Outdoor Cooking: Bali Style.
Brunyfire’s pad on Bruny Island, an island off the south-eastern coast of Tasmania separated by the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, with its traditional Aboriginal name of Alonnah Lunawanna, (only nowadays surviving as the name of the island’s two main settlements, Alonnah and Lunawanna) may have little in common with the island of Bali, Indonesia. The connection is tenuous, but exists through the practice of the outdoor kitchen and the still remaining tradition within many villages, of cooking on an open fire with clay pots.
Wanting to find out more about the local cuisine of Bali, and thanks again to the God Google, and the experience of jetsetvagabond and his good lady (for a more legible version of this article, check out the source in RACT’s Journeys magazine pages 18 and 19)……………..I had discovered several good cooking classes in and around Ubud, but the clincher for me was the the Paon Bali Cooking Class, previously booked from home, and thanks to some fantastic write-ups from the ubiquitous (but ever handy) TripAdvisor, the Paon Bali Cooking Class promised authentic Balinese cooking within an indigenous village setting in Banjar Laplapan, just outside of Ubud in the home of man and wife team, Wayan Subawa and Puspa Wati.
Fretting that they had forgotten about me as 8.30 still found me sitting in my hotel lobby, I finally got to meet the cause of the delay when my driver arrived (amidst a flurry of apologies) and introduced me to his passenger, who had got the pick up time wrong – Sarah, a cheeky Irish lass – who was to become my cooking buddy for the day.Our first stop was Ubud’s market, on the corner of Monkey Forest Road (Jalan Wanara Wana) and Main Road Ubud (Jalan Raya Ubud) where our host, Wayan meets us and introduces us to his assistant, also called Wayan (you’re confused!) who in turn introduces us to the accoutrements (tools and food) of the traditional Balinese kitchen. We walk gingerly amongst the crowded produce merchants, selling anything from a single plastic bowl of shrimps caught from the paddy fields……..……….to stalls piled high with all manner of woven baskets, food covers, strainers and covered containers from banana palm and plastic. We check out some basic tools, indispensable to the Balinese cook, my favourite being a pair of handsome cooking knives, sheathed in a leather case – hand beaten steel (I think) with wooden handle, the set comprised of one large, weighty blade for chopping…………. and crushing and a smaller paring knife. Other tools included a simple perforated metal cone on bamboo handle (for deep frying), a flat wooden board penetrated by evilly sharp nails punched through from the rear of the board, (for shredding fresh coconut)…….…….and an assortment of bamboo tools – like a simple tube section of bamboo (that acted as a blowing tube to fan the fire to a fiercer heat – as I was to find out later in Puspa’s outdoor kitchen) and bamboo ‘tongs’ of various sizes.
We were introduced to mangosteens………. ………and snake fruit…………….galangal, ginger, lemongrass, kafir limes (and their leaves), water spinach, bay leaves……….………. and all the basic spices…….…..from the spice Lady’s stall – including a refreshing powdered ginger tea which became a staple drink during the remainder of our trip.
After we had renegotiated the treacherous stone stairs back up to ground level, constantly on the look out for stray dogs, we met up with Wayan again. Whist admitting to a fair degree of paranoia where the mangy dogs of Bali are concerned and the potential rabis risk that they carry, young Sarah was positively terrified as she’d had a previously very unpleasant experience where she had been rushed by a dog that had scared the bejesus out of her!
However, we made it safely back to the air conditioned comfort of our car, and drove on out of Ubud and into the lushness of paddy field green.Here we stopped for a while, next to a handsome looking villa, (no longer allowed to be built in the paddy field food bowls) to allow Wayan to discuss the importance of rice. Finally onto his home, through a very grand entrance…….…….where we were presented with an ice cold glass of freshly squeezed lime juice which we all gratefully supped on whilst Wayan described the layout of his home kampong and its meanings in relation to family life. Wayan was adopted into this family home, his own parents living in the nearby village, by his elderly aunt and uncle, who had no children of their own and it has since been his responsibility to maintain it for his own growing family.
