What do we look for in a cooking school? A culinary experience which includes unfamiliar ingredients, improved techniques, new tastes, and even an addition to our repertoire of dishes.
Taking a Lobong cooking class gave us that and more: a taste of another culture and a glimpse into other people’s lives.
Lobong is the name of the family home where the class is held, just a few kilometres outside Ubud. With a complimentary hotel transfer included in the price (about AUD$35), Lobong’s location proves to be an advantage. Once away from the bustling centre of Ubud, there are no other tourists in sight!
Our first stop is the Payangan Market, situated (as always) opposite a palace. Family member, Sang De, is our guide, narrating and answering questions about our journey. We see the ingredients we will use for our day’s class and gain clear, informative descriptions of their uses, together with cultural explanations of their significance: skewered eels which have been caught in rice paddies, uses for every part of the coconut, food-dyed chicks used as children’s living toys, how to choose edible fern tips, and why vanilla pod is so expensive (it is hand pollinated every morning and night). We learn the traditional uses of various plants (turmeric for blood cleansing, soursop to prevent breast cancer), as well as the four spices central to Balinese cuisine (turmeric, galangal, aromatic ginger and ginger). Slowly too, we become aware of how highly defined Balinese cultural practices are, and how little we know about them!
On arrival at the family compound, we’re warmly greeted and given refreshments – banana fritters and juice. Sang De explains the compound’s traditional layout. Named Lobong because it lies below street level, this has been home to the family for four generations. Although families negotiate marriage and girls propose, young men traditionally stay at home after their marriage, with the bride moving into her new husband’s home.
The layout of a compound is always the same, arranged according to the ‘three mandala’ concept: head (temple), body (family life), and legs (toilets, garbage and animals). We learn a little about wedding procedures and family roles. It becomes clearer how deeply Balinese food is embedded in cultural practices.
Chef Dewa, another family member, begins our cooking instruction. This is a hands-on class with everyone participating. Fresh ingredients have been laid out in baskets ready to cook each dish.
The first step is planning. How long will our dishes take to prepare? Chef Dewa advises us to begin with the most time-consuming dish first, but which one will that be? It sounds easy, but we’ll be working with knives, chopping boards, an open fire hearth and gas-lit pans only; no blender or rice cooker!
Rice is central to Balinese cuisine, with each family generally growing and harvesting their own, (tasks we’re spared)! Rice is only cooked once a day, beginning at 5am because the multi-step soaking and steaming process takes about 80 minutes.
So we begin. The class is a lesson on culinary and cultural understandings as well as technique: which ingredients to use for specific purposes, why different preparation methods are used for each dish, who cooks which meals at which times. (While women cook daily meals, ceremonial cooking is done by men.)
Chef Dewa assigns tasks according to skill levels, gives detailed instructions and reasons for each step, compliments participants on knife skills and methodology, and within a couple of hours our feast is ready.
Hungry to try our dishes, first we must give an offering to the gods. Prepared and placed by the family matriarch, the class watches in silence.
Then the banquet! Served by the Lobong family, we enjoy the dishes we’ve made: Chicken soup with green papaya, Balinese chicken curry, Sate Lilit Ayam with Sate sauce, Jukut Urab (mixed vegetable salad with fern tips, snake beans and grated coconut), Sambal Ulek, Sweet Potato Rice, and Dadar Gulung (Balinese pancakes) for dessert. Full of flavour, fragrance and freshness, it’s a wonderful meal.
In a most professional way, we have been humbled by our lack of knowledge about the depth of Balinese tradition. Through the class we gained a greater understanding of the labour required to place these dishes on the table, as well as the cultural place of food in the Balinese way of life. Our Lobong Culinary Experience was an excellent, enlightening day. Very highly recommended.