Green Kitchen Bali
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine the devil’s own kitchen, all the furnaces and hellfires roaring and spitting heat and you’ll have some idea how shockingly hot it is here in Bali. You might well be wondering why, under the circumstances, I would choose to participate in a cooking class rather than cooling off in the sea or sheltering from the blazing sun under one of the island’s nice big coconut palm trees. I know it sounds crazy but I couldn’t resist the temptation of learning some of the secrets of Balinese cooking from Mudana, the super friendly, smiley owner of a local warung (restaurant) even though I was convinced, in the heat of a kitchen, my body and soul would melt and nothing but a little pool of water would be left of me. Still, I decided to take the risk!
Now, I’d say I proved my commitment by getting up at sunrise to go with Mudana (his name means third child) to the fish market by the beach where the fishermen were pulling in their overnight catches. Inside the market, thousands and thousands of silver, red and black fish, prawns, crab, mussels and lobster lay motionless, their eyes bulging on enormous blocks of ice. I trotted after Makan as he cast an expert eye over the seafood, picking out a kilo of plump prawns here, getting a snapper or two expertly filleted there. Then we headed to the vegetable market where, like a wine connoisseur, Mudana sniffed the lemon basil and the aromatic ginger and squeezed the fruit and vegetables, checking for freshness and ripeness. Much of the produce was unfamiliar to me – green beans about a metre long, spiky red rambutan (a type of lychee), breadfruit, bulbous bright pink dragon fruit, prickly green bitter gourd, yellow cucumbers, dark green snake fruit. Makan was surprised I’d never come across fresh turmeric (So, the hot yellow powder doesn’t grow on bushes in little plastic packets?).
Back at Mudana’s place which accommodates his extended family and his warung, we were led past a beautiful Balinese house where mama lives, over a little bridge, a stream running under it and into the kitchen. I was relieved to see that it was a shady, relatively cool place, open on all four sides, surrounded by crimson bougainvillea, pink and white frangipani trees and wafting bamboo, lemongrass, ginger and turmeric growing abundantly in huge clay pots. Of course, no warung, street, shop, office, house or room in Bali is complete without at least a couple of shrines where offerings are made. Before we sat down to eat, little dishes of rice and chicken to bless the meal were presented to the gods along with a few sticks of incense. Eating without offerings is not done. It would be wrong.
When we arrived, two kitchen ‘elves’ were already at the chopping boards, busy slicing, grating and mincing garlic, shallots, lemongrass, coconut, ginger and fresh turmeric, measuring and weighing the ingredients for the 10 dishes we were going to prepare. During the session, they quietly but ever so efficiently cleared and washed up the mess we created. Without them, the elaborate feast we cooked up would not have been possible. Definitely not! If only I could transport these angelic little helpers back to my London kitchen!
After a breakfast of strong Balinese coffee, rambutan and dumplings and more than slightly intimidated, it was time to put our aprons on and start working our way through the pile of recipes assigned to us – some serious multi-tasking required.
We began with bumbu bali paste, the basis of many Balinese dishes. Thump, thump, we pounded the turmeric, shallots, garlic, peppercorns, chili, lemongrass, ginger and God knows what else together into a greenish paste, sauted the lot and put it to one side for later.
The chicken was seasoned and wrapped in a banana leaf to steam in a big pot. Minced chicken was carefully wrapped onto the top of lemon grass stalks and along with marinated fish was placed in neat rows on the charcoal grill. Prawns, soaked in tomato paste, chilli and garlic sizzled in the frying pan. The peanut sauce for the gado gado salad was prepared, aubergines and bitter gourd, tofu and tempeh were lightly stir fried. Everything was cooked in coconut oil and generously doused in soy sauce. Concerned that we might still be hungry after the vegetable, seafood and chicken feast, (really!), dessert had to be prepared. Obviously! Mudana snapped off some green leaves which were conveniently growing on a nearby tree, to colour the pancake mixture – wafer-thin pancakes were fried, flipped, filled with palm sugar and then rolled up into little bundles. This was by no means, a low calorie, low cholesterol, low fat, low sugar meal for the health conscious weight watcher but hey, once in a while, we can indulge ourselves and go a little crazy. Surely!