One can learn a lot about a country's culture through it's food, which is why I always insist on including a cooking class in our family itinerary when traveling in a foreign land. I've also found that my kids will try unknown foods more easily after they have participated in preparing it.
Currently I am in Bali, Indonesia, where I, along with my sister and two sons, had the extreme pleasure of participating in Lobong Culinary Experience Bali in the popular tourist town of Ubud.
Lobong is run by Sang Made and his brother-in-law, Dewa Jana, who worked as a chef at the exclusive Amandari Hotel in Ubud for 18 years. His experience as a first-class chef was evident when I tasted the prepared recipes—I've been visiting Bali since 1997 and this was some of the best food I've had from this South Pacific island.
Sang Made, or Sang'de (pronounced song-day) as he is known, provides excellent instruction on the indigenous foods and the Hindu culture of Bali.
The class started with a visit to a local food market. We were delayed entering the market as there was a competition of Middle School marching groups on the road in front of our destination. No complaints were heard by our group, though, as we enjoyed watching the enthusiastic children strut their stuff. Indonesia celebrates its independence day on Aug. 17, so the winning marching groups will participate in the patriotic parades in this area.
The market is exotic in both sight and smell, with perfectly-postured women carrying large baskets piled high with bananas and pineapples or heavy bags of rice on their heads, vendors selling bright and colorful flowers, and the scent of ripe fruit and burning incense punctuating the air.
But it is also quite a third-world experience with mounds of garbage, countless flies landing on uncovered cooked food, cocoa and coffee beans drying on the dirty ground, barefooted children walking through dirty pools of water, and rancid smells every so often. It was after a similar market visit a few years ago, where I saw cat dung lying on top of a pile of rice on the ground, that I vowed to always rinse my rice very well before cooking.
As we walked through the market, Sang Made stopped at many stalls to tell us about the Balinese produce. We learned about snakeskin fruit—a brown, scaly fruit with garlic clove-looking lobes inside. The fruit had a consistency of an apple but with a citrusy tang to it.
The rambutan is one of my favorite fruits here, with it's pretty spiked red exterior and grape-like fruit on the interior. The mangosteen is another favored fruit of mine—it has a purplish-brown exterior with the most striking white fragrant interior. The consistency reminds of a nectarine; the flavor is tangy and sweet.
We also learned the importance of the betel-nut to Bali; its leaves provide one of the core components to the Balinese Hindu offerings given each day to appease the spirits and gods. The long-lived practice of chewing the betel-nut is dying out among the younger generation as it is addictive like tobacco and stains the teeth black and the lips very red.
We did not taste the durian fruit, also know as stink fruit for its horrible smell when opened. I have been reluctant to try the fruit in its raw state, though I did once taste a creme brûlée made with durian. It actually was quite nice, despite the unusual raunchy scent.
As we entered a building filled with rice vendors, Sang'de relayed the importance of rice to the Balinese—not only is it a staple to their cuisine but it encompasses many aspects and rituals of their culture. The beautiful multi-terraced rice fields of Bali are among the favored views for the visiting tourists. In the family compound, an entire elevated bungalow—a lumbung—is devoted for the purpose of storing the rice. There are many ceremonies devoted to the cultivation and harvest of the rice here. Rice feeds both the poor and the rich alike in Bali.
Another food which comes from the rice fields is the duck. Before landing on the chopping block at a restaurant or family home, the ducks here spend their lives happily eating the bugs in the rice padi—a natural insecticide. I love seeing the farmers lead their flock of ducks to and from the fields, flag in hand to give the ducks directional instructions.
After the market tour, our group of 12 from around the world headed to Sang'de's family compound. In Bali, extended families live together as a group, sharing in the many responsibilities of work, religion and raising children. At this beautiful family compound, Sang'de told us that 18 people live here. Many of them assisted in the class preparations and duties.
After introductions, we headed to the kitchen area. Chef Dewa supplied us with aprons and hand sanitizer (due to the bacteria present in the water here.) He gave us a brief introduction to Balinese cuisine and the family kitchen. Ovens are not used in Balinese homes—cooking is typically done over an wood-fired stove-top or a grill.
My sons participated in the initial food preparation but were happy to quit early in order to play with the children living in the compound. Making and flying paper airplanes is an activity which needs little translation.
We learned to make rice in the Balinese fashion, by steaming it rather than boiling it. The rice is soaked in hot water, than steamed in a conical shaped bamboo vessel over the wood-burning stove. It receives a second soaking and additional steaming time before it is finished.
