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The Balinese forest kitchen

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“They call me ‘goat’ because I pick from all the plants but don’t know how to grow them.” Iluh says this, laughing, as we stand beside a tall green hedge behind the kitchen. It is a slow afternoon at Sarinbuana Eco Lodge, hidden in the shadow of Bali’s second-highest peak, and Bama and I are on an impromptu tour of the gardens.

It all begins in the dining room, where Iluh nudges me to try one of the bananas piled up on the counter. Bama had described these as pisang mas, a variety characterised by its smaller size and concentrated sweetness. The bananas are stacked above several mangoes of a cultivar known as harum manis – literally ‘fragrant and sweet’.

Behind the fruit platter a small chalkboard lists out the day’s selection of homemade desserts: ice cream with salak crumble, raw chocolate mousse, and no-bake cheesecake. They are part of a healthy menu that is largely vegetarian and vegan-friendly. Instead of dairy, the cheesecake uses freshly grated and roasted coconut blended with cashew paste, vanilla and palm sugar. Iluh tells us the raw chocolate mousse is made with cacao grown and roasted on-site. “We make everything from what we can find in the gardens,” she says.

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Ginger flower, or ‘bongkot’

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Salak fruit

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Avocados on the branch

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Some like it hot

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Cool as a cucumber

When Bama inquires about mangosteen, Iluh leads us out across the footpath and up to an impressive tree. Its fruit are several months away from ripening, but down the other side of the garden, Iluh finds a small, fully ripe mangosteen that has fallen on the grass. Twisting the thick rind apart reveals perfect segments of succulent white flesh. It is gloriously sweet.

Nearby, Iluh points out pods of vanilla, a ginger flower plant (known locally as ‘bongkot’), pandan bushes, chili, durian, pomelo, and ‘pisang kayu’ bananas. We also see large yellow pods of cacao, which attract a fair number of ants. But Iluh reassures us that it’s a good sign. “When there are many ants,” she says, “it means the cacao is healthy and ready to open.”

Iluh plucks several crowns of dill, tiny pods that release bursts of strong mint flavours on the tongue. We try sprigs of aromatic fern tips, then a passionfruit whose juicy, translucent beads are strangely addictive. When we return to the footpath, Iluh picks out a berry from the white pepper bush. She rubs off its delicate skin before cracking open the peppercorn, depositing it in Bama’s palm. I lean in close and take a whiff of its powerful scent.

The idea of taking a Balinese cooking class had taken root several months earlier, and Bama and I eventually decided that Sarinbuana would be the right place for it. Evidently we weren’t the only ones who thought so. Three days before our arrival, visitors from California had written the following in our bungalow’s guestbook:

Iloh [sic] is an extraordinary chef and we appreciated being a guest in her kitchen.

For Bama and I, that message is the ultimate confirmation to book a class the following afternoon. We are hopeful that Iluh will be our kitchen maestro, but that is not meant to be. “I am only here tomorrow morning,” she says. Our disappointment must be obvious. “Don’t worry,” Iluh adds. She smiles reassuringly. “Made is a good cook. You will learn the same things.”

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Balinese still life

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Bama at work

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Making ‘bumbu genep’ or ‘basa gede’ spice paste

At four o’clock the next day we meet Made in the kitchen. She appears more serious at first, but then we catch a mischievous smile that comes as unexpectedly as the news she brings: “There are only two other guests so you’ll be cooking their dinner too.”

They are an elderly Dutch couple, visiting Bali to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. We realise this the next morning when the breakfast table is festooned with a riot of petals, in the shape of a heart arranged around the number 30, and pierced by an arrow with their initials at either end.

The challenge for Bama and I is creating a decent nasi campur, which describes five or six side dishes surrounding a bed of rice. Made begins our lesson by showing us a beautifully arranged platter with all the ingredients we will need for our class. For me, it is an introduction to bumbu genep or basa gede, the very foundation of Balinese cooking. This all-important spice mix derives its complexity from a long list of punchy ingredients, including (and not limited to) garlic, shallot, ginger, chilli, turmeric, greater galangal, lesser galangal, coriander seed and black peppercorns.

