Tasting is believing with Balinese food, writes Susan Gough Henly.
In a small Balinese village outside Ubud, the Paon Bali (or Balinese Kitchen) cooking school, run by the enterprising husband-and-wife team of Wayan and Puspa Subawa, delivers much more than the sum of its recipes.
Sure, you learn about galangal and tempeh, salam leaves and chillies, and how to make gado gado. More importantly, however, Paon Bali offers a window into Balinese food and culture, with a disarming combination of market shopping, rice paddy tour, hands-on cooking lessons and, best of all, an insider view of Balinese family life.
First thing in the morning, Wayan transfers everyone by minibus from the Ubud hotels to the market, where Puspa takes us to her many stallholder friends, explaining various herbs, spices and vegetables along the way. She even arranges for local prices, should we wish to take anything home.
Wayan then drives us out of Ubud's crowded streets and zigzags along mountain roads into the lime-green landscape, where sarong-clad women in conical hats work in the rice paddies.
Fifteen minutes later, at a neighbour's paddy, he describes the Balinese culture of growing rice. Our group comes from the US, the Netherlands, Singapore and Australia, and a few of us try our pasty city-slicker hands at threshing to separate rice grains from chaff.
It is an apt metaphor, because while many cooking classes focus on ingredient lists and how-to instructions without much context, Paon Bali is all about the spirit of the place. Soon we are relaxing with cool lemon drinks garnished with frangipani flowers in the couple's spotless family home in the village of Laplaplan, as Puspa makes flower offerings to their ancestor spirits in the open-air shrine, waving incense to the four corners.
We learn about the layout of a walled Balinese house, where the king and queen and members of the extended family sleep, and how the open-sided family temple is used for ceremonies such as weddings and funerals ... and, it appears, welcoming rituals. Everything opens to courtyards with flowering trees and plants.
Wayan has transformed the back kitchen into an indoor-outdoor studio with stove, oven, workbenches and dining tables overlooking the gardens and coconut groves. The set-up is squeaky clean, with the added charm of roosters crowing over the garden wall and children playing nearby. The fresh ingredients are laid out beside printed recipes. The pair show us the plants in their kitchen garden, galangal, chillies, garlic, ginger, lemon grass, vanilla, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and turmeric, shaded by banana trees. The two key components of Balinese cuisine are our first lessons. We watch the duo make fresh coconut oil by cutting, grating and boiling the liquid over the wood-fired stove. Then we prepare the all-important basic yellow paste, or bambu kuning, which is essential for so many Balinese dishes. We chop garlic, shallots, galangal, ginger, chillies and lemon grass to combine with pepper, nutmeg, palm sugar, candlenuts, cloves, salam leaves, shrimp paste and coconut oil. Everyone takes a turn grinding the mixture with a huge mortar and pestle.
"It's the modern Balinese pesto," laughs Puspa, who learnt to cook from her father when she was five, and who has spent the past 15 years teaching Balinese cooking in Ubud hotels. Wayan keeps up a banter with her as he offers us chilled soft drinks and beers. During the next few hours, Puspa guides us in creating six more dishes: a sublime clear mushroom and vegetable soup; coconut chicken curry; fried tempeh (a scrumptious earthy soy bean product) in sweet soy sauce; marinated tuna wrapped in banana leaves, gado gado or vegetables in peanut sauce; and chicken satay sticks that Wayan, a frangipani tucked behind his ear, cooks on the barbecue.
Our classes finished, we tuck into our splendid home-made feast, which tastes all the more flavourful because the herbs grew right under our noses, and we all bask in the genuine hospitality of a Balinese family.
Jetstar flies daily from Sydney to Denpasar. Transfer via car or van to Ubud. jetstar.com.
Bambu Indah, Banjar Baung, Desa Sayan, outside Ubud. Villa rooms from $85 a night. bambuindah.com.
Classes cost about $35. Book via the website, where requests can be made for a free pick-up service from Ubud hotels. The pick-up service is available island-wide. The class includes a tour of the Ubud market, cooking lessons with all recipes and a meal afterwards. Ubud hotel pick-up is at 8.30am for the morning class, which finishes at 2.15pm, and at 4pm for the afternoon class, which has no market tour and finishes at 8.15pm. paon-bali.com.