July 4, 2007

A lesson in Balinese cooking


glutinous rice treats

I'm not a morning person but on this day I could have fooled you. We were up at 5:30 and out the door by 6 am ready for our wee-hours-of-the-morning market jaunt with Cok Sri (pronounced chawk sree), the Balinese woman who would be instructing us on her local cuisine today. Even the roosters aren't up yet!, I thought. Rubbing the sleep off our eyes, we stumbled over to the front desk where we were soon met by Cok Sri, who for some reason instantly brought to mind many a scary school teacher from my past.

She just as quickly dispelled that thought with her jolly greeting and warm smile, then we were off to the Ubud market to purchase the ingredients for our cooking class. It was quite cold and I hugged my shawl tighter around me while I looked around and noticed many other women walking in the same direction, alone or in small groups of two or three. All heading to the market too, no doubt.

I was right. I couldn't believe my eyes. The market was teeming with customers at this ungodly hour, it seemed as if the entire female population of Ubud was present and then some. There was produce everywhere. I gingerly tiptoed over and around a maze of crates and mats piled high with the radiant contrasting colors of red chilis, fiddlehead ferns, squash and shallots.

All the vendors seemed to know Cok Sri. Her keen eye (and nose!) for freshness evident as she surveyed and sniffed and then honed in for what she deemed to be perfect. After procuring the vegetables we needed, she led us down the steps to the wet market for chicken and fish. As Cok Sri and Rina discussed our protein requirements, I scanned my surroundings for photo ops. Then something caught my eye.

Over by the cookies and breads, a lady was assembling what looked like multi-colored sticky cakes on a brown sheet of paper, which she would drizzle with a brown syrup and then sprinkle with coconut. Cok Sri must have seen the drool gushing (seriously, I still hadn't had any breakfast!) down to my flip-flops because she bought one each for us to have for breakfast later.

With us tailing her, marched down an alley where she stopped for some dried shrimp paste and peanut sauce before declaring we were done. It was only when we were back on the street did I notice we were joined by a woman carrying all our purchases on a basket balanced on her head. She gave us a toothy grin as she walked past us.

We parted ways with Cok Sri at the bungalows, agreeing to meet her at her place at 9am. This gave us a little over an hour for a nice leisurely breakfast that included rice cakes I was so eager to try. I unwrapped the paper to reveal a medley of glutinous rice cakes in assorted colors, shapes and textures, lightly drizzled with palm sugar syrup and shredded coconut that was acutely reminiscent of home. Kakanins (native snacks) that came to mind were cuchinta, puto and bilo-bilo. Yum!

Cok Sri

barefoot in her kitchen

We arrived at Cok Sri's promptly at 9 am. She lived in a very traditional Balinese family complex she shared with a slew of brothers and sisters. She called out to us from her kitchen near the rear of the complex. It was a simple galley kitchen across from another open-air kitchen area where all the ingredients were laid out. Like model pupils, Rina and I took our positions on mismatched monobloc stools, excited and ready for our private Balinese cuisine education.

The first task was to prepare the Bali sambal, a fiery condiment of shallots, garlic, chilis and dried shrimp paste (trasi). Sambals are either raw or cooked, though in these islands it is preferred raw and untamed by cooking. It is served with everything and a meal without sambal is unthinkable. Cok Sri laid a large granite mortar on the counter in which she threw all the ingredients except the shrimp paste. She proceeded to grind everything with quick masterful strokes of the wrist.


I loved how this mortar and pestle worked. The flat pestle with the slightly bent ergonomic handle made it easy to grind ingredients into a paste rather than pound it (I even bought myself one). And the large size of the shallow, almost flat mortar accomodates big quantities to be ground together. Here they prefer to massage the ingredients, coaxing the flavors out by hand rather than pulverizing it with a food processor.

Cok Sri fired up the stove and grabbed a pan from under the sink. She mashed the block of dried shrimp paste into it until the heat and her actions broke it down into a thick grey paste. Almost instantly the air was filled with a pungent fishy aroma. Into the paste went the mashed ingredients for a quick saute and gentle simmer. My goodness, the aroma! The aroma wafting from the pan was heady, provocative almost. The fumes tickled my nostrils and stirred my tummy.

Watching Cok Sri in her element was fascinating. We watched her coax the flavors from exotic spices, expertly wrap the fish in banana leaves, effortlessly negotiate the stove top that seemed to have 4 pans sizzling or steaming at once, and deftly chop ingredients with quick fluid motions. All the while she answered all my questions patiently, even spelling out some names as I took down notes, and regaled us with tales of her family without missing a beat. She had the kitchen prowess that comes only from decades of experience. She did have an assistant who helped her grate the coconut for the long beans but she did everything else herself without breaking a sweat. She was the picture of efficiency, constantly cleaning and packing away as she worked.

