Saturday, 6 October 2012

Day Three: Payuk Bali Cooking School, Ubud

My day began way, way too early, with roosters crowing and my mouth feeling very dry. I felt too warm and cranky already! Breakfast, delivered to our balcony, was fresh tropical fruits and banana coconut crepes with coffee. That made me smile. Gina and I were soon met by a group of four other students and our guide Agung, who took us to the market for a lesson in shopping for spices and fresh produce. We learned that there were three kinds of ginger as well as turmeric, lemon grass, chilis, nutmeg, shallots, garlic and bay leaves used in our dishes that day, just to name a few of the spices we needed. I was very interested in learning more about the differences between a spiky jackfruit and the notoriously stinky "king of fruits", the durian. Although it is apparently not durian season, Agung found a small one for sale and encouraged me to barter for it. Much to our surprise, I managed to "steal" it from the vendor for 50,000 rupiah , about $5.00. Agung assured me that it was a very fair price, but perhaps they should have paid me to take the offensive thing off their hands. We then had the dubious experience of transporting the odiferous globe in the van with us...not my most popular move!
Next, we took to the hills for a close look at rice paddies and a lesson in how rice is farmed. Cool water cascaded through channels, past terraced fields that seemed to steam under the intense equatorial sun. It was a perfect spot to paddle hot feet and take a few stunning photos. We met our cooking instructor there, a jolly Balinese fellow named Ketut Budi. Down the road, short kilometers away, we were dropped at the driveway to Ketut's family home. A refreshing, moist towel and cool glass of spicy ginger-cinnamon iced tea were offered as we entered the traditional compound. The  ceremonial building was in front, bedrooms left, kitchen and cooking school to the north, temple to the south, all edged by emerald jungle. Yes, there were monkeys swinging through the trees!  Coconuts, jackfruit, papayas and several other fruits and blossoms also grew within easy reach, as cool sounds of a river tumbled by about fifty  meters below, through a very steep valley. Planted conveniently nearby were bushes and tubs of many herbs. Baskets of fresh vegetables sat in racks in the spotless open-air kitchen, where tables stood ready with chopping blocks and sharp knives all around.  I was eager to begin, but first came  lessons in creating floral offerings for the temples and a chance to try traditional methods of roasting our own  coffee beans over a wood fire. 
After a sweet snack of delicious banana fritters with honey, served with our freshly ground Bali coffee, the printed menus were explained and our food prep began in earnest. Clean aprons were passed out and hands were scrubbed. With six of us slicing, chopping, steaming, saute'ing, grinding, wrapping, skewering, frying,  bbqing and mixing the ingredients for seven delicious recipes, we finally produced quite a delectable feast to be proud of! The best part was having a team of support staff who cleaned up after us and kept the supplies coming, handing us bowls and trays of ingredients exactly when needed,  as only those who have rehearsed often can do. Even chilled bottles of water appeared when needed, which were much appreciated by all of us in the kitchen, despite the light breeze through the shaded space. 
Gina was happy to be offered many chances to take the lead, whether it was to demonstrate a chopping technique just taught, or to deep fry the tempeh in the hot coconut oil, that we had just learned how to extract from fresh coconut. As excellent teachers know, first comes the modelled lesson, then guided practice.  For three hours there were no breaks, from the time we began crushing and grinding fragrant spices to the moments we finished turning tuna kebabs over coconut husk coals. By the end of our humid morning, we were too weary to know or feel a difference between intense sun burning from above and charcoal singeing our knuckles from the bbq coals below.

At last, we were invited to wash hands again and remove our aprons.  We settled into the beautiful dining area, overlooking a steamy jungle.  Cool drinks were served by staff, who had lined our dishes up buffet-style and were ready to graciously serve us our first course.
Fragrantly spiced fresh cucumber turmeric soup was delicious!  It was followed by Gado-Gado ( Vegetable Salad with peanut sauce), Nasi Kuning ( Yellow Rice), Sate Lilit ( spiced fish skewers), Pesan Be Pasih (fresh tuna steamed in banana leaves), Ayam Bumbu Bali( Balinese fried chicken) and Kolak Pisang (Bananas braised in palm sugar sauce).

Despite the warm, steamy climate, we enjoyed sampling our dishes immensely.  Icy Bintang beer helped to cool the palate, although none of the spicy dishes were too fiery hot. As we were all from different countries, dinner conversation was pleasant and we all agreed that it had been a very enjoyable few hours, up to that point.  I had completely forgotten about the durian, but Agung and Ketut had not!  They produced the beastly fruit, sliced open and ready for sampling by all who dared.  Being an adventurous, good-natured lot, we each had a taste. Only Chris, a senior gent from Melbourne, took a fancy to it.  His lovely wife, Joanna, plugged her nose and gulped a bit down, but was no fonder of the soft, sticky fruit than I was. Nanda, a young doctor from Holland, was  polite but firmly against a second taste. Her husband Joost was the most visibly disgusted with the flavour as well as the smell!  Gina proclaimed it quite gross, with the vehemence of a true teen.. We nearly all agreed that it was ugly to look at, vile to smell and unpleasant on the palate.  
Despite our negative consensus regarding my durian, Balinese cooking class was an overwhelming success.  It was an exceptionally authentic  experience in a very beautiful setting. Ketut, Agung and all the staff were very helpful and professional. I am happy to check  both events off my bucket list and would recommend their Balinese cooking class to anyone who is interested.

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