temporary issue***Additional information:
Cooking: Bali Asli
Jalan Raya Gelumpang Gelumpang village Amlapura Karangasem Bali
Restaurant: +62 8289 7030098
http://baliasli.com.au/ Hotel: Seraya Shores
Seraya Barat Amlapura – Karangasem Bali 80871 Indonesia.
+62 81 338 416572