A little over two hours later, we were ready to chow. We helped her bring out the plates to where tables had been set for us at one of the pavilions by the courtyard. At our insistence, Cok Sri joined us for lunch and together we feasted on her masterpieces. They were truly works of a master and I felt almost compelled to give her a standing ovation by the end of the meal. Instead, I gave her a hug and thanked her for the wonderful meal and insightful glimpse into her culture.

Aside from sambal, the other dishes we learned to make were:

Ikan Pepes
- Tuna wrapped in banana leaves. The chunks of tuna were coated in a paste of turmeric, galangal, shallots, garlic, lemongrass ginger and chili then wrapped in banana leaves with a daun salam (local bay leaf) leaf tucked in. (The daun salam , tree is a member of the cassia family; its leaves impart a mild spciy/woodsy flavor). The wrapped fish is then steamed then grilled on a pan.

Perkedel jagung
- Indonesian corn fritters. This was hands down our favorite! They are made with shallots, nutmeg, chili and garlic and then deep fried to perfection. We were eating them hot off the fryer, and eating it like popcorn.

Ayam Goreng - Spicy fried chicken. This is her children's favorite, Cok Sri tells us, and I can understand why. The chicken is fried with garlic, chili, onions and tomatoes then glazed with kecap manis. Kecap (pronounced keh-chap; derived from the Cantonese word for sauce koe-chiap form which the word ketchup was also born) manis is sweet soy sauce infused with palm sugar which gives it it's syrupy consistency. Kecap asin on the other hand is the regular soy sauce we are familiar with.

Long beans in coconut milk - I don't know what this is called in the local dialect, but it was delicious. I've always loved local cuisine cooked with gata or coconut milk. This one was redolent with the sambal Cok Sri prepared, galangal , shallots and garlic.

Gado-gado - of course what would a Balinese or Indonesian cooking class be without this vegetable dish. Gado-gado loosely translates as "potpourri" and that it is. A potpourri of vegetables tossed with peanut sauce and topped with shrimp crackers. In it she also added pre-packed tahu (tofu) and tempeh, a staple food in these islands. Tempeh is made by fermenting half-cooked and dried soybeans with a starter yeast. It has the texture of nougat and the same nutty taste as tofu.

balinese cuisine

top row: pergedel jagung; ikan pepes; ikan pepes unwrapped
middle: veggies for the gado-gado; tahu tempeh for the gado-gado; gado-gado
bottom row: long beans with coconut milk; ayam goreng; Bali sambal

Cok Sri conducts cooking classes for small groups of 2-4. If you're staying at the Puri Saraswati and are interested in attending one of her classes, the receptionist will be happy to arrange it for you. Cost is $20 per person, inclusive of all ingredients and a sumptuous lunch which you've learned to prepare. Now that's money well spent! :)

Cok Sri Putra Nurhani
Menara Home Stay
Ubud, Bali


Karen Baking Soda said...

Christine, what a wonderful tale, I wish I could have been there on the market and later in the kitchen. All these dishes sound so familiar to our Dutch ears but to be able to sample them on the spot must have been great!

Anonymous said...

I had a nice, healthy dinner of salad. But after reading this, I'm hungry again -- and NOT for greens! It's midnight, I shouldn't be eating!!!

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Ooooh, I am green with envy -- what a wonderful cooking lesson and such beautiful food. I would have bought one of those flat mortars, too -- I have several in my kitchen, but nothing like that one. Thanks for sharing another one of your adventures!

Margaux Salcedo said...

Ang galing! Dapat may ganyan din for Filipino food, lessons from aling belen or something. Cool trip!

christine said...

Karen, it was! And I know you would have enjoyed it immensely too. :)

Katrina, imagine me! My tummy was grumbling as I edited the post (wow I didn't realize how many errors there were hehe), I was struggling. As if that wasn't bad enough, my ofcmates were eating palabok and BBQ next to me and all I allowed myself was one tiny bbq. Sigh. Buhay SBD... :)

Hi Lydia, ok don't laugh! I only got the pestle for now and need to go back for the mortar. I know I know. I figured I could use it on a large chopping board until I get myself the mortar to go with it on my (coughcough) next trip to Bali. I was just really worried about my luggage allowance and going over the weight limit. :)

Hi Margaux! Haha Aling Belen, I like that. Or Inday Trining. :) Seriously, we should. There are short cooking courseson local cuisine held by restaurants in many Asian countries, most commonly in Thailand. Though I would prefer to learn from a regular local at a regular kitchen. :)

chris said...

Wow! Now i'm going to have to add cooking class to music, diving, and bahasa indonesia lessons to my next trip! Great detailed post!

ScroochChronicles said...

