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Dishing it Up in Ubud: A Bali Cooking School

bali cooking school

When my travel partner suggested we try a Bali cooking school, my first though was, crap! I am not a chef, not even an aspiring one! It’s not that I can’t cook, (despite what my then-partner may have thought), quite the contrary. My divorce from the kitchen was a very amicable one. My partner at the time was a self-processed foodie with a cookbook collection that rivaled my ever-expanding shoe collection. I love to eat, and he loved to cook, and it was the formula for a happy partnership. And though the idea of cooking has never really excited me, I’ve always appreciated the art of a recipe, and the craftsmanship passed down through ancestral roots. I am fascinated by the history of food, and the power a meal can wield within the communal dynamic. I am an anthropology student after all. The past fascinates me, because it has everything to do with the present, and future.

When the opportunity to take a cooking class in Ubud presented itself, I was in there like a dirty shirt. I’d had a cooking experience a year earlier that went awry (more on that in another post!), and decided to ignore the guide books on this one and ask the locals where they thought would be the best place to learn about Balinese cuisine. They all said Lobong. They couldn’t have been more right, because the Lobong Culinary Experience offered the perfect marriage between the history of Balinese culture and the importance of food within Balinese life.

Our day began with a tour through the real food market. There are two main markets in Ubud. The most popular market is adjacent to the Royal Palace and often teeming with countless tourists, bartering and shuffling about with their newly purchased treasures. The other market is further outside of the main centre, devoid of tourists and frequented by Balinese locals from nearby family compounds, warungs, restaurants and hotels. It goes without saying that the pricing here is, less inflated shall we say. We met with our guide for the day, Sang Made, Sunday for short. He scooped us up from our hotel, and we were fortunate to have him to ourselves for nearly an hour before the rest of the group arrived. We stood in the market and chatted about his family, the banjar that his family belonged to and the basic politics of village life . I don’t want to divulge too much, as the history lesson is as much a part of the cooking experience itself. After this brief post, hopefully you’ll be encouraged to spend the day with Sunday and his beautiful family. Let me assure you, you’ll learn more about the dynamics of a large Balinese family from someone like Sunday than you could possibly learn from any book you buy off a shelf.

Our market tour was fascinating. Vendors travel from outlying areas to sell their  vegetables, fruits, ducks, chickens, crafts and anything else that a Balinese household might need to function. Camera in hand, I immersed myself in its delicious chaos. Fruit, vegetables and spices I could barely pronounce, in shades of reds, greens and yellows I had never seen, were gobbled up by my camera. It was a dizzying array of smiling women, giggling elders, jovial children, squabbling farm animals, I’d never felt more engaged than walking through this market. It seemed to represent the foundation of Balinese life; Their intimate connection with the earth, and the bounty it provides.

After the market tour ended, our small tour group was driven a brief distance to Sunday’s family compound, home of the Lobong Bali Cooking School. We were warmly greeted with Piseng Goreng (banana fritters) and Balinese tea. Fed and intrigued, we curled up in the afternoon warmth and listened to Sunday tell us more about Balinese life. Marriage, death, love, the function of the family unit, the significance of their deities and the symbolism behind the Balinese offering.

Cooking With Chef Dewa

After our history lesson, we enthusiastically hit the pans. Nine dishes in total. Admittedly, it sounded rather daunting, but to truly appreciate the diversity of Balinese cuisine, it became apparent that the menu was carefully selected to assault the senses in the best way. Marinated pork, sweet potato rice and traditional Balinese tomato sambal were just a few of the dishes served up in one of the best afternoons I had ever spent in Bali. Did you know it takes well over an hour to make traditional Balinese rice, and the average household makes it once a day? Like most South East Asian Cultures, it’s an absolute staple and incorporated into many of their dishes. Good thing I adore rice!

The flavour behind Balinese cuisine is driven by the all important Base Gede, or Spice Base. A delectable mixture of ginger, turmeric, candle nuts, coriander, garlic and a few others accompany several chicken, pork and vegetable dishes in the diet. If you’re lucky, I may post a recipe or two!

Balinese Spice Base

Lobong may not have convinced me to quit my day job, but it certainly inspired me  to be a more confident chef in my own kitchen. This lovely Bali cooking school taught me to embrace the importance of food as a symbol of celebration, love, loss, passion and the family unit. Now, let’s eat!

A Chat over Sate
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