You can go quite a while in Bali without stumbling across true Balinese dishes on a menu: your nasi goreng, cap cay, mie goreng and even most sate are imports from China and Java. Yet Bali’s is a delicious, rich cuisine and it’s not only worth tracking down babi guling and ayam betutu while you’re here — why not learn how to cook a few dishes as well?
Imagine a combination of the following minced, simmered then smeared over your favourite meat or veggies: chillies, garlic, shallots, fresh turmeric, ginger, coriander seeds, tamarind, shrimp paste, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaf, salam leaf, cloves, nutmeg, black pepper, galangal…
A Balinese bumbu, or spice paste, features a combination of those ingredients and is the key to many of Bali’s home-grown dishes. It’s among the first recipes covered in the one-day cooking course at Bumbu Bali, one of the few restaurants serving only real-deal local cuisine. Opened in 1997, Bumbu Bali is run by Heinz von Holzen, author of several cookbooks on Balinese and Indonesian cuisine. The Swiss chef originally came to the region to work with Hyatt and Hilton in Singapore, before moving to Bali to open the Grand Hyatt as executive chef; he later opened the Ritz Carlton (now the Ayana) as executive chef.
I signed up for the course earlier this week. After convening at Jimbaran McDonald’s, our group of 10 or so departed for the nearby Jimbaran markets at 06:20 sharp. We clustered around a table near the market entrance sipping coffee as Heinz began by explaining a little about Balinese traditional food culture; who does the shopping (Mum); what influences her (no refrigeration); and what sorts of delicious things people eat for breakfast (think various combinations of coconut, palm sugar and rice).
Other tips Heinz passed on: how to hypnotise a chook (well, almost) and how to tell what colour eggs a hen will lay (I won’t spoil it for you). As a little finale, an elderly Balinese woman displayed her skills at weaving leaves into a rice cake basket at amazing speed. Ceramics made only a relatively recent appearance in Bali, meaning ingenious methods of using palm leaves were developed for carrying and serving food.
Then we were off for a wander through the typical Balinese market, past fruit and veggies, freshly slaughtered meat (“Feel it to see if it’s still warm, so you know it’s been freshly slaughtered!”), not-so-fresh seafood, offerings, groceries and various other day-to-day paraphernalia. I had a chance to ask one of Heinz’ team about Balinese ducks: it’s always bugged me that they’re so difficult to buy, when bebek betutu is such a popular Balinese dish.
“Balinese ducks are too skinny! Those ducks are all imported from Australia,” he said. Romantic food illusion: shattered.
Then we were whisked off for a very short drive to Jimbaran beach. I’ll write about the market in another post, but the main take away point here is this: Javanese rather than Balinese boats supply the market. One of the Balinese boats coming in had been out for three days, two nights, and had a haul of 15 kg of fish. Sturdier, better-equipped Javanese boats catch the daily haul further afield, and Heinz says he has seen the market collapse twice in recent years with little warning due to mass overfishing. It’s an obvious catastrophe in waiting. Here’s one site to check on whether your fish is sustainably caught.
Our next stop: the dining bale at the cooking school, about a 15-minute drive away in Tanjung Benoa, where we gulped down a huge glass of mixed juice, and gobbled our market breakfast — including mung bean porridge, fruits, various coconut-rice-palm sugar cakes and Bali kopi.
Then we collected our aprons, recipe books, and were off to the open-air, covered kitchen. Here a few of the early morning stragglers emerged, with an extra person in tow, while another person on a waiting list had also been told she could come; so our group ballooned to about 16 rather than the usual 12.
We were saved from an awful lot of pounding, grinding and mushing thanks to a huge meat grinder that did a lot of the work; at home a food processor or blender could do the work. “What about those Thai chefs who say you shouldn’t mechanically grind fresh spices?” someone asked. “Did you swim to Bali?” Heinz responded. “Different means, same end.”
Among the basics were a rundown on how to make chicken stock — did you know you should always chuck the first lot of stock, rinse the bones, and start over? Me neither.
In about five hours, we raced through some 20 recipes as Heinz regaled us with stories alongside his assistant Pak Bagu. Among the dishes: black rice pudding, roast chicken in banana leaf, pork in sweet soya sauce, various sate with peanut sauce (Javanese, strictly speaking), minced seafood sate (Balinese), steamed mushrooms in banana leaf, green papaya salad with prawn and a vegetable salad (a much better take on your usual gado gado).
Of course, the finale was sitting down to eat and, of course, it was fabulous — and just as rich in some ways as an elaborately prepared French meal, I’d say. We were wrapped up by 15:00.
All in all, I’d recommend any traveller even remotely interested in Balinese cuisine do this course; and if you’re into food, consider a day with Heinz at Bumbu Bali a pretty much essential to-do item on your Bali list. (Heinz doesn’t take all the classes, so check when you’re making your bookings if you’d like to have him as your teacher — though Pak Bagus is certainly just as competent and engaging.) If you’re not coming to Bali? Browse their site and you’ll find many of the recipes.
The price? It’s not cheap, at US$85++ or $75++ if you don’t want to drag yourself out of bed at the crack of dawn for the market. I’d definitely do the market, even if you’ve done Asian markets before, because you’ll have a chance to ask questions.