Two months in and we’ve successfully adopted a few simple travel mantras. One is to be respectful and open to new cultures, another is to be familiar with the history of the region before visiting, and another is to do our very best to eat like a local (sans meat and nuts, of course). So, when we had the opportunity to visit a local fish market followed by a half day private Balinese cooking class with the Executive and Sous Chefs at the new Ritz Carlton Bali, we couldn’t pass it up.
Looking more like a futuristic city on a recently discovered planet than a luxury hotel, the brand new Ritz Carlton sits perched on the side of a south Bali cliff, teetering above the Indian Ocean. Down a huge space age glass elevator, beautiful new suites and villas sit next to the ocean and eager staff members wait with carts to drive you to your room. The hotel is exactly what you expect - spacious, elegant, completely over-the-top, and not at all how we’re used to traveling. But we happily jump at the chance for some 5-star pampering, and the opportunity to hang (and do a little work) with our friend and fashionista travel blogger, La Carmina, to wrap up our Bali trip.
As we make our way through the maze of fishing boats sitting on the shoreline, the chaos of the morning market engulfs us. Pairs of men carrying huge baskets of shiny fish on a 3-foot board across their shoulders scurry past us, to the women who sit, ready to sell, behind stalls at the market across the street. We’re informed that the fishermen are often out to sea for up to 12 days at a time, fishing through the night and sleeping on their boats in small clusters. The market sells every type of fish you can think of. Giant yellowfin tuna, huge squid, and every mollusk under the sun (or sea) are available. We’re the only tourists here, and with our Chef tour guide, have VIP status. We watch as he walks the narrow corridors with confidence, waving hello to friends and neighbors who are picking up fish for their families (without refrigeration, many local woman visit the market each morning to pick up everything needed for the day’s meals). The sense of community and daily ritual is evident, and amidst the chaos, we’re grateful to be silent observers.
Back at the hotel, we gather in the spacious kitchen and are introduced to Master Chef Made Suriana (Made, the traditional Balinese name for the second born son) of the signature Balinese restaurant, Bejana. Reminiscent of a Mario Batali episode, the pre-prepped ingredients sit perfectly chopped and julienned in small bowls. We recognize some of the Asian flavors we’ve grown accustomed to: ginger, lemongrass, coconut, turmeric, garlic, shallots, and red chilies. As we get started, we also learn about new herbs and spices: pandan, a green plant that is a key ingredient in many local dishes, salam leaves, similar to a large bay leaf, and kaffir lime leaves. From scratch, we craft two "spice pastes" similar to a curry paste, one for seafood and one for meat (which we substitute for tofu and tempeh). The three of us take turns stirring and tasting as each spice is added into the pot to be later muddled together. The two pastes are very different, one deep red and one bright yellow, each bursting with unique flavors. From the spice pastes, Chef Suri demonstrates how to make a variety of dishes, from a curry-like sauce over rice, to minced mahi mahi satay (a kabob that is grilled on lemongrass reeds), to steamed tofu wrapped in folded origami-like banana leaves. After we complete our main courses, we move to dessert, learning how to make dadar gulung, rolled thin green pancakes filled with coconut and palm sugar. We eat two each before lunch is served.
We dig into the food that we spent the morning creating from a picturesque table near a window overlooking the ocean. Nasi goreng (Balinese fried rice) accompanies the tofu, tempeh and fish satay. We sip Bajigur, a hot spicy ginger and coconut milk concoction from Java that we all swoon over, prompting a serious brainstorm on how we can open a Bujigur shop when we get home. It's one of those meals that we will remember forever, not just for the fantastic food, but for the chefs who taught us their craft and the time that goes into creating such a feast, and for the good friend that we shared it with.