School for sambal
Getting to grips with spicy Balinese cuisine
A CHAP rides past with a clutch of marlin loosely tied to the back of his motor scooter. The fish are flapping as if they were still alive and I imagine that less than an hour ago they were swimming in the Indian Ocean.
It is just past 8am and I am in a dusty lane outside Kedonganan market at Bali’s Jimbaran Bay. I am tagging along with sous-chef Iwayan Ariana from the nearby Four Seasons Resort and we have seafood in our sights.
This is no antiseptic urban market, but the real thing, ripe smells and all. Locals buy direct from the families of village fishermen, who weigh their daily catches on museum-vintage scales. Red snapper, sea bream, tuna, octopus and cuttlefish are being pulled from plastic buckets and displayed on mounds of ice.
Industrious stallholders are filleting tuna and peeling prawns; there are charcoal barbecues roaring and an elderly woman is crouched over a tin pot of sambal that’s fiery red with chillis.
There are aisles of farm produce, too, including pyramids of exotic soursops and custard apples, leafy vegetables massed in plastic crates and buckets of speckled eggs. Ariana says the market is open every day from 5am to 3pm, but those serious about bagging the best seafood show up before 9am.
Our quest is to buy the ingredients for a Balinese cooking class back at five-star base camp.
The resort features a purpose-built kitchen in a courtyard pavilion that is reserved for students and nearby is a potager of vegetables, spices and herbs. Ariana leads me off to pick kaffir limes the size of marbles and handfuls of lemongrass; the narrow plot is overhung by trees heavy with pomelos and papayas. Ariana says there are more than 10 types of sambal in the cooking class repertoire and these can be prepared according to the desired amount of heat — lemongrass and shallot, for example, tastes relatively mild, while the addition of roasted shrimp paste and tamarind juice creates a distinctively pungent flavour.
Following Ariana’s lead on the other side of a vast black granite workbench I launch into preparing three hot dishes plus a serve of pickled vegetables. I also tackle a marinade of more than a dozen ingredients (including lots of ginger and palm sugar) by cutting, seasoning, smashing with mortar and pestle, and blending to paste form in a giant food processor. The marinade, or bumbu, is now ready to apply, with a groovy little paintbrush, to a whole red snapper that we will wrap in a skewered banana leaf ready for grilling.
As with all good cooking classes, the students can eat the spoils at lunch, and thanks to Ariana’s expert shepherding, all the dishes look and taste delicious.
And dessert? A so-called Balinese pumpkin treat is what in polite circles would be called an acquired taste. It is overly sweet, with at least 100g of sugar and a great dollop of coconut milk. The best that I can say about it is that I did not completely stuff it up during the cooking process.
‘‘Quite good,’’ laughs Ariana as he peers at my plate. Then he tells me that after 20 years of service at the resort, this is his final cooking class and his last day on deck. I look so surprised that he assures me my lumpy Balinese pumpkin treats and astonishingly hot chilli relishes have had nothing to do with his decision to quit.
Iwayan Ariana conducts a class at Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay, Bali