One of our favorite ways to explore and experience new countries is through food – strolling through grocery stores and farmers markets to find seasonal produce, learning about traditional dishes served at guesthouses and restaurants, and, of course, tasting as many meals and flavors as possible. It’s amazing how much you can learn about a place and its people through their food.
In Ubud, we took our first cooking course abroad – a full day experience with Lobong Cooking Class – and it was a highlight of our time in Bali. The class is run by a local Balinese family and is hosted at their home compound, which added to the authentic experience and allowed us to learn more about Balinese culture than simply how they cook and eat.
Our host, Suni, picked us up at our hotel and drove us to the market where we met up with eight other travelers who were participating in the course. On the way he explained that most people in Bali visit the markets between two and six o’clock in the morning so that they can buy fresh ingredients and cook their meals for the day prior to going to work. It’s no surprise that they begin cooking early, as we learned that Balinese cooking is a very long, slow, meticulous process.
During our visit to the market we learned that Balinese food is prepared with fresh, natural ingredients and includes very little sugar and oil and almost zero processed additives. We had come to assume this based on the food we had tasted during our first few days in the country because everything we ate was fresh and light.
As we walked through the stalls of the market, we learned about the ingredients that are used as the base of most dishes. They use fresh herbs of lemongrass, salam leaves (similar to bay leaves), and kaffir mint leaves. Root spices, such as turmeric, ginger, and galangal, are important ingredients as well. And finally, chiles (green or red) and garlic are key components. Almost every Balinese dish comes with sambal, which is a spicy sauce that uses a combination of these ingredients and is a delicious dipping sauce for meat and vegetables.
After gathering the necessary materials for the day’s cooking we went to Suni’s home – a traditional Balinese compound where he lives with about twenty other family members. We sat on the floor of the family’s sitting room sipping coffee and eating pisang goreng (friend bananas) while Suni told us about his home. Traditional Balinese family compounds are all built facing a mountain or ocean, as these are both considered sacred, and include many small buildings around the perimeter. It is common to have three or four generations living together, so each smaller family structure sleeps in their own home within the compound. They share a communal kitchen, sitting area, and outdoor spaces. Each property also includes a temple dedicated to the family’s ancestors where offerings are brought daily.
We began cooking under the kitchen pavilion and spent several hours preparing our seven course meal. The day’s menu included two salads – one with mixed vegetables and garlic chili dressing; the other with shredded chicken, lemongrass, and kaffir lime dressing. We also made an appetizer of chicken satay by rolling chicken that had been shredded and pounded into a dough, and we crushed peanuts and chilis to create a dipping sauce. We prepared chicken with Balinese spices for a main course and made tomato chili sambal to go along with it. Our instructors had begun preparing our rice dish the evening before, since they soak the rice for twenty-four hours prior to steaming it. For dessert we made black rice porridge with coconut milk and palm sugar which was served in a bowl made from a banana leaf.
By the time the cooking was finished we were starving! However, before eating, we participated in an offering in the family’s temple where Suni’s mother lit incense and placed flowers on the altar. This is a ritual that takes place all around Bali, and we had seen little offering baskets in every restaurant, on hotel doorsteps, and on sidewalks in front of shops everywhere so it was neat to learn more about and experience an offering ceremony up close. After this, we enjoyed the meal we had prepared, and it was just as delicious as we imagined it would be. We took home a booklet of recipes for each dish we made as well as a small bottle of local coconut oil, and we look forward to attempting to recreate our meal when we’re back home!