Sarah Maguire savours traditional island flavours at a cooking school where authenticity tops the menu.
THE stern-faced Heinz von Holzen has three rules for the food-loving holidaymakers who find their way to his cooking school, Bumbu Bali, in the village of Tanjung Benoa.
In between grinding candlenuts and peppercorn, sauteeing pork in soya sauce and deep-frying bananas, his students must not sit in the same seat twice. This is to encourage sociability. Rule No.2, they must not talk politics. Rule No.3, they must not talk about anything at all that might throw a shadow over the convivial exercise of group-cooking your own lunch.
Alas, von Holzen has broken his own house rules, in spectacular fashion, even before he's got around to telling us what they are. "It's too late for planet Earth," he declares.
We are sampling Balinese breakfast foods in an open-sided dining pavilion, part of a sprawling, leafy oasis of a compound, when von Holzen shares his vision of apocalypse. Most of what we are eating is made of coconut, palm sugar and rice, some of it in radioactive shades of green and pink. A bowl of dumplings that look like oversized baked beans, made of glutinous rice flour and tapioca flour, are soaked in a sauce that is pure palm sugar. We load the dumplings onto dessert spoons, trickle coconut cream all over them, and eat; they are squashy, smooth and decadent, filling the mouth with sweetness, quite the antidote to von Holzen's commentary.
"At the local fish market, there used to be marlin and tonnes of mackerel, sardines, snapper, unbelievable quantities, Then, two years ago, it collapsed," he says of the fish stocks in Balinese waters.
"Fruits at the moment are disastrous," he continues. "The island is so badly affected by climate change. Mango season is December to June ... there are no mangoes this year. Last year we had mangos all year. It's crazy, everything is upside down."
Evidently, this cooking school, in operation since 1997, is as much about the personality of the chef and his particular preoccupations as it is about the food. The fact von Holzen is an evangelist for Balinese food further makes Bumbu Bali stand out among the cooking-school crowd. He is the author of five cook books on the island's cuisine, having worked for years to obtain ceremonial and everyday recipes from the Balinese, in their villages, homes and temples, and record them.
In his school-principal style, as though it is a test in which wrong answers will be met with the flick of a strap, he asks us to name the four most common dishes served in Bali. Between us we get gado gado, nasi goreng, mee goreng and satay - none of which is Balinese, von Holzen proclaims. Of the four "miserable" fruits served on breakfast buffets around Bali - pineapple, watermelon, papaya and musk melon - none is native even to south-east Asia.
By the time we move towards the kitchen to pull on aprons and perch on stools around a large work bench, Balinese food has become quite the mystery cuisine, waiting for us to discover it in its heretofore hidden glory. Which, in effect, is what the Swiss-born, French-trained von Holzen, with his cook books, thrice-weekly classes and two Balinese restaurants, has made it his life's mission to do. Indeed, he almost singlehandedly gives curious foodies a reason to visit Bali, a destination beloved by Australians for reasons that have traditionally had little to do with its cuisine.
"It's very difficult to find a restaurant that serves Balinese cuisine," von Holzen says. "We want to say, we've got more than a fabulous culture, we've got food as well."
Once surrounded by ingredients that are already peeled, sliced, chopped and diced ("you look at a knife, you chop off your finger", says von Holzen of his ban on students going near anything sharp), brandishing utensils such as the cast iron pot his mother received as a wedding present in the 1940s, von Holzen reveals his funny side.
There is much comic theatre in the relationship with his long-time collaborator, Balinese chef Ida Bagus Wisnawa. The two are clearly close. "He's my brother," von Holzen says, betraying a sentimentality that is absent in his gruff treatment of students at whom he continues to lob questions, which might be rhetorical, but for the awkward silence that follows as he waits for an answer. Is salt good or bad for you? What about coconut oil? Which salt should you use? How long since any of us sharpened our food processor blades? "[I bet] you could sit on the blades and ride to Europe and you wouldn't cut your butt ... take your food processor to a shop and get it sharpened, otherwise you're smashing the food, not cutting it."
Ingredients are passed under our noses, then, after they have been crushed in the mortar and pestle, passed around again, the aromas of coriander seeds, tamarind, turmeric, ginger and lemongrass released and ready to form the piquant pastes that are the basis of Balinese cooking.
Each student takes a turn at measuring, combining and cooking the ingredients, to the soundtrack of von Holzen barking "what's next?" and the seated students dutifully yelling back the answers from their recipe booklets, be it time to add the garlic and shallots and saute for two minutes, or combine the chilli, palm sugar and meat and mix well. Across spice paste for seafood and green papaya salad with prawns, chicken sate and grilled fish in banana leaf, and an 11am lemon squash refreshment, von Holzen imparts morsels of information: Indonesia is the biggest producer of cloves in the world, but for cigarettes, not cooking; and etiquette demands that you must always work with your right hand; the left hand does all the dirty jobs.
He also takes time out to hypnotise the resident chook, Charlie, which gets cameras clicking and von Holzen, at last, smiling broadly.
By lunch time, we have prepared a feast; trays groaning with stews, salads, stir fries and satays are delivered to the pavilion where we so long ago had breakfast. The food is spicy, fresh, colourful and, most importantly, delicious.
Von Holzen may have given up on the planet but the business he has built betrays a rock-solid faith in Bali and its food. "I really think I'm the world's most positive person," he says. "I'm just realistic."
The writer travelled courtesy of Accor Hotels and Garuda Indonesia.
Garuda Indonesia flies direct from Sydney to Denpasar daily, garuda-indonesia.com.
Ideal for families with its apartment-style accommodation, Novotel Bali Nusa Dua has an 18-hole golf course, kids club and lagoon pool. From $125 a night. +62 361 848 0555, novotelnusaduabali.com.
The Pullman Legian, one of Bali's newest five-star hotels opposite the beach in Legian, has a rooftop infinity pool and day spa. From $120 a night. www.pullmanbalilegiannirwana .com/.
The Royal Beach MGallery, located on Seminyak Beach and among 4.5 hectares of tropical gardens, has 17 private pool villas. From $165 a night. +62 361 730 730, theroyalbeachseminyakbali.com.
Bumbu Bali Restaurant and Cooking School, JI Pratama, Tanjung Benoa, near Nusa Dua, +62 361 774 502, balifoods.com. Classes including market visits are $US85 a person, $US75 without market visits.