Our first task is to prepare corn fritters known as perkedel jagung. It proves a labour-intensive process, and we are kept busy chopping spring onions, grating potato, mashing kernels of corn, and grinding an array of spices in a mortar and pestle until it forms a paste. We add raw egg, soy sauce and rice flour to the mixture, then Made shows us how to deftly slide it into a skillet of bubbling coconut oil.

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Grated potato, spices and spring onion in the mixing bowl

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Adding mashed kernels of sweetcorn

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Deep frying in coconut oil

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Guilty pleasures

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Perkedel jagung – Indonesian corn fritters

Made assigns me to the skillet, and soon I am wholly engrossed in the pursuit of creating a perfect perkedel. There is a certain satisfaction to be had in frying these until golden brown on one side, before turning them over with a quick twist of the tongs and cooking them evenly. Once the fritters are set aside on paper towels, I take on the role of photographer, darting around the kitchen as Bama assumes control of the skillet.

Apart from perkedel jagung, we make shredded chicken and chopped kaffir lime leaf in coconut milk, tofu cooked with chopped tomato and capsicum, and tempeh (fermented soybeans) in kecap manis and palm sugar. All four dishes use variations on top of a common spice base. The final touches are tomato sambal and a tart sambal bongkot, made from the thinly chopped stem of a ginger flower. Class over, the bowls of freshly cooked food are stored in the oven for later.

That night we take our usual spot by the window. Bama and I wait in hungry anticipation as the fruit of our labour arrives on rattan plates lined with banana leaf. When the meal is over, Made asks the Dutch couple what they think of their dinner.

“Very tasty,” they reply.

Made nods appreciatively, maintaining her silence, and I look over at Bama to see him smiling. Iluh, I think, would be proud. 

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Bama tosses a bowl of sambal bongkot (made from ginger flower stem)

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Garlic, shallot and chilli are staples of Indonesian cooking

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Chicken with coconut milk, bumbu genep and kaffir lime leaves

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Tofu, tomato sambal, tempeh in kecap manis, and shredded chicken

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Perkedel jagung, sambal bongkot, and grated coconut in the foreground

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The finished product – nasi campur Bali (Balinese mixed rice)

59 Comments Post a comment
  1. Indonesian food is my favorite!! This post is beautiful… I am currently in Indonesia and loving the flavors, it is wonderful to see them in their infancy.

    March 9, 2015
    • I don’t know why Indonesian cuisine isn’t more widely known around the world – with all those spices, rich flavours and exotic ingredients, what isn’t there to love?

      March 9, 2015
      • Agreed! I am from Canada and was doing some looking around in Toronto… apparently there is only one Indonesian restaurant!! Seems crazy to me because it’s so delicious. I am hoping there are some small places that I don’t know about hidden somewhere.

        March 9, 2015
      • We do have a number of Indonesian restaurants here in Hong Kong, but the menus are nowhere near as diverse… a lot of my favourite dishes just can’t be found here. And sometimes prices are so inflated a dish will cost you 10 times more than what it does in Indonesia!

        March 9, 2015
  2. James, looking at those photos makes me lapar! Iluh could have been a perfect spice garden tour guide, apart from her main job as one of the chefs. Not only did she explain the different herbs, spices, and fruits, but also engaged us in such a funny way. When she gave us the dill, she said it tasted better than Mentos. 🙂 I should buy the ingredients to make perkedel jagung at some point.

    March 9, 2015
    • Yes, I was really disappointed when we found out that she wasn’t going to teach us – I would have loved that! My favourite dish from that cooking class was clearly perkedel jagung… so much effort went into them and they were easily the best corn fritters I’ve ever had!

      March 9, 2015
  3. Pretty impressive, guys! And you’re making me hungry!

    March 9, 2015
    • Thanks! We couldn’t have done it without some expert guidance… though it does help that both of us love to cook!

