Bali can be many things for many different people. For the aussie school leavers looking for some fun, Kuta is party central. For the honeymooners, there's Seminyak. For the executives and families with slightly deeper pockets, Nusa Dua has its posh resorts. But Ubud, it always bill itself as the cultural epicentre of the island, where the yoga freaks congregate, where struggling balinese artists sell their work, where the Balinese organic and raw movements started.
Of all the many times I've visited Bali, I've never stayed in Ubud -- Kuta and Nusa Dua were our main choices. Located towards the centre of the island, 40km away from Kuta in the south, Ubud feels like it's a world away. But this was exactly what we were looking for this time around.
Bali can be a sinfully gluttonous place, if you let it. Although we did spend a bit of time indulging -- lounging by the pool -- whilst on the island, we also promised ourselves to achieve (see, walk, do...) something every day we're there.
The first activity I booked for when I arrived in Ubud was a session with Payuk Bali Cooking Class in two days time. Activities like this, where we used our hands to make something, to experience it ourselves, to be amongst it, be more than a mere observer, were one of the reasons why this Bali trip was the best one we had yet.
The class started with a shuttle pick-up from the villa we stayed in at 8am. We made a stop-over at a hotel to pick up another couple before leaving for Pasar Ubud. It was going to be an intimate class of four today. Our instructor is the jovial Ketut, who explained to us that his (very balinese) name simply meant fourth born son.
We arrived in Pasar Ubud at about 8.30am to peruse the local produce. I have to say, though 8.30am is early for holidaymakers, it's not nearly early enough to experience the real market as most produce is gone by 9am, at which time souvenir vendors move in to fill the market. The leftovers were mostly flowers, lots and lots of different kinds of flowers -- a balinese daily essential for making canang sari. Of the fruits and vegetables we did get to see, Ketut did a great job explaining what they were and how they are used in balinese cooking. We also found out our adventurous new friends are all the way from Slovenia.
After the market, we made a short stopover at a rice paddy for a bit of a photo-op, before we were mercifully transported to our final destination, the traditional balinese compound where we will be cooking. The sun was starting to make my skin itch from the heat.
When we arrived at the compound, we were served with a much-welcomed icy cinnamon tea, while Ketut explained to us how to make the balinese daily offerings called canang sari . We started off by making a tray out of palm leaves by securing the bottom to its sides using thin bamboo toothpick-like sticks. Ketut joked that although he's teaching us to use bamboo sticks, for convenience sake some Balinese would probably use a stapler to secure the trays. After we make our trays, we fill them with the offering of flowers and shredded betel leaves
We were then escorted to an outdoor kitchen hut, where an old lady in a purple kebaya showed us how coconut oil is made at home. We didn't get to make it ourselves but Ketut explained to us how it's done. A mixture of grated coconut and water is strained with a muslin into a pot or wok. The resulting liquid is heated slowly until the oil separates from the solids. The oil is then skimmed off and used for cooking. Ketut explained that because coconut oil is colourless, it is sometimes coloured with tumeric powder to give it a slight yellowish tinge. Not doing so means when frying with this colourless oil would render meats like chicken to stay white in colour instead of the expected golden brown.
After the demonstration, we moved on to the actual cooking starting with the preparation of all the ingredients, the various vegetables, herbs, spices, leaves, fruits, nuts and meats. Slicing, cutting, chopping, mincing, pounding, with a bit of food decoration thrown in -- carrot cut to shape like a temple. Ketut explained that most balinese food are made with a foundation spice mix called Base Gede, an aromatic and vibrant blend of ingredients like chilli, shallots, galangal, turmeric, coriander seeds, cloves to name a few. From this spice mix, we seasoned our sate lilit (fish minced and pounded before being wrapped on skewers and grilled over charcoal); marinated our pepes ikan (chargrilled fish fillet in banana leaf parcel) and ayam bumbu bali (spicy fried chicken) with minor adjustments to make the three dishes have different flavours. For dessert, we made kolak pisang, banana pieces that have been simmered in palm sugar caramel sauce.
The cooking class was a whirlwind of activities, while some of us were preparing the numerous ingredients, some of us were cooking (frying, grilling, sautéing), all was accompanied with plenty of laughter and jokes. And when we were struggling, Ketut's assistants were there to help us.
Four hours after we started this journey, we were at the lunch table overlooking Petanu River, chowing down the fruits of our labour, having a lovely conversation with new friends. Everything was so delicious -- and we were so famished -- that I forgot to take a picture of the end result!