Standing amongst the organized chaos of farmer's market in Ubud, Bali, I was ecstatic.
It took a few moments to digest the scene, and skill to keep up with the flow of shoppers during the morning rush. To the left of me, an elderly woman was methodically peeling shallots -- clearly she had gone through several hundred already... and it was barely 9am. There were baskets of fruit and vegetables and flowers everywhere, the next more colorful than the last.
Women walked past with meter-high baskets of freshly picked flowers on their head. I soon learn it is a custom to arrange flowers for daily offerings to friends, family, neighbors, or shop owners. The Indonesian are almost painfully selfless people.
My eyes were dancing. In the bright morning sunshine, I had to remove my sunglasses just to make sure I didn't miss a thing behind my lenses -- I wanted no interference. With pure glee, I ran my fingers along the largest ginger roots I've ever seen. I the skin of the exotic snake fruit, as if it were Braille. There was every kind of fruit you could never imagine... Jack fruit, purple dragonfruit, the mangosteen... the queen of the fruits. And my all time favorite. Sweeter and juicier than a lychee, I easily consumed 10 of these in one day.
As an herb enthusiast, I could almost shed tears when we descended stairs to where the herbs were. I laid eyes upon the biggest bay leaves I've ever seen. And the basil... God, the basil. But I didn't want to linger. There was too much to see. I wanted to see everything.
Onward to the next part of my epicurean journey: the one on one lesson. Chef has set up a cooking station by the river, in the midst of the herb garden and rice field. On the menu: satay ayam (chicken satay), pepes ikan (grilled fish wrapped in banana leaves), jukut urab (long bean salad with toasted coconut), basko (meatball soup), and dadar gulung (coconut crepes).
Laid out on the table was our mise en place, all the ingredients we needed to cook the meal. Minced chicken, freshly caught fish, herbs, banana and pandan leaves,
We plucked the root vegetables from the garden, our knees in soft dirt and chef poking with a kitchen knife.
I admitted to to him that Asian cuisine had always intimated me due to the number of ingredients. He promised it was very simple. Most of the food gets its deep layered flavor from a basic spice paste. The main components are ginger, garlic, and turmeric -- almost like the Indonesian holy trinity. From there we built our flavor profile with galangal (root similar to ginger, with notes of citrus), shallot, lemongrass, chilies, Balinese lime juice, and shrimp powder. After all the components are sliced and diced, everything is placed in a mortar and pestle to be blended and pressed together. After about five minutes, a smooth paste begins to form and my fingers are yellowed and fragrant from the spices.
While our spice paste slowly simmers and softens in coconut oil, chef and I engage in casual conversation; everything from his to experiencing the foreign wonder of snow. I also learn more about the Indonesian way of cooking. The women make everything in the morning after visiting the market and make it available during the day for friends and family passing through.
The paste is thickens. It's now time to begin cooking our dishes.
For the satay (one of my personal favorites), we use minced chicken spiced with our paste and lemongrass stalks and sugar cane as our skewers. We form the ball of meat at the end end the skewer and gently press down to secure in place.
Next to prepare is the pepes ikan. Just like the satay, we add a heaping tablespoon of paste to pieces of white fish. As I mix, chef adds tomatoes, shallots, and coconut oil into the bowl, while telling me more of Indonesian cooking culture. Even for something minute as a tooth filling, there is a big celebration and specially prepared meals. For these types of gatherings, men prepare the meals and women gather the offerings for the community. While we talk, I quickly work to imitate chefs form...scoop the fish onto a squared off banana leaf, roll it up, and fasten the ends with tooth picks.
I finish the remainder and watch as Chef balls up the minced chicken for the basko, meatball soup. He tells me this a personal favorite of Obama's, a dish he fell in love when he lived in Jakarta with his mother. In fact, his name is synonymous with basko in Indonesia. If you can't tell yet, Obama has quite the legacy here.
"See, a very simple version," he says, motioning me to drop the meatballs into a pan with a bay leaf sizzling in coconut oil. After splashing in a half cup of coconut water, the soup is finished.
For the bean salad, I toast some coconut flakes while Chef chops the beans. The assembly was quick -- I tossed the beans with paste, fried shallot and coconut. Top off with a squeeze of Balinese lime.
We move so swiftly through the dishes, we began prepping dessert before I realize. Chef instructs me to toast more coconut flakes, this time with palm sugar, a sweetener made from the sap of coconut trees.
"Our fat and sugar comes only from the coconut or candle nut."
Within minutes, the palm sugar melts into a glossy and thick caramel-looking consistency. To make the batter for the crepes, I sifted flour into coconut milk -- just enough to thicken the milk, the batter remained runny. To give the batter a green tint, we spiked the batter with pandan leaf juice, a popular flavor in Asian desserts. Making the crepes was too easy, mostly because we didn't have to flip them. Having the sticky side face out helps with the folding. Plus, the indentations from the bubbles gives a textural appeal.
My reward was delicious. I savored the last bite of my crepe, tasting the sweet coconut on my fingers.
I told Chef he was so lucky to live in a place like this. He smiled and lightly chuckled in a way I translated as, "I know."