By Honey Writer
After recently taking part in a Balinese cooking class, we decided to incorporate them into our Bali cycling tours. A Balinese cooking class is an incredible experience, one that truly opens your awareness of the Balinese customs, culture, and their traditional food. There is so much work and effort that goes into making the staple, basa gede (yellow paste) that is then used in 80% of traditional Balinese dishes. While the paste may be the same, the variety of tastes and textures from the resulting dishes is incredible.
Using a base of spices including chilli, onion, garlic turmeric, lime, and ginger, all ingredients are hand chopped using traditional Balinese knives. (Man knife & lady knife) as well as a stone and pestle (also known as the Bali Blender). The variety comes in the different bases, meat, fish and soup, the different preparation methods, fried, steamed and boiled as well as the addition of salts, peppers, chopped coconut meat, peanuts and sauces.
Think you know your ginger? Not here, there are four different varieties with differing tang, sweetness and texture. Some are good for tea, some are good for bumbu (spice) however when it comes to making basa gede, all are essential.
Bali Market Tour
Bali is teeming with cooking classes, all of them filled to capacity. Small groups work best and all work at the same time, and follow a similar schedule and menu. This is one of the adorable things about experiencing Bali, when the people here find a pattern that works, it’s replicated island wide. Which means, when you start your market tour as part of a morning Balinese Cooking Class, 50 other groups just like yours will be moving around with you through the markets. Then you will all assemble to leave in your assigned cars, making the car park a little bit of an obstacle course, and you will proceed, parade-like, through the backstreets of Ubud to a family home which has been transformed to cater to groups. Some have stunning elevated views of the surrounding jungle or rice field, allowing cool breezes and possibly singed eyebrows if you are gazing nostalgically off into the wilderness instead of stirring your clear mushroom soup.
Going on a tour of the local markets is a sensational way to begin your Balinese cooking experience. Ubud is one of my favourite markets in Bali, it really has an incredible pulse, a tangible blend of traditional and tourist market that has a bustling, intense and romantic feel. Just hold your nose past the meat houses. On a Bali market tour you learn about the fruits and vegetables currently in season, what they are, and how you eat them. For example, the fist-sized white bulb vegetable with faint purple stripes I’ve never had any clue about, is in fact a variety of eggplant. This particular one is eaten raw and whole like an apple. I would never have picked that! You also get a storm of amazing photos as the colours on display in baskets are just breathtaking. The Ubud local market is large and each type of produce is located in different sections, some inside, others out, so the tour snakes around from the offerings – the visual impact of the giant baskets of petals is mesmerising, to the fresh vegetables, including snake beans, chilli and capsicum. In this section, you also get to learn about the cutting blades used in Bali (man knife, lady knife and the rice sickle) from the knife seller stand. Then it’s on to tofu (full vegetarian options are available to those who prefer not to eat meat and or fish. No eggs or milk are used in any of the dishes in the cooking class so vegetarian options are also suitable for vegans. The same dishes are cooked, simply substituting tofu or vegetables for the meat.)
The market tour then heads upstairs to the fruits section. Samples of fruit are available throughout the tour, tasting what’s on offer at the markets is part of the fun, the detailed information about the raw foods is genuinely rewarding.
The tour then finishes up with Bumbu, dried spices, and the finishing touches that make the meal truly special.
None of the meat used in the Balinese cooking class is purchased from the market, the meat is delivered directly from the supplier and stays refrigerated until the moment it is needed in the cooking process.
For the Bali by Bike tour experience, we will be on the road cycling before the Bali local market tour gets underway. Instead of this tour you will get an even more submersive cultural intro of the Balinese offerings from the market as well the cool, quiet waters of the life-giving Tirta Empul.
After that, you can explore the markets at your leisure, try some local produce, and then head to the afternoon cooking class and prepare your own dinner banquet.
Experience a Balinese Cooking Class
Arriving at the Balinese Cooking School all the fresh ingredients (except meat and fish) are laid out in tantalising islands along a giant table. After talking about some of the customs and looking at the structure of a traditional Balinese family home, hands are washed, aprons donned and the fun begins.
Each of the fresh ingredients are explained and there is ample opportunity to taste, test and smell anything that has you curious. Many hands make light work is proven here where, in less than 15 minutes the scattering of islands is methodically chopped, diced and sliced into waiting bowls and clustered together for their assigned dishes.
As each dish is prepared you get to understand the ingredients involved and how they work to come together. Possibly one of the best highlights is the giant crushing pestle. Using this amazing timeless method to create the basa gede shows just how much strength, accuracy and rhythm goes into making this amazing base flavour.
What one yellow paste is capable of is just unbelievable until you actually use it yourself and watch the meal progress to completion.
Obviously, the highlight-highlight is seeing all the food ready and plated on the table. The same table (and the same sensation) as when we entered to raw ingredients all that time before is just, “Wow” and lots and lots of photos.
They call banquet style (plates all lined up on the table and you help yourself) birthday style! Throughout the whole experience, you are made welcome, in true Bali style of genuine warmth by the open friendliness and humour of your Bali cooking guide who runs a well-oiled machine in the most relaxed and carefree manner. You’ll feel like you’re at your best friends house and you’re trying your hand at cooking something different, just for a laugh. There is also a team of silent helpers who spirit away plates, clean up, and keep everything moving so perfectly you hardly know they are there. All this creates a buoyant atmosphere, which, along with views and beautiful Bali breezes helps you become fast friends with the others cooking beside you. By the time the meal is ready, you are too busy talking to remember to eat. And dessert, forget dessert, sitting at the table is just too much fun. We were lucky enough to have the owner drop by, a large woman with a loud voice and immeasurable character who had us in stitches telling us the story of how she came to this region of Ubud, met her husband and started her Bali schooling school.
One of the things I really admired was how accessible everything was. Using a minimum number of ingredients, (many of them repeated dish to dish) means it is easy to replicate dishes at home, especially when you are given a recipe printout to take with you. As we move through the cooking process we are constantly offered substitutes to try if the ingredient on hand is not available to us at home.
The meals were so simple to create and are genuine examples of Bali home cooking.
The five hours slip by so quickly you feel that it’s simply not enough.
At my cooking class, stuffed full of the most beautiful healthy food, created only moments earlier, we were politely told that, when we were ready, we can return to the big table to learn about dessert.
We said thank you, went back to chatting and had to be re-prompted 30 minutes later that, yes, banana’s were waiting. Ooops. It was well worth returning to the table for, dessert was oh so simple, tasteful, decorative, good for those who still had space on the memory card and small!
Authentic, practical, fun and enlightening. We feel a half day spent at a Balinese cooking class is a fabulous investment of your time while on holiday in Bali.