My activity for the rest of the day after my traipse through the rice fields? A traditional Balinese cooking lesson. And for the RP 300,000 (approx £15) it cost, it was worth every penny.
I was picked up from my homestay by a tall, smiley man dressed in traditional Balinese clothing; he wore a black and grey patterned sarong and a white udeng (head cloth) upon his head. After shaking hands and saying hello, he told me his name was Agus and he was to be one of my guides for the day. We picked up two more people, a couple from England who had been working in Australia the past year and then aimed for our first stop of the day, the market.
As expected, the market square was buzzing with life. With the sunlight streaming through, wizened, little grandmas stood behind a plethora of stalls, some as colourful as rainbows with exotic covering the front and others pungent with fresh fish and seafood. Bunches upon bunches of bananas hung from the ceiling; fat, lolling watermelons and honeydew melons sat lazily on the stall fronts and large bamboo dishes of purple shallots and green and red chillies frangranced the air. People busily perused the numerous stalls, agilely picking up pieces of fuit and testing their ripeness, whilst others bartered jovially over the prices of meat.
Four our second stop of the day we left the hustle and bustle of the market, to the complete quietness of the rice paddy fields, where Agus explained the process of making rice. Call me a pleb, but until then my mind couldn’t comprehend how these green fields produced the white grains of rice that I use practically every week. As we navigated our way along the narrow paths in between the rice fields, we saw further down a small group of people wearing the conical bamboo hat that is synonymous with the east. All of them hunched over and picking their way through the stalks, Agus explained how the rice grains were removed from the husks all by hand. The husks were harvested when moisture content of the plant was around 20-25%, which was why rice paddies always seemed to be partly flooded with water and then the grains were then left out to dry in the sun after which they were sent on for further processing. For this around-the-clock, arduous manual labour, Agus told us, these people in the fields earned around just less than a dollar a day.
Our third and final stop of the day? The kitchen. After a very cultural and informative morning, my greedy stomach was just starting to wake up and was dreaming about the possibility of food later.
We made our way to their premises, and before we got our aprons on, we sat down to make some flower offerings for the gods, to ward off any evil spirits and to bless and safely guide our cooking class. Agus started by placing a few frangipani flowers in our hair, and then, sitting cross legged on the floor with an array of colourful dainty flowers before me, I tried to copy Agus and his assistant in first making the small bamboo basket. Old fumble-fingers here had a little difficulty in making it look as tidy as theirs, but nevertheless I managed to complete one. I then decorated it in frilly red flowers, some violets and yellow and white frangipani. Not a bad effort, I think.
Before making our way to the kitchen, we stopped at what looked like a little shed. A little girl and a woman with slicked black hair were inside, busily stirring a white liquid in a large metal pan. Agus explained that they were making coconut oil from scratch, the old traditional way. They scoop out the meat of the coconut to dry it and then press and dissolve the meat into a kind of liquid, part of which is the oil and part of which is unusable for consumption, so it must be separated.
We then made it down to the kitchen – let the cooking commence!
We were greeted by a portly chap named Budi, who was also dressed in traditional Balinese clothes and beamed a white friendly smile. After shaking his hand and introducing myself, ‘I’m Saira’ – he immediately decided to drop ‘Saira’ and rename me Shakira. So from then on that day, I transformed into Shakira (but sadly lacked any of her slinky dance moves).
The ineffable Chef Budi took over and explained the seventeen ingredients needed for a paste used for a lot of Indonesian cooking. He got us to work right away, each of us chopping away at shallots, frying and stirring away in woks and bashing and mashing ingredients in perhaps the biggest pestle and mortar I’ve ever seen.
All of this chopping, mashing, grinding, simmering, boiling and stirring took a total of three hours. It all amounted to a bountiful seven course Indonesian feast, which, as a reward for our heroic, Masterchef style efforts, we were allowed to (ravenously) eat afterwards. That day we learnt how to make tuna satay, Indonesia’s emblematic peanut sauce, gule ikan – a Balinese style fish curry, tempeh (made of soybeans) with green beans, fried rice, steamed fish wrapped in banana leaves and of course, a spicey sambal (chilli sauce) to accompany it all.
The three of us sat down at a long table with chefs Agus and Budi. Our Balinese banquet lay before us and as soon as we had bowed our heads down to ask for blessing, we dove right in and ate to our heart’s content. Sitting outside with a grove of palm trees spralwed out below us, the moon now shining and the cicadas whirring, we munched on our tuna satay and cheersed with our ice cold beers.
What a day it had been, I thought. This morning I was riding an elephant, this afternoon I was sitting in the middle of a rice paddy and now, I had just helped make a Balinese feast. What else did Ubud have to offer?
*Tune in next time for some splashing and rafting…
Go Go Go!
Where: Ubud in Bali, Indonesia.
Why: Rice paddy fields, culture, art, food, elephants and monkeys.
How: Direct flights from Jakarta run regularly, numerous times a day with most airline making the route. Fares can differ grealy depending on the time of year, beginning at around 400,000 Rp (approx £20) till around 2000,000 Rp (approx £100) for a return ticket. From Denpasar airport, Ubud is around a 2-3 hour drive away, dependant on traffic.
Cooking classes can be found all over Ubud. I booked mine through Nirwa Homestay (where I stayed) and it cost 300,00 Rp (approx £15) but other courses will vary in price.