Suck on a lemon, then a lime, then a lemon again, the lemon will seem much sweeter; take a slice of kencur, a root essential to Balinese cooking, bite down on it a little and it will leave your tongue anaesthetically numb; take slices of ginger and smear over sunburn for relief — it’s cool to the skin, though warming in the mouth; grate some turmeric and stuff it into your belly button to relieve a sore tummy. These are some of the things I learned during my day at Bali Asli, a restaurant and cooking school nestled into a hill in Amlapura looking up to majestic Gunung Agung — this must be one of the most stunning vantage points to see the volcano on Bali.
But you’ll need to drag your eyes away from the view to the kitchen, where you’ll be in good hands. Chef Penelope Williams apprenticed at the Savoy in London and then worked in some of Sydney’s best restaurants — Restaurant 41, Boathouse and Bather’s Pavilion — before heading to Alila Manggis in Bali; eventually, she found this spot and in nine months built her own dream restaurant and opened last year with an admirable philosophy in place: to use, as much as possible, products offered by people who fish, farm and forage in the nearby fields, ocean and jungle.
Penny and her staff offer a few different ways to get into the groove of Balinese cooking, such as trekking the surrounds, heading out on a local jukung to hook your own catch of the day and making a market visit. The waves are a bit too rough at the moment for guests to head out, so mine was the “day in the village” flavour: with local guide Ketut, we saw and tasted tuak, the rather refreshingly zippy precursor to arak, stopped for a kopi at a very humble typical local house and meandered through fields and stopped at some local springs.
There was just another student and I for the class, meaning this really did feel like a quick local immersion in rural life here; no hanging around in a group of 20 elbowing each other out of the way to take a snap of someone’s porch. The price is 800,000 rupiah* per person for the day, excluding drinks only; it’s not cheap, but it’s great value.
Then we sat down with Penny, who showed us how to make a Balinese daily offering, or canang. Even after living here for a few years, I learned a lot during the session: which flowers represent which gods, and also, how bloody difficult they are to put together.
Next came a thorough rundown on ingredients typically used in Balinese cuisine. Again, this went way beyond telling the difference between ginger and galangal. I learned, for instance, that the surrounding area is particularly green due to Agung’s 1963 eruption devastating the fields; a new irrigation system was built and that’s when Balinese rice began to be eschewed by farmers in favour, sadly, of the more common genetically modified rice you’ll find across the island today (one harvest versus four…) The Balinese rice is tougher to find, but the short, stubbly grain makes for a good paella or risotto, Penny says.
I learned a lot about spices too, such as I’ve been grating the wrong bit of nutmeg for just about forever… Idiot! I’ve been scraping off relatively flavourless mace. The inside of a nutmeg is a completely different, amazing creature. You’ll see why wars were fought over it. And the “Balinese truffle” was new to me, too. This is actually the nut of a fruit, which when broken open reveals a dark brown flesh with a flavour reminiscent of a very high percentage dark chocolate — Penny’s added flecks to a chocolate self-saucing pudding before, and I can see how that would work deliciously.
A drink while cooking is encouraged: I tucked into a house-made salak or snakefruit beer (20,000 rupiah). This is fermented on site and is sort of like an effervescent lime squash that leaves you gently warm; okay, alright, I also had to try the ginger beer, which was a little rounder in flavour. I didn’t try the pineapple. Really.
In all, we made a half-dozen or so dishes, and though the chopping was all done for us, the rest of the class was very hands on (much more so than at the larger classes you’ll find at Bumbu Bali in Tanjung Benoa down south). The key to Balinese cuisine, bumbu Bali, or Balinese spice paste, was followed by chicken sate, done the Balinese way of blending the bumbu through the meat, with a peanut sauce on the side. Oh, another piece of trivia: try a truly raw peanut and you’ll see where the nut gets its name from — it tastes just like a green pea. The fish in banana leaf was matched with a tofu in banana leaf, and we also put together a scrumptious salad of fern tips, red beans and coconut. Indonesian fried rice, or nasi goreng, was the accompaniment to the main dishes, and even here, on such a basic dish, I learned a lot — such as push down the rice in the wok with the back of your spoon instead of breaking it up so you don’t damage the grains.
Need to know more? You’ll need to visit. And you should — it’s absolutely worth travelling across Bali to get here for a day’s culinary education.
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 27th March, 2016.