The Balinese forest kitchen
“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.
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.”
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.
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. ◊