Chef Dewa taught us how to make an incredibly fresh and delicious peanut sauce by frying the peanuts first, then grinding them with spices with a mortar and pestle, and finally turning this into a sauce with coconut milk.
Our peanut sauce would accompany a pork satay. The satay was grilled over homemade coconut shell charcoal which really provided a flavorful smokey essence.
As a group, we took turns preparing the sauces, rice, vegetables and meats. Chef Dewa explained everything clearly, and nothing seemed to difficult for inexperienced cooks to recreate back home.
After the meal was complete, we dressed in sarongs, entered the family temple to give prepared offerings and our thanks for the food to the gods and ancestoral spirits. Sang Made's mother had prepared the offerings—set on a handmade banana-leaf bowl—out of all the food we had made this day. It was a solemn yet lovely moment as she set these down in the temple.
Finally, we sat down to our feast… and what a feast it was! Red bean and green papaya soup, fried sweet soy bean cake, grilled and braised baby chicken in a spicy coconut sauce, grilled pork satay, vegetable salad of long beans, fern and spinach with roasted coconut and fried shallots, rice with sweet potato, tomato/chili samba sauce, and a delicious black rice porridge for dessert, served in a banana leaf bowl with a palm leaf spoon.
Not only was the food delicious, but I enjoyed getting to know some very interesting classmates from Italy, France, Australia and Lebanon. Unlike a normal tour group, we felt a sense of camaraderie as we had created something together, learning about this island's beautiful culture.
In my opinion, Balinese food incorporates many of the same ingredients found in Thai food. It is a cuisine with pastes, sauces and marinades based on chilies, coconut milk, palm sugar, tamarind, peanuts, curry, kaffir lime, ginger, garlic and shallots.
As we finished our meal, our gracious host gave us a parting gift of a small cookbook and a bottle of homemade coconut oil to use for cooking back home.
Five year old Krisna gave my sons an enthusiastic wave, proudly holding his new paper airplane in his other hand.
adapted from Lobong Culinary Experience Bali
Sate Tusuk Babi (Pork Satay)
for 4-6 persons
2.5 pounds pork tenderloin
8 teaspoons palm sugar, or brown sugar can be substituted
basic spice paste (recipe below)
kafir lime leaf, or lime zest can be substituted
1. Combine meat, palm sugar and spice paste and mix well.
2. Spear 4 pieces of meat very tightly on a sate' skewer; cover and marinate for 30 minutes in refrigerator.
3. Grill the sate' skewers over charcoal, and baste frequently with the marinade mix.
BASE GEDE (basic spice mixture)
2/3 pound large red chili halved, seeded and sliced
1 pound shallots, peeled and sliced
1 lemongrass stalk, sliced
10 cloves garlic, chopped
75 grams ginger (large knob) peeled and chopped
75 grams galangal root, peeled and sliced; no substitute so omit if unavailable
1/3 lb. or 175 grams turmeric root; substitute 3 tablespoons turmeric powder
75 grams candlenut, or macademia nuts, chopped in half
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup water
salt to taste
1. Combine all the ingredients, except oil, water & salt, in a mortar or food processor and grind coarsely.
2. Place the ground ingredients into a heavy pan, add remaining ingredients and simmer over medium heat approximately 60 minutes of until water is evaporated and changed to a golden color.
3. Leave to cool thoroughly before using; for storing for future use, you can freeze in ice cube tray until frozen, then place in ziploc bag in freezer.
BASE SATE (peanut sauce)
1/2 lb. raw peanuts, deep-fried until golden brown; substitute roasted peanuts
5 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
3-5 bird's eye chilies, sliced
25 grams galangal root, washed and sliced (omit if not available; or can use galangal powder though to taste)
1 1/2-2 tablespoons palm sugar, or substitute brown sugar
3 1/2 tablespoons coconut milk
2 tablespoons Indonesian soy sauce (this is the sweet soy sauce available in Asian markets)
2 kafir lime leaves; substitute fresh lime zest if unavailalble
1 teaspoon sliced and fried shallot
1 pinch salt
1. Combine peanuts, garlic, chilies and galangal in a bowl, then saute' with oil over medium heat to a golden brown.
2. Grind very fine the peanut mixture in a stone mortar or food processor.
3. Place the peanut mixture in a heavy pan with the coconut milk, sweet soy sauce, palm sugar and lime leaf; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered, stirring frequently to prevent the sauce from sticking for 10 minutes.
4. Add the lime juice and sprinkle with fried shallots before serving.