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By Susan Ladika | From Aromatic Market To Plate In Exotic Bali | 02-26-2006 | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

From Aromatic Market To Plate In Exotic Bali

Jimbaran, Indonesia -- Chef Iwayan Ariana leads a group of eager students through Jimbaran's fruit and vegetable market, dishing out lessons about Balinese cuisine. He crushes up unnamed spices and asks us to take a whiff. He holds up a knobby tan root. "What is it?" he asks.

"Ginger," several people venture. He doesn't react, so I suggest "galangal," a cousin of ginger. I never would have imagined that the ingredients I learned during a weekend Thai cooking class back home would come in handy in a Balinese marketplace.

Stopping before one vendor, Ariana grabs a bunch of tiny bananas and explains that 10 kinds of the fruit flourish in Bali's tropical climate.

At another stall he points out red, black and glutinous rice, and yellow rice roasted with coconut. He picks up water apples, Chinese cabbage, long beans, snake fruit and mangosteen, offering the group sniffs and tastes as he works his way through the warren of stalls.

Ariana's hands-on exploration of the traditional Balinese marketplace is one of the things that sets the cooking school at Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay apart. Perhaps that's why "Today" show travel editor Peter Greenberg called it one of the best cooking schools in the world.

As we wander through the market, the sound of music causes us to rush to the street, where we catch the tail end of a funeral procession as it passes by a massive black stone temple across the street from the market. Women dressed in matching purple lace tops and printed sarongs walk past, followed by men in magenta sarongs beating on an array of percussion instruments.

Although Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country, Bali is primarily Hindu. Religion and ceremony play a huge role in everyday life.

Offerings are made to the gods three times a day: morning, evening and after cooking. Women traditionally make the offerings --- small containers woven from plants and typically filled with flowers, rice or other bits of food.

Occasionally smokers will offer cigarettes, presumably thinking that because they like to smoke, the gods might enjoy a puff, too. For those who don't have time to craft their own offerings, a young Balinese woman at the marketplace puts together the colorful bits and pieces, selling them to passing shoppers.

After our foray through the fruit and vegetable market, it's off to the fish market, where brightly colored boats fill the harbor at Jimbaran Bay.

Smaller craft come ashore, and pairs of men rush from the boats, a bamboo pole holding a basket of sardines balanced on their shoulders.

The shore is a clutter of baskets and metal tubs, where vendors carefully count out fish for customers.

Ariana then leads us through the covered portion of the market, where countless fish --- from tuna to grouper to shark to snapper --- are laid out for shoppers. There's lobster tinged in rainbow colors and prawns as big as a man's fist.

As he directs us past the rows of tables, Ariana explains how to pick fresh fish: eyes clear, not glassy, and flesh firm.

Next it's back to the resort's gleaming cooking school, where Ariana teaches us how to prepare a typical Balinese meal. Our first course is chicken satay. But it's not the strips of chicken on skewers typically found in Asian restaurants. Instead, Sate Lilit Bali is made with ground chicken and grated coconut to help hold the meat together and soak up excess grease. The mixture is spiced with ginger, galangal, coriander and cloves. The tricky part is getting it onto stalks of lemon grass --- like trying to impale a raw hamburger patty. Some of my efforts look like misshapen corn dogs about to slide off the stalks.

For the main course, it's Pepes Ikan Kakap, or Balinese spiced grilled snapper wrapped in a banana leaf. I feel like I'm back in the Stone Age as Ariana instructs us to turn ingredients such as shallots, chile peppers, lemon grass and garlic into a paste using a mortar and pestle. For those of us from a more high-tech world, Ariana says a food processor also will do the trick.

The paste is rubbed into the snapper, and then the fish is wrapped in banana leaves before the chef's assistants grill it.

For dessert, we whip up Kue Labu, or Balinese pumpkin treat, combining grated steamed pumpkin with coconut milk, sugar, vanilla and other ingredients into a type of custard.

Then comes the payoff for the hours we've spent in the market and kitchen. We sit down at a wooden table, tucking into the meal we've prepared, along with fresh, wok-fried vegetables.

Those staying at the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay also can take classes at the cooking school featuring Indonesian cuisine or spa cuisine.

Some guests also may be invited to a traditional dinner at the home of Made Astika, the resort's head of security, who is also the chief of his village, Jimbaran.

The complex of buildings within the walled compound, which has been in Astika's family for nearly two centuries, includes a dozen temples, or shrines, where the family makes its daily offerings.

Visitors sit on the floor of a "bale," an open-sided pavilion, while Astika's family members bring out an array of dishes, including fish, chicken, pork, rice and vegetables, which are served family style. Then everyone digs in.

There are no utensils, so diners use their fingers to break off bits of fish or pop bean sprouts and asparagus into their mouths. The wine and water flow, and there's even fresh young coconut juice served in its shell.

As we eat, members of Astika's extended family and neighbors offer entertainment, playing xylophone-type instruments, as the children perform traditional Balinese dances, their movements imitating weavers and warriors.

In Jimbaran, Bali's rich culinary and cultural heritage continues to flourish.

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