      March 9, 2015
  4. Impressive indeed!!! And an equally great job on the photographs James! So will I get a sampling when you guys visit? 😀

    March 9, 2015
    • Ha, that’s a funny thought, Madhu! 😀 I guess we could recreate the corn fritters when we come to Chennai – the spices will be easy to track down in India.

      March 9, 2015
  5. This food looks AMAZING! I ate a ton of mangosteens when I was living in South Korea, they’re so delicious. Great job taking such awesome photos of the food!

    March 10, 2015
    • It tasted as good as it looked! The eco-lodge had some of the best salad too – I wolfed it down before remembering to take a photo for posterity.

      March 10, 2015
  6. Beautiful garden photos. Colorful food photos making me hungry looking at them. Thanks for sharing!

    March 10, 2015
    • You’re welcome. I loved the fact that we could go on a garden tour before the cooking class – it was great to see how the ingredients were grown!

      March 10, 2015
  7. Nice post and great food pictures!

    March 10, 2015
  8. Very well written! Thank you for sharing the experience with me.

    March 10, 2015
    • Glad you enjoyed the post! Thanks too for the comment. 🙂

      March 10, 2015
  9. Wow the food looks good. The cheesecake sounds perfect as I don’t eat it here so full of dairy.

    March 10, 2015
    • I wish I took a photo of the cheesecake… it was far better than the dairy version!

      March 10, 2015
  10. Reblogged this on Conversations I Wish I Had.

    March 10, 2015
  11. Suddenly I feel hungry! 😀

    Come to Padang, West Sumatra then you will feel another foodgasm, James. 🙂

    March 10, 2015
    • Haha, I’m sure I will Dewa! Even here in Hong Kong, a lot of local people know rendang as “Padang beef”. Saya akan datang di bulan Agustus. 🙂

      March 10, 2015
      • Actually my name is Deva 🙂
        Which province you will visiting on August, James?

        March 10, 2015
      • Oh, mohon maaf Deva! I am spending two weeks in Sumatera so that includes Aceh, Sumut and Sumbar. 🙂

        March 10, 2015
      • Wohooo sounds so interesting, James! Nanti tulis lengkap di blogmu ya 🙂

        March 10, 2015
      • Pasti! Saya cinta menulis tentang Indonesia. 🙂

        March 10, 2015
  12. Sherilyn #

    This brought back pleasant memories of when I booked a cooking class in Bali! Absolutely love Indonesian cuisine for its beautiful colours and flavours, your post has me craving for some!

    March 10, 2015
    • Hopefully you didn’t see these photos on an empty stomach. 🙂 I can’t believe it took me four visits to Bali before I did this – it was so much fun!

      March 10, 2015
  13. I left Indonesia 10 years ago, and I miss all those beautiful and delicious food so much, and your pictures make it worse…. 😦

    March 10, 2015
    • Well that can only mean one thing… booking a flight back for the holidays!

      March 10, 2015
      • Yes, what a good idea…. 🙂

        March 10, 2015
  14. “Holy Toledo batman!!” That’s just way to crazy good looking food… wanna have some NOW! 🙂

    March 10, 2015
    • It was divine! And the menu varied by day so we got to try different dishes. Bama told me, “if we stayed a week, we could learn to cook everything!”

      March 10, 2015
  15. This looks amazing! I would love to take a course in Balinese cooking.

    March 11, 2015
    • It’s a must-do – and definitely one of the highlights of my recent trip!

      March 12, 2015
  16. Because you just can’t find Indonesian food in many places (though Amsterdam is one place that I love returning to does!), I find it necessary to simply haul my fine butt back to Bali every year or two. I know, tough job, but somebody has to do it. I love your photos of food. I have never taken a good food shot. And that is the best-looking nasi campur I’ve ever seen.

    March 11, 2015
    • I would totally do the same. Indonesian food here can be crazy expensive so I’d rather go back every couple of months – luckily Hong Kong is just four hours away! The key to food photography is good natural lighting; if I’m inside a restaurant at night it’s much harder to get a decent shot. Everything turns out yellowish or just way too dark.

