The art and romance of Balinese cooking

A seemingly young boy, though he legally has to be 17 at least in order to hold a driving licence, picks Simone and I up from our villas a couple of hours after breakfast. Our Balinese cooking class scheduled for today is to be held at Hotel Tugu Bali in Canggu Beach. Sleepier than Seminyak it draws a less of the Aussie bogan and more of the surfer type though it is still a month off from the start of surfing season (the busiest time in Bali which stretches til mid September) as Joyce informed me yesterday.  I start to wonder what a season means in regards to surfing. Is it when the particular style of wave begins to appear or is it in regards competitions? I don’t actually care enough to seek the answer out though.
Greeted on arrival by our chef de jour, a short woman introduces herself as Sri. Iboe Soelastri, I later discover is the cooking guru who won’t allow Sri to finish a dish until the perfect taste profile has been reached. Following a recipe is all nice and well for us simple folk but being guided by over forty years of experience, our guru advises of more salt or sugar or lime to balance. This much older woman of indeterminate age would chop the beef and chicken with a cleaver to a fine mince, whilst overseeing our ministrations from the corner of her eyes. She had mastered the subtle skill of wielding the large sharp knife through the meat with one hand whilst her second hand massaged and rotated the meat but also watching our preparation so the pace of the dishes was on time and in order.

Our first dish was to be a minced spiced beef parcel wrapped and steamed in banana leaves. Banana leaves are ubiquitous here. Folded and made into boxes to hold offerings of flowers and incense , lining the steamer basket and placed underneath dishes for presentation, they literally do grow on trees. In the segregated boxes next to our chopping boards lay a rainbow of ingredients. Garlic, smallish shallots, long thin red chillies, green chillies, small orange hot chillies, fresh tomato, kaffir lime leaves and their small fragrant fruit, large wedges of fresh coconut, Indonesian bay leaves, lemongrass stalks, shrimp paste, palm sugar, candlenuts, ginger, galangal, lesser galangal, turmeric, coriander seeds, and two types of peppercorns.

Sri shows us to how to rub the long red mild chillies between our hands back and forth. This loosens the seeds so when you slice it open they fall out easily. Lemongrass will get the root ends bashed firmly with the handle of the knife to break up the fibres. Some of the bulbs get peeled and some don’t and I can’t see a pattern but I duly do as I’m instructed. Large shards of coconut were grilled over the open flame, slightly catching alight adding a lovely charred edge.

Under the low roof of our open air kitchen, the heat is getting to us. The sweat doesn’t take long to drip down my back between my shoulder blades and run down my thighs. My linen skirt and loose top cling to me now damp skin. I’m thankful when they produce refrigerated wet towels to cool ourselves with. I keep reminding myself that one of retreat co-ordinators referred to this season as winter this morning as she wrapped her scarf around her neck. I see local people in jeans and jumpers and shake my head.

We grind our spice pastes on a lava stone mortar and pestle unlike anything I’d ever seen. About the size of a dinner plate, it is mostly flat with small pits. The technique involves a rocking back and forth of the pestle and long dragging strokes. The chillies and shallots release their juices to help bind the pastes. Some pastes were fried off in coconut oil, others boiled in water to achieve a more mellow flavour.  We take many photos of different stages to illuminate the recipes we are provided with at the end. We amateurs are relegated to chopping the chillies, garlic, galangal and so on then many sweat inducing minutes of mortar and pestle work. Absent-mindedly I wipe the sweat off my upper lip with my hand and soon the familiar warmth of chilli burn is felt on my skin. Next time, I’ll use the edge of my cheesecloth apron.

Nasi goreng Jawa or fried rice and lawar kacang panjang or snake bean and toasted coconut salad are our second and third dishes that flesh out our Tugu cooking class. Mrs Mandy and Mrs Simon (sic) are then served their creations in the cool dark restaurant of the hotel. We only manage to make small in roads into the consumption of our delightful meal as it’s only 11am and we’ve not managed to work up enough of an appetite. Kindly they prepare the remainders for us to take back to the other goddess at the retreat. Before we are delivered back, I can’t resist a stroll down to their private beach for a stickybeak. I know I said that I’d be content not to step one foot on the beach this trip and technically that is still valid. Across a back lane there is a large lawn area with sun beds, raised open daybeds and the obligatory hotel staff to indulge your every whim. Under the oppressive sun, I looked out towards the grey sand and gently breaking water and decided that nothing was to be gained walking another 200m to feel sand under my toes. I was more than happy to leave the skin cancer seekers to their own devices.

Food packed up and driver summoned we’re very happy to be ferried in air conditioned comfort back to the retreat where the quiet and mostly empty grounds are now a familiar sight.

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