My eyes were in culinary ecstasy just seeing the stuff were about to feast on. Kakainggit. The corn fritters looked so yummy. Again, the pics were fantastic. Vivid cannot begin to describe them. Hope someone can invent "scratch and smell the monitor" for posts like this :)

Anonymous said...

That lesson looked super, Christine! Everything must have been so deliciously piquant and savory. Oh, and as for the rice cakes you had for breakfast: I've never been to Bali, but you can never go wrong with Indonesian kueh [sweets]!

Anonymous said...

Absolutely DELIGHTFUL! The flickr photo links...I mean everything, Christine! What caught my interest though were the Ikan Pepes - Tuna wrapped in banana leaves. It twists me to see banana patches in yards around Italy, but they are not for fruit (the trees don't yield fruit here), or to be put to use in the kitchen, they're only for ornamental use! Like bamboo trees, that exotic look is all that's sought after.

Thanks for a great post!

christine said...

Cookie, I hope so too! Like smellavision for computer monitors. :) The corn fritters were great, I'll make them again soon and share the recipe here.

Hi Midge! I do believe you're right. I learned though that the Balinese don't generally have dessert, they usually just have fruits like mangosteen and oranges after a meal, at the most. But these snacks are great, I'm a sucker for anything made with glutinous rice. :)

Thank you, Rowena! :) That is a shame that they don't realize what you can do with the products of a banana tree, especially the leaves or the heart!

christine said...

Hey Chris! Almost missed your reply. I really think you'd enjoy the experience, since like me you like discovering local cuisine when you travel. Not only do you get to taste all the good stuff, you get to take home the experience and know-how to recreate everything! :) When are you off to Indonesia?

Anonymous said...

I think this may be my favorite of your Bali posts! For one thing, thsi is something I would love to do, plus I felt like I was reliving it with you...I could almost taste the food! Almost...

Nens, the stuff you made looks like you photos! You guys were good students ;)

Oggi said...

Thanks for this wonderful post. The sweets look lovely and they're making me hungry for kuchinta. I can't wait for your corn fritters recipe!

christine said...

Hey Jo, thanks! Yes, I was really happy with the turnout, not only in terms of getting the food to taste almost like Cok Sri's (tho hers was still much better) but also how it looked. :)

Oggi, thank you for taking the time to not only read it but to leave a nice comment. :) I will make the corn fritters soon again so I can post about it here. Including the other dishes of course.:)

ragamuffin girl said...

just discovered your blog today. i like it a lot. you take wonderful pictures- wish i could too but need to take courses or set aside time to read the manual of my cam. i'm so envious you got to learn cooking in Bali. i went there last year and loved the food and sights but with a son and hubby in tow it's hard to find "alone" time.

someone commented in one of your blogs that he heard bali is prettier than bora. in terms of beaches i disagree. bali has ho-hum beaches but their resorts, architecture, art and temples are all breathtaking. their customer service is tops too! i felt totally pampered there. like a princess!

i'll be reading your blog more often, it's great to see Pinays my age travelling, cooking and generally enjoying all life has to offer.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

See, that's what great food markets can do to people! I hope you napped well after enjoying all that glorious food! Thanks for sharing such an evocative post; you have piqued my interest in Balinese cooking. Gado-gado is one of my all time favorite dishes, and I love long green beans but had never associated them with Balinese cooking. Thanks for enlightening me! I'm tagging this one for sure!

Susan from Food Blogga said...

Bummer. I don't see a tag. Am I missing it?

Anonymous said...

Swear to God, it makes me hungry just by looking at those photos...

christine said...

Hi Ragamuffin, thank you for the interest in my blog and your kinds words. :) I agree with you, Bora's beach is infinitely more beautiful - the sand is whiter and finer. But as a whole, you can't compare the islands. That would be like comparing an eggplant to a strawberry. :)

Hi Susan. You are most welcome! I'm so glad you enjoyed this post. :) Nope there was no nappying for us after that, but we did sit lazily in the car for 45 minutes rubbing our bellies haha. I'm sorry I'm not familiar with the tags you're looking for? Is it like the del.ic.ious ones?

Haha Cliff, actually me too!

Anonymous said...

Nena- this manang ROCKS! "barefoot in the kitchen " is the most stress-free way to cook

christine said...

Mirs, I agree! :)

Unknown said...

i'm so glad you enjoyed your traveling Ubud. it's our second-home. we always stay at our bungalo on Jl. Bhisma. if you're familar with Honeymoon Guest House, that's owned by Janet de Neefe and her husband Ketut. she usually offers cooking class.

christine said...

Hi Arfi, I can't say that I've heard of the guest house. Maybe if I get to go back someday I can sign up for another cooking class and this time with Janet. :)