      March 12, 2015
      • I hear you! Bali calls, and I hop on a jet. But it takes me most of the day from Abu Dhabi. Last photo of food I took and shared with others was my famous (in my house) Abu Dhabi chili. One friend said it looked like the last time she vomited. I couldn’t help but reply that she should maybe chew her food a little better. But her point was made–not a pretty picture.

        March 12, 2015
  17. I loooove Indonesian food; I met a couple from Medan (not quite Bali, but still Indo) here in Toronto who promised to make my girlfriend and I some Soto Ayam and Nasi Goreng in the near future. These ingredients look spectacular and so fresh. My lady bought one of those stone bowls w/ the masher in Jakarta that we use at home on a regular now. Good shhhhtuff!!

    March 12, 2015
    • Ah, I love a good soto ayam. One of the best ones I had was at Cemoro Lawang just outside Bromo – it was cold outside and fog had descended over the village, when Bama and I walked into a small warung at the front of someone’s house. The soto ayam there was big and hearty and so full of flavours… in a nutshell, it was pure comfort food!

      March 12, 2015
      • The first time I had soto ayam was in Cemoro Lawang as well, after hiking Bromo, but I had it most frequently in Jakarta, right on one of the main streets intersecting w/ Jalan Jaksa. I kept coming back every day for it, with a few skewers of satay chicken on the side.

        March 12, 2015
  18. First, when are you and Bama opening a restaurant in Bali? That looks amazing.

    Do you think you will make these dishes back home? I took cooking classes in both Thailand and India and although I still make Thai dishes I learned from the class on a weekly basis, I never use what I learned in India. Indian food is too complex for me.

    March 12, 2015
    • Well, if this travel writing thing doesn’t work out, maybe that could be an option… or we could build a guesthouse somewhere and invite you to be the operations manager!

      I can see myself making the corn fritters at home, although it might be tough to find one or two of the important spices. I’d have to go looking in the Southeast Asian supermarkets around town.

      March 14, 2015
      • Of course, a trip to the Southeast Asian supermarkets could be great fun too. When I was back in Oklahoma shortly after our visit to Hong Kong I went to a Vietnamese/Chinese supermarket in Oklahoma City. They had live fish swimming around in tanks, an entire isle of tea, an entire isle of exotic spices, and probably the freshest produce I’ve seen in America. I just walked around in amazement – I felt like i was in HK.

        March 15, 2015
  19. That looks yummylicious. Photos are great too with rich food colours. 🙂

    March 14, 2015
    • Thanks Jean! I kind of wished we could have dinner right after the cooking class… the whole process of making this was enough to work up an appetite. 🙂

      March 14, 2015
  20. JBear, please cook for the Team next time! I will ask my helper Annie to be your assistant haha! You made me so hungry!!

    March 14, 2015
    • Ha, I will have to do a test run on my family first! Maybe then we could organise a potluck dinner someplace.

      March 14, 2015
  21. Reblogged this on StaR1004GeM.

    March 15, 2015
  22. I can’t wait 🙂

    March 15, 2015
  23. Hungry just reading this!

    April 5, 2015
    • Ah, I guess I should have put a disclaimer somewhere!

      April 7, 2015
  24. Every knowledge must be applied, in order to make it perfect!
    So James, I’m looking forward to “acara masak dan makan bersama” now. Let’s arrange it 😉

    April 8, 2015
    • Of course Bart! Hopefully we’ll get a chance the next time I come. 😉

      P.S. sorry it took me an entire month to reply – I’m not sure how I missed this!

      May 7, 2015
  25. wow!!!

    May 6, 2015
    • It was a fabulous experience. I’d recommend it if you ever find yourself in Bali!

      May 7, 2015
  26. Yum! This post made me hungry! 😉 I have never taken a cooking class before but I am definitely inspired to try it. What a wonderful way to learn about another culture.

    May 23, 2015
    • Actually, that was the first time I took a cooking class on my travels. 🙂 I loved the experience – it made me wonder why I didn’t start doing this earlier!

      May 24, 2015

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