We, a motley bunch of primarily Aussies, donned our pinnies, and headed around to the back of the main homestead to the newly built (they’ve only been going for a few years) outdoor kitchen/dining area………… with its wood fired fireplace where there was already a traditional clay pot and a battered aluminium pan steaming away mysteriously. In the latter, we learn that coconut oil was being made from previously grated coconut (using a grater like the one we had been shown earlier in the market) that had been mixed with boiling water, cooled and squeezed to extract the milk. (Check out Eating Asia’s great site – post DIY Coconut Oil). Puspa then ups the heat to bring the coconut mix to boiling point by blasting the coals with a simple bamboo tube……..……..and then the wok is removed from the heat, and the oil is skimmed off the top, leaving behind a residual sludge of coconut remains that, apparently, makes delicious eating in small doses. It is the refined oil that we will be cooking with, and it is this that made so much of the food we came to eat at the end of our class, all the more tasty.
The morning proceeded with pounding and crushing peanuts in a traditional Balinese mortar and pestle, known as a ‘cobek” in Indonesian, and ‘penyan tokan’ in Balinese. Made of roughly hewn basalt, this is used with a stubby handled pestle called an ‘anak’ meaning child, that provides a highly efficient method of grinding. (Check Eating Asia’s: The Daily Grind’). Following on from this, and under Auntie’s explicit instructions delivered with military precision, participants were encouraged to contribute with chopping………… ……….slicing, pounding, frying, grinding and pounding, this latter in ‘The Bali Blender’as Puspa called the traditional stand up mortar and pestle, or ‘lesung’. Aother highly efficient piece of equipment that comprised a volcanic rock mortar, weighing in at some 16 kilos, with an accompanying long wooden handle. In this, Puspa placed the ingredients of the Base Gede (basic yellow sauce), and once we’d all faffed about, thinking we’d all got a great action, one of Puspa’s many assistants (there must have been about 6-8 helpers) discreetly took over and pulverised the remaining yellow sauce mixture to a smooth paste. This sauce forms the basis of many a Balinese dish, and in this instance, we use it for our Be Siap Mesanten or Kare Ayam (Chicken in Coconut Curry).
Whilst all this action is going on, a delicious soup appears from the mushrooms, carrots, string beans, garlic, chicken stock, shallots, lemon, kaffir lime leaves, spring onion and chilli that we have previously sliced and diced, and we all gratefully take time out to start our entree – or Kuah Wong or Sup Jamur (clear mushroom and vegetable soup).After the soup, it’s back to work to create the remaining dishes, such as the Sate Siap or Sate Lilit Ayam (Minced Chicken grilled on Bamboo sticks). Several chicken breasts had been pounded in the lesung by an assistant, in the mortar to a fine paste. This was mixed with the basic yellow sauce, fresh grated coconut, palm sugar syrup and fried shallots, with a squeeze of lime juice over the mixture……… ………before moulding it to the bamboo sticks ready for barbecuing.
Steamed fish in banana leaves, Pepesan Be Pasih was next on the agenda, in this case the fish was tuna, mixed with chopped onions, lemon basil, the ‘bese gede’ (basic yellow sauce), and a squeeze of lime – mixed together and rolled in a banana leaf……… ………….and pinned at either end with a toothpick. These were then placed, criss crossed, into a traditional, conical woven palm leaf rice steamer or ‘kuskan’ (not to be mistaken for a hat – standard Puspa joke), covered with a clay lid and steamed for about 10 minutes. Later, I noticed the packages had been removed from the steamer and placed onto the hot coals of the fire.For the sake of expediency, we did resort to several gas rings and metal fry pans and woks. But this was a small price to pay for the sake of total authenticity. The big surprise for my taste buds turned out to be the Tempe Me or Tempe Kering – deep fried tempeh in sweet soy sauce. Tempeh is made from cooked and slightly fermented soybeans and formed into a patty – my previous experience with it, not being a happy one, I was dubious about even trying it. But sliced finely and deep fried in the coconut oil until golden brown and crispy, they were delicious! Add to the tempeh lightly fried, finely sliced red chillies, garlic, shallots and spring onions and toss the lot with a hearty dollop of Kecp Manis – a sweet soy sauce, with a thick, almost syrupy consistency and a unique, pronounced, sweet somewhat treacle-like flavor due to generous additions of palm sugar.We finally get to eat what amounts to a banquet.
I come away full of admiration for Wayan and Puspa’s enterprising business sense, dedication to hard work, their humour and generosity – what a great day.