Ciel and I had especially looked forward to learning how to cook a Balinese feast during our time in Ubud, where we’d heard there was a plethora of cooking classes to choose from. Early one of the first mornings of our stay, we headed down the street to Bumbu Bali Café to meet Mary and Donald and our cooking instructor.
After situating ourselves at a gracious table and receiving our very own Balinese cookbook, handwritten in English by an American graduate student, we crossed the street to the market to view and learn about Balinese spices and vegetables as they are sold.
Unfortunately I forget our soft spoken instructor’s name, but it was not Ketut or Wayan, nor Nyoman or Made – some Balinese use their middle names instead. I think I will call her Chrissy – that is the author of the cookbook. (That definitely was not her name though!)
At the market we gawked at the piles of nutmeg, vanilla beans, garlic, turmeric, ginger and other unknown spices. Piles of freshly caught fish on the ground sent up a less pleasant aroma as we picked our way through the crowds. The ever-smiling Balinese vendors entreated us to please buy buy buy from them. We resolved to return to load up our bags with exotic spices before our return to the U.S.
As are all such markets, the sheer volume of sounds, smells and colors assaulted all senses, and we flattened ourselves against a stone wall as a rumbling garbage truck navigated through the crowd and out the exit.
Peanuts figure prominently in many of the dishes, and another more exotic nut, called candlenut is mixed in with the peanuts to make the delicious peanut sauce that we’d already tasted several times. We learned why the nut had earned that moniker when we returned to the café and she stuck a nut upright on a plate and lit it like a candle!
Back at Bumbu, we put on our new aprons printed with the black and white checkers that we see on the cloths that adorn temple pillars and home shrines all over Bali. Chrissy pulled out all the pre-prepped ingredients to make our first dish – the basis for many of the others – Base Gede or “Basic Spice Paste.” She propped a large shallow mortar and pestle made of lava rock on the table and dumped in a pile of whole spices – turmeric, chilies, coriander seeds, galangal, peppercorns, cloves, and more, plus candlenuts, shallots and an assortment of other ingredients. We all took turns pounding the mixture into a paste.
Next up was a dish that had already become a favorite of Ciel and I: Sayur Urab. This is basically a vegetable dish made with assorted green vegetables and freshly grated coconut. Sometimes it is served with only the long green beans that are found everywhere here. They are usually chopped into small pieces, mixed with spices and the coconut. This time we mixed together the green beans with carrots along with two “soft” veggies: bean sprouts and spinach. Kaffir lime leaf and a squeeze of the lime fruit finished this sublime dish. She divided it onto four plates and placed them in front of us. Yum, a taste of heaven!
Bergedel is billed as “a simple egg dish that is deep fried in oil.” But it seemed to be essentially a corn fritter. Deep fried in several inches of palm oil, this was not our favorite of the day’s delights. But that didn’t stop us from scarfing up the steaming goodness when it was served.
After that, we were relieved to learn that we were about to embark on a recipe that did not involve any oil or frying. Tahu Gling Tehir translates to “tofu rolled eggs” and is essentially a mix of tofu, eggs and spices mixed together and steamed in a banana leaf. We all struggled with wrapping the moist mixture into a square of banana leaf and skewering it shut with a pieces of bamboo shaped like toothpicks. “You can also use foil,” Chrissy told us. That sounded easier but not nearly as interesting!
We started on the next dish while the leaf-wrapped packets steamed, but ten minutes later when we could unwrap and savor the mixture, we delighted in what tasted like an exotic Asian version of tofu scramble. Definitely would not be as tasty if cooked in aluminum foil! Oh well, a bit of a shortage of banana leaves in the U.S.
Next up was Gado Gado, “mixed vegetables with peanut sauce.” According to our cookbook, the Balinese themselves rarely eat this dish at home although it is served in many warungs (food stalls or small restaurants.) Ciel and I shared a plate of gado gado for our first lunch in Bali and we fell in love with it: a pile of steamed vegetables and rice topped with peanut sauce and garnished with boiled egg, fried tofu and tempeh, and shrimp chips. As I recall we paid about $3.50 for that plate that was enough to satisfy us both. We’ve discovered that gado gado is slightly different in each restaurant or warung, but it never disappoints.
We were almost sorry to learn the specifics of how it was cooked though. Each ingredient is individually fried, and then the whole mixture is fried again! Hmm, guess we were consuming a few more calories than we’d realized.
I thought the gado gado was the last dish we’d be cooking so I served myself up a generous portion. Oops! There was still more to come, and it was something I couldn’t pass up when it reached my plate. Our cooking lesson concluded with a “special recipe” that did not appear in our books. We had to take notes if we wanted to cook this one again at home – and we certainly did!
Sambal Goreng Tahu or “spicy fried tofu” sounded so simple, but the cubed fried tofu mixed by hand with kaffir lime, basic sauce, coconut and and other spices burst on our tongues with flavors we had not yet experienced. I have to say that his simple dish won the prize for my favorite of the day.
No Balinese meal is complete without dessert, and despite my full stomach I enjoyed my small plate of tropical fruit
accompanied by a refreshing brem cocktail. Brem is the local fermented wine drink that varies tremendously in flavor. Mixed with fruit juice and ice, it was a delightful finish to a delightful morning.
Can’t wait to try it all again at my first Balinese dinner party!