Sunday, August 3, 2008

Cooking in Bali

I was in Bali last month with my daughter, C., and we took a day and a half of cooking lessons, at Taman Rahasia.

Our teacher, a silver jewelry designer named Ni Luh Sudiani, aka Ani, introduced us to the basic flavors of Balinese food. Starting at the top and moving counterclockwise around the platter: garlic, shallots (both of which are said to be milder than Western versions), ginger, galangal (Ani described a greater galangal and a lesser galangal, but another book on Balinese cooking says the lesser galangal is called the resurrection lily), fresh turmeric, and in the bowls, palm sugar, salt, sweetened soy sauce (aka kecap manis), soy sauce, shrimp paste, and I don't remember what is in that final little dish. Then there are the chilis: the long red ones the mildest, the green ones the hottest, and the tiny red ones are in the middle. Finally, there are kaffir limes (the kaffir lime leaf is also used); next to the tiny red peppers are candlenuts. And in the plastic bag is a Balinese "bouquet garni" consisting of coriander seed, black peppercorns, white sesame seeds, half a candlenut, a shaved piece of nutmeg, and some dried Balinese pepper. (I was able to find most of these ingredients in New York's Chinatown.)

Sambal Merah

This basic red sauce became the marinade for a chicken satay and an ingredient in spicy shredded chicken as well as vegetables with coconut. The red sauce starts with about a pound of red chili peppers and 9 cloves of garlic, which are put in a pot of boiling water until soft, 7 to 10 minutes.

(That's our setup on the left -- those knives made me want to go home and get all of mine sharpened.)

After the vegetables were soft, we drained them. Then we had a choice: be authentic and mash them into a paste with a mortar and pestle, or take the modern route using a food processor. I tried both, and while I thought I had mortar and pestle skills, they were not up to this task. The paste was put in a wok with hot coconut oil and little kaffir lime leaves (left) and stirred around until most of the liquid had evaporated, producing a dark red, very fragrant sauce (right).

Mixed Satay
The satay was the easiest to make and most familiar. Cut chicken breast into strips. Cut tempe in chunks. Thread skewers with chicken, tempe, or button mushrooms. Heat half a cup of the Sambal Merah, 2 tablespoons of sweet soy sauce (aka kecap manis), and 2 tablespoons coconut oil in a skillet for a few minutes. Spread half of this sauce over the skewered foods and marinate at least 15 minutes. Heat a grill and cook, turning and basting with remainder of Sambal Merah, until done, 10-15 minutes.

Sayur Urap
(vegetables with coconut)
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, cut a quarter pound of long beans (you can find them in Chinatown markets; or use green beans) into quarter-inch pieces (yes, that small). Tear a quarter pound of spinach leaves into bite-size pieces. Rinse a half pound of bean sprouts. When the water is boiling, add the beans and cook for 1-2 minutes, remove, and put into ice water to stop cooking. Add spinach leaves for just 10 seconds, remove and into ice water. Add bean sprouts, turn off heat, leave for 10 seconds, then remove to ice water bath. Then drain all the vegetables.
For the seasoning, mix half a cup of finely grated unsweetened coconut with 1 heaping tablespoon of the Sambal Merah, 1 teaspoon kaffir lime (or ordinary lime) juice, and 1 teaspoon palm sugar (or white or brown sugar). Place in a wok or saucepan, heat gently, and stir until the mixture is very dry. No oil is necessary since the coconut produces its own oil. Mix with the vegetables and enjoy, warm or cold.
Sweet Corn Fritters

I'm not into deep frying, but these fritters were so good that I will definitely try them at home. The first step requires making a Bumbu Kuning, or basic yellow spice paste.

Bumbu Kuning
Start with shallots, garlic, and long red chilis (we used 12 shallots, 5 garlic cloves, and 3 chilis, but as mentioned above, Balinese shallots and garlic are milder than ours, so maybe start with 8 shallots and 2 fat or 3 smaller garlic cloves). Chop these all roughly. Next peel and chop 1/4 inch of ginger, and assuming you can find these fresh, 1/4 inch of the lesser galangal, 1/2 inch of the greater galangal, and 1/2 inch of turmeric. Put all of these into a food processor, add 1 teaspoon coriander seeds, 1/2 teaspoon white sesame seeds, 1 candlenut, 1 teaspoon salt, and grind into a smooth paste. Fry the paste in 3 tablespoons coconut oil until dried out and fragrant and golden in color.

Back to the Fritters
Mix in a blender or processor 12 ounces of sweet corn (canned corn is fine), 1 egg, 1/2 teaspoon shredded kaffir lime leaf or ordinary lime zest, 1 heaping tablespoon Bumbu Kuning, 1 tablespoon cornstarch, 1 tablespoon tapioca flour, and 1/2 tablespoon white floor (or use total of 2 tablespoons white flour instead of cornstarch and tapioca flour). Leave some texture to the mixture.

Preferably in a wok, heat one to two cups of oil, preferably coconut oil. Srop tablespoonfuls of the mixture into the hot oil in batches and fry until golden brown. Remove and drain well on paper towels before serving.

Pepes Ikan and Satay Lilit
There's a spicy fish mixture inside those fresh banana leaf wrappers. Where fresh banana leaves are not so readily available, one could use parchment paper, or even big collard leaves (blanched first to soften). The Satay Lilit is ground chicken mixed with some of that Bumbu Kuning along with grated coconut, kaffir lime leaves or lime zest, palm sugar, shrimp paste (or fish sauce), then wrapped around stalks of lemongrass.

Here's our first lunch, with Acar, a pickled salad of carrots, cucumber, and pineapple; chicken satay; and hard-boiled eggs topped with Sambal Merah.

And here's Ani, holding Satay Lilit, and C. serving Lawar.

We made lots more, and it was all delicious. Wish I'd taken pictures of the Green Crepes with Coconut Filling. I've already made the Vegetables with Coconut and Chicken Satay at home, and Nasi Goreng, from Fragrant Rice, a memoir/cookbook I picked up in Ubud.

Are you wondering about all that coconut oil, supposed to be so bad for us? The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1981 had this to say; NutritionData from Conde Nast presents a variety of nutrition facts about coconut oil; and there are also studies that question whether it's ever been proven that saturated fats alone are the cause of heart attacks (will add more cites later). I love the taste of coconut, and the flavor is so distinctive in these dishes that without the oil, the flavor will be quite different. Be careful about heating, however. I kinda overdosed on the aroma the first day, especially when it began to smoke. But I bought a small bottle before I left Bali and have used about half of it already. It's possible to order online.
(If you click on the pictures, you can see them larger.)