Last weekend, Ivy, travel blogger and foodie, went on a culinary adventure in the East of Bali, that was according to her, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, here is her travel story 🙂
Part I – Meeting at Bali Asli Restaurant & Cooking School
Bali Asli restaurant & cooking school resembles a rustic Eagles Den tucked on the hills of Amlapura, Karangasem, East Bali.
Overlooking the majestic Agung mountain and its vibrant crop-rich valleys, this place exudes the energy of both serenity and grandeur.
Trained as a chef in Sydney and having worked with the feared yet revered celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay for 4 years in Savoy London, Penny has been living in Bali for 8 years and currently runs Bali Asli restaurant, which is into its fourth year.
It took a year to build this place and building a restaurant up in the hills of a village is not without its challenges. One of the biggest challenge, Penny mentioned is to learn to manage her staff with a totally different culture and background.
What you see in Ramsays hell kitchen where fear management, intimidation tactics and verbal spitfires rule, such energy does not sit very well with the gentle Balinese culture. We joked about how Penny’s staff only see tiny snippets of her stressful side, which surface ever so rarely in this peaceful environment.
The main restaurant comprises of well-spaced seating capacity for 50, and an open kitchen bar and lounge area. From the choice of building materials, interior decor to the utensils, and cutlery the restaurant adhere to its philosophy of authenticity and used mostly natural materials such as bamboo, coconuts Ålang Ålang, stones and wood. It is interesting to note that even the menu is made the traditional way using lontar, and it’s nicely stored in a beautifully engraved box made of jackfruit tree wood. Not any high-end kitchen utensil is in sight, but instead the good old black stone mortar and pestle is used to mash and grind almost everything.
Part II – Beginning of the culinary Adventure
The culinary adventure of Bali Asli includes a village trek in the morning. At 8am, Chef Penny greeted us promptly, all bright and cheery in her trekker outfit, hat, complete with hiking boots and a backpack carrying first aid for her guests. It was going to be a 2.5 hour walk through the village, down the valleys, across wild-grown fruit trees, small rivers, local warungs, village temples and cows sheds.
There is an undeniable air of royal beauty about Karangasem, which was once a kingdom before the Dutch conquered it. Mount Agung guards this special place and as our trekking route takes us into the village of Pangi, we were totally basking in the majestic energy that permeates this space…
What a wonderful start to the day where perfect strangers greet you everywhere, and want nothing from you except that you have a great day. A family with picnic mats on the ground offered us and freshly harvested coconut juice in a banana leaf cup. A farmer who makes his living harvesting the fruits of tuak tree gave us a sampling of one of the most delicately scented and fermented nectar I have ever tasted. We also ate delicious local sweets from the warung. Yes, the culinary adventure at Bali Asli actually already started!
We walked further across this fertile valley, where Penny pointed to us mango trees, dragon fruit plants, red and yellow pineapples shrubs, cacao and jackfruit trees and a host of cooking and medicinal plants like kenchur and don Pidoh. The locals use Don Pidoh to heal bruises, cuts and wounds. It was really educational as Penny shared her knowledge of Balinese culture, and the flora and fauna of this wildly fertile valley.
We stopped for a coffee break at a Balinese home where we were served local grown coffee complemented by delicious sweet mini parcels of jackfruit glutinous rice dumplings cooked in banana-leaf. What a delightful morning tete-a-tete sitting on weaved coconut mats and observing the villagers way of life. We see how they live in harmony with nature, keep their own bees for honey, and preserve the old tradition of having mail pigeons with bell necklaces.
Pak Made’s family of 3 generations live together in this communal compound of 2 huts, a kitchen, a storage shed and the family temple. You see some of the most genuine smiles that are somewhat shield from the rigour of the outside world of wealth accumulation. I can’t help but realise how little it takes for us to be truly happy, cliche as you may think – but Happiness is really a choice.
As we continued our village trek, we were absolutely delighted to come across a bunch of cashew fruits that had fallen from the tree. Gleefully, we helped Penny collect the fruits which will soon be made into the most delicious cider at Bali Asli. The restaurant serves some of the most exotic homemade ciders and beer made from dragon fruits, jackfruits, basil, chili, apples, you name it. It’s definitely a must try in Bali!
After the very rewarding village walk we returned to the restaurant and is promptly served a cooling avalanche of tropical concoction to beat the heat. Absolutely divine! I could order the entire drink list if it wasn’t for the fact I had to stay sober for the cooking class!
Penny lives in an elevated hut on stilts, right next to the restaurant. She changed into her chef attire in a jiffy while we enjoyed our drinks and took even more pictures of mount Agung. Seeing her turn up in an immaculate chef suit reminded me that I was about to be trained by a professional chef from the award winning Savoy London!
Part III – A Cooking Class like no other
We started the cooking class by understanding the fundamentals of good cooking – which is the ability to grasp flavours in our favour. We were taught to distinguish the different layers of taste in sweetness, sourness and saltiness, observe how our tastebuds react to that and subsequently attempt to put them into the dishes we cook.
An assorted platter of frequently used Balinese spices and ingredients like prawn paste, assam, galangal, ginger, turmeric, lemongrass were introduced to us and we were invited to sample a 3-degree-of-sourness test. We tasted yellow lemons, green Balinese limes and assam from the pod and observe how they tickle different parts of our palate and subsequently to use them in the right proportions in our cooking. Penny’s philosophy for healthy eating is simply to eat with the seasons from local produce, as this allows nature to provide us their freshest and the best.
When it was time to finally turn on the fire to start cooking, we were forewarned – you must control the fire. Not let the fire control you. How aptly put I thought. Shouldn’t we subscribe to this in our approach to life as well?
Hours flew pass as we made dish after dish of local fare – chicken satay on lemongrass skewers with freshly grounded peanut sauce, bbq fish fillet in banana leaf parcel, fern tips with grated coconut and red beans, spiced tofu banana leaf parcel, and of course, the famous Nasi goreng. I was happy to pick up some really useful cooking tips like egg cracking and banana leaf wrapping techniques and, the secret to making a really nice plate of Nasi goreng!
Finally, it was time to remove our aprons and enjoy the fruits of our labour! Kudos to the well-trained kitchen assistants who whiffed about efficiently assisting and clearing after us in the background, we could have taken much longer and ended up eating lunch for dinner.
That afternoon, lunch was a sensory infusion of tastes and sight. As our palates are tingled with the wonderfully spiced food we have prepared, we were also blessed with wonderful weather that allowed mount Agung to display her full grandeur before our eyes. Yes, Bali Asli had already made it to my personal list of favourite restaurants for excellent meal with a view!
As a finale to the entire cooking class, Penny presented us each a certificate of participation and a souvenir apron for keeps. I can’t help but see a connecting paradise here. Beneath this gentle chef with the sweetest demeanor lies an energy waiting to bring Bali Asli to greater heights, much like the dormant energy that lies beneath the peaceful Mount Agung that last erupted few decades ago.
It must be every chefs dream job, to be able to wake up to see the sacred mountain basking in the Sun’s golden Rays, watch the valleys illuminate in different shades of pastel hues at sunset, do what you love for a living, meet people from all walks of lives and run a beautiful restaurant with a team of gentle people. Beyond profits, responsible businesses should be able to create a healthy co- dependence where the locals are engaged and respected for their culture. In this respect, Bali Asli has done a beautiful job.
Hope you enjoyed reading, do share your thoughts with us.
By Ivee Lo, Authentic Living