Grant Allen: Escape to the spice island (+recipes)

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Grant Allen gets a lesson in Balinese home cooking from three friendly hotel chefs

Grant Allen and the hotel chefs in Bali. Photo / Grant Allen
Grant Allen and the hotel chefs in Bali. Photo / Grant Allen

Bali's Ngurah Rai, also known as Denpasar International Airport, is in the process of transformation. This once unremarkable airport is developing into a spectacle of Balinese architecture, with statues, water gardens and fountains. A new causeway speeds the route to towards Nusa Dua and the luxury resorts lining its coast.

We were about to arrive at Club Med. Its 80 resorts around the world provide a chance to chill out in the most accommodating manner. If you have children they will willingly leave you alone to be entertained by the many young GOs (gentle organisers) who staff the Club. If you are travelling alone, again, the GOs will make sure you have company if you want it.

No matter what language you speak, or what you want to do (within reason), you will find it within the resort.The guests are truly international, as are the staff, and it seems every need is catered for.

For me this meant a lot of relaxing on the beach, a lot of people-watching and a lot of time at the bar.

For my fellow travellers it meant wind surfing, biking, diving and swimming. You can also play tennis, golf, have a massage at the spa, or even practise your archery or trapeze skills. There's something for everyone. Quiet moments are possible in child-free zones, but really, the resort is so spacious that, though you can be aware of others, they seem to melt into the warm haze and it never feels crowded.

The Club offers great hospitality and great food. Reflective of the guests, the many dining spaces offer a range of international cusines - fresh, light and innovative and always available. Once in, there is no paying for drinks, it's all-inclusive. Tempting as it was to never leave the private beach, I did have to go out and check some local food.

A superb dinner at the Bumbo Bali took me into the realm of Balinese food. An associated cooking school is set in a tranquil garden, where long open-sided pavilions with cooking stations are blissful spaces to learn about local food.

A visit to the Jimbaran fish market was arranged so I could see some of the hotel chefs demonstrating Balinese home-style cooking. Jimbaran market is a perfect postcard place, a curving coast edged with seafood restaurants, sky-blue outrigger fishing boats and charming, smiling and gentle stall holders.

I'd advise going in the cooler late afternoon, because as any mad dog or Englishman would do, I arrived in the midday sun. The sensible local fishermen were all snoozing in their thatched beach shelters, their blue boats pulled up on to the beach and their catch being sold or iced down and under shelter.

As I mopped off the perspiration, I envied the muscled ice man, hauling off blocks of ice from the back of his truck to load into the boats before their next fishing expedition. He had the coolest job on the beach in the truest sense of the word. The intense heat and humidity amplified the pungent aroma of drying fish (think shrimp paste) however, once under the shelter of the cool fish market the heat became manageable. I bought octopus, prawns and a snapper while trying to fathom the many parrot-coloured species on offer. Picking up fruit and other ingredients I took the haul back to the hotel kitchens.

Language is never a difficulty for cooks. Broken English and French enabled us to spend a fun couple of hours together and resulted in a demonstration of household Balinese food. The recipes these affable guys shared with me are on the facing page.

Vishyam (Sam) Seetaram hails from Mauritius. He was acting executive chef while I was staying at Club Med and had gathered together a few of his team to cook with me. His food philosophy is to "give pleasure to have pleasure", to make beautiful food for others is his motivation and his reward is the enjoyment it gives.

Ibnu Sanusi is Balinese. He trained in France; he and Sam conversed in French. After the hotel's dessert chef Yuli Priyono demonstrated a dessert, Ibnu showed me food that would be cooked "at home" in Bali.

Balinese food is fragrant and balanced in flavour. Shrimp paste is a predominant ingredient and though this pungent paste might smell offensive in the jar, when combined and cooked out it blends into the background. Candlenut is another essential ingredient. Candlenuts are available in some places in New Zealand, but if you can't find them, substitute macadamia nuts.

Much of Asian food begins with a curry/spice paste that is made by combining various aromatic ingredients, including chillies. This forms the flavour basis of the dish.

Different dishes will have particular base pastes. These will be made fresh and in earlier times would be pounded together with a mortar and pestle. Sam showed me a new trick.

He put all diced components into a liqiuidiser and then added water. Blitzing these together until completely pureed, this method is time-saving and enables a large quantity of paste to be processed.

The dish is always begun by "cooking out" the paste in oil. This intensifies the flavours and makes the oil aromatic. Other ingredients are added later but the concept is that the flavours are built from the beginning, not added along the way. The water from the liquid spice paste evaporates, leaving the essential components to combine and intensify.


Recipes

Barbecue Prawns
Whole Fish Curry
Octopus Curry
Coconut Cream and Tropical Fruit

Grant Allen was hosted by Club Med Bali. balifoods.com

- Herald on Sunday

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