During my last trip to Bali in Indonesia, I did something new. Something I would have never done, if it had not been suggested to me. This was to follow a local traditional Balinese cooking class. And, actually, since I love both cooking and travelling, I started wondering why I had not done something like this before. It is something that is right up my alley.
Our traditional Balinese cooking experience was a huge success. My mom and I totally loved it. A man who goes by the name of Little Wayan arranged the cooking class, and he runs a small local grassroots organization that tries to develop the community around his hometown. If you decide to arrange a cooking class with him, he will arrange your pickup from the hotel, the drop-off afterwards, and everything in between. It is very easy and convenient.
We were picked up from the Tandjung Sari hotel in Sanur in the early morning by one of Little Wayan’s best friends, Ketut. Instead of driving us to the cooking location directly, which was located nearby the town of Gianyar in the Ubud area, we first went to the Pasar Umum Gianyar, a local traditional market, to do some grocery shopping, because we needed ingredients to cook with. Visiting a local Indonesian market is really cool and interesting. You’ll see a sight of Indonesia and Bali that you will not see anywhere else. When we arrived at the marketplace Little Wayan’s wife was waiting for us and together we visited various stalls around the complex to buy the ingredients for our cooking class. Some of the things we had to buy were: chicken, pork, fish, spices, vegetables, bananas, more spices, coconuts, fruit, and even more spices and herbs. Also, don’t worry, Little Wayan’s wife will do the negotiating with the market merchants (and funnily enough, she doesn’t really have to negotiate as she basically knows everyone there already).
After exploring the market from top to bottom, we went to Little Wayan’s house, which is also the location where the cooking class was held. There is a roofed outdoor kitchen in his place that serves as a classroom. At the time we were there, a Balinese ceremony took place in the temple/altar shrine of his Balinese housing compound. The air was filled with soft gamelan music, the smell of incense, and a festive atmosphere lingered about the place with people busying around making preparations for the various ceremonies that were to be held later that day.
Once we had finished our welcoming lemongrass tea drink and once Little Wayan and me finished chatting about the Dutch-Indonesian history and culture, the class began. It turned out that Little Wayan is actually not the one doing the cooking, instead his wife and a few other ladies in the compound were helping us. That was ok for us, because they were quite friendly and supportive. That day, we were to make a few different dishes: a Balinese pork rib soup, ayam betutu (Balinese style chicken), pisang goreng (fried banana fritters), urap-urap (a vegetable dish with coconut shavings and beans), and pepes ikan (fresh fish with spices steamed in a banana leaf). Our class began by receiving an explanation of the many various spices, herbs, and vegetables used in traditional Balinese cooking. Some of these include: garlic, shallots, ginger, kencur (a ginger-like herb), gula jawa (palm sugar), cloves, turmeric, lemon grass, daun salam (Indonesian bay leaf), jeruk limau (kaffir lime), lengkuas (galangan), terasi (shrimp paste), coriander, black pepper corns, and many many more.
Cloves, turmeric, shrimp paste.
Lengkuas, kencur, jeruk limau (kaffir lime).
Gula jawa (palm sugar), ginger, daun salam (Indonesian bay leaf).
Balinese cuisine is special in the regard that so many different spices and herbs are used in chicken, fish, and pork dishes. The seasoning, known in Indonesia as bumbu, differs from region to region as they all have their own twists. But in general, the tastes are very complex, rich, and spicy. Not to mention that pork is also often used in Balinese food. This is quite unique in a Muslim majority country. One of the most famous Balinese dishes is called babi guling, a slow-roasted suckling pig filled with spices and herbs. The pig is roasted for hours until its skin becomes crispy and its meat soft and tender. It’s very delicious. Of course, like most Indonesian dishes, Balinese food is often served with rice as well.
The hardest part of the cooking class, and basically the most time-consuming, is making the spice pastes for the various dishes. This cutting, chopping, and grinding of the spices takes long a time and I spend a solid thirty minutes sitting around a wooden block with three other people chopping the spices into a very fine mixture. My mom was to make the spice paste for the pepes ikan and instead of chopping, she had to use a cobek (a stone mortar used to grind spices) to make the paste. There is a lot of technique involved and it really looks easier than it actually is. We worked up quite a sweat making these spices.
Then, when the spice mixtures had been sufficiently chopped and prepared, the remaining cooking steps are not as hard. Most of it involved steaming, boiling, or frying some meat mixed with the spice pastes. We basically just had to add spices to the meat and let it boil and steam for an hour or so. During this time we had a little break and relaxed for a while.
After an hour and a half, the food was done and lunch was served. It was very very tasty and super yummy. These were some of the best Indonesian dishes I have ever eaten during my time in Indonesia. It was spicy and so rich in taste. Everything was delicious. Even the pepes ikan (the fish steamed in a banana leaf) tasted lovely, and usually I am not a fan of fish, but this was spectacular. Both my mom and me were practically speechless and impressed by how delightful all the food was.
All things considered, Little Wayan’s cooking class is an activity I would highly recommend if you are going to Bali. You will see a side of this beautiful island and culture that is rarely experienced by foreigners and not to mention that it is just so much fun. You will also learn about the various spices, herbs, and other ingredients used in traditional Balinese cooking. And you will have a great host in Little Wayan, who was hospitable and friendly and made us feel welcome and fascinated us with his hopes and dreams for the local community.