Lifestyle Journalist

M. Astella Saw writes about travel, food, retail, design and trends in the lifestyle sectors. Contact me at m.astella.saw (at)

A Balinese Bounty

We’re picking our way through Jimbaran market, in Kuta, south Bali, where speckled chickens wait silently on rattan baskets; where saronged women sit behind small piles of dried rice cakes and palm sugar crackers, rows of red avocados, and mounds of curly-ended paku, or fern tips, that may later show up in a spicy stirfry.

I’m here with Stefan Zijta, the charismatic executive chef at Alila Villas Uluwatu. As part of the luxury resort’s popular Journey to Gastronomy programme, Stefan accompanies guests to Jimbaran and the neighbouring fishing village of Kedonganan to take in the sights, sounds and smells of local Balinese life.

Offered by resorts, restaurants and some private operators, cooking classes are an increasingly popular tourist activity in Bali. They typically involve an introduction to local culture via market visits that are followed by a hands-on class and a full-fledged meal – prepared by the students, of course.

In Jimbaran market, Stefan introduces me to the many ingredients that make up some of Bali’s famous dishes and jamus, those traditional concoctions of medicinal herbs and spices that target anything from headaches to the flu. A welcome partner, he shows me how to distinguish between blushing pink galangal, knobs of kencur, or white ginger, and dirt-covered turmeric. We’ll later return to Uluwatu, where, under Stefan’s watchful eye, I’ll make versions of bumbu – the core Balinese spice mixes – and whip up lunch. For now, though, we skirt the woman deftly chopping up a pig – trotters here, ears there, intestines in a bowl – and make our way to Kedonganan.

Here, the low-ceilinged fish market is abuzz with activity, and shiny with scales and water. Stefan points out a mean-looking barracuda, a thick-headed mahi mahi and buckets of blue-clawed freshwater prawns. Outside on the beach dotted with gaily painted boats, the fishermen are bringing in the morning’s sardines. We dodge the porters carrying boxes with water slapping over the sides, and observe the fishmongers chop and weigh their wares with lips firmly pursed around their cigarettes, but mostly I’m wondering how I’m going to transform all of this into lunch.

At the Warung, Alila Villas Uluwatu’s Indonesian restaurant, elves have evidently been at work while we’ve been out. Awaiting us are pre-measured quantities of chopped shallots, chillies and ginger; of fragrant terasi, or dried shrimp paste; of waxy candlenuts and dried salam leaves. This is cooking at its most luxurious, with all the preparation and cleaning-up taken care of. After all, who’d want to be stuck grating coconut while the infinity pool sparkles on the other side of the courtyard?

Stefan shows me how to crush the coriander seeds and the ends of the lemongrass stalks to release their fragrance and flavour, and we start making base be pasih, a basic seafood bumbu. Balinese cuisine is based on a number of key bumbus – one for beef, one for chicken and so on. Inspired by Kedonganan’s lively fish market, today we’ll make, then adapt, the base be pasih for three dishes: tambusan be pasih, grilled banana-leaf parcels of mackerel; lawar gedang udang, a green papaya salad with prawns; and, my favourite, sate lilit, minced mahi mahi sate, with a hint of palm sugar and coconut.

While I’m nervous, at first, to have this celebrated chef looking over my work, it turns out to be a real treat. Stefan patiently shows me how to pinch and twist the lump of minced fish down the lemongrass skewers so the meat stays on during grilling, and carefully demonstrates the tricky folds I’ll need to seal my banana-leaf parcels. When he sees I haven’t put enough effort into mixing the ingredients for the sumping waluh – the steamed pumpkin cakes we have for dessert – he directs me to really get my hands in there, squeezing out the juice from the grated pumpkin to turn the mix a light orange.

With the sous chefs whipping away each dish to the steamer and the grill, it’s no time at all before we take off our aprons and sample our work. It’s delicious, of course, and I can’t help but think the tastes are amplified by my experience of the morning – by having brushed past the pink ginger flowers at the market, and peered into the clear eyes of the fresh fish on display. For all the delectable dishes we’re served, it’s this, perhaps, that is the true taste of Bali: its pungent markets, its spread of corn and chilli plantations and geometric rice paddies, and the slight, sweet tinge of crushed lemongrass on the breeze.

More choices for gastronomic travellers
Alila Villas Uluwatu’s Journey to Gastronomy is one of the most recent Balinese cooking programmes, having launched when the resort opened in summer 2009. For gourmet travellers, there are a host of other options, too. Among the longest-running are the ones hosted by Bumbu Bali, the Nusa Dua restaurant, and Alila Manggis, Alila Villas Uluwatu’s sister property in East Bali. The small scale of Alila Manggis’s class means participants get plenty of time (and exercise) with their own ulek ulek – the weighty stone mortar and right-angled pestle used to hand-grind the mounds of spices. In Ubud, Mozaic restaurant’s Workshop is a professional-level culinary school that includes amateur classes focusing on Balinese ingredients and modern French techniques. For those in search of a more intimate experience, Paon Bali is run by a husband-and-wife team out of their home in Laplapan village, Ubud.

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01 October 2011