When I met Tonok, I knew I wanted to cook with him. I was eating a delicious curry chicken salad for lunch at the Bloo Lagoon and I peered into the outdoor kitchen to find Tonok at work. I told him how much I enjoyed his salad and he smiled broadly. He knew his food was good. I don’t mean to be hokey here, but Tonok’s food has that thing, that secret to all tasty food - love. This guy loves to cook and it comes through in the dishes he serves. As we started chatting, limited by his English and my non-existent Balinese and Indonesian, I asked him about cooking and his arms would start waving, he would give me a vigorous thumb’s up, and his smile would grow wide. I had heard that the Bloo Lagoon offered cooking classes so I asked him if he could teach me some of his favorite dishes. With total authority, he planned a meal of traditional Balinese food that we would make together the next day.
The next morning Tonok and I went to the local morning market in Padangbai. Without having my morning “Bali Coffee” aka Balinese jet fuel, I was bleary eyed until the action of the market woke me up. This tiny market, only half-a-block long, was jammin’.
Baskets of bananas, pineapples, and papayas lined the street. Women were weaving palm fronds and selling a rainbow of flowers for offerings.
Fresh, shiny fish were displayed on planks of wood.
And there were so many intriguing hand-made packages of just-prepared treats. With Tonok’s help in identifying the mysterious eats, I started snapping up goodies: two newspaper packages of cooked yellow rice with spices; another paper-wrapped meal of pork on a stick, herbs and rice; black rice pudding. I even abandoned the squeamish American in me and bought a funky cassava, shaved coconut, and palm sugar treat made by a grandmother as I waited. What would the Health Department say?
I felt hungry and triumphant with this indulgent spree that cost me less than a buck.
Tonok and I got our ingredients for later. Just before lunch time we set to work. First we made Pepes Ikan, Balinese fish wrapped in banana leaf...
PEPES IKAN INGREDIENTS
adapted from of the Bloo Lagoon
- 4 mild red chilis or 1 red bell pepper
- 3-4 small shallots
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 teaspoon shrimp paste (optional)
- 2 tablespoon coconut oil
- 3 bay leaves
- 4 tablespoons coconut milk plus 1/3 coconut milk/ or 2 cups fresh coconut meat (see instructions below for making your own coconut milk)
- 1/2 pound chopped fresh fish: snapper, tuna or halibut would be great here
- 2 small tomatoes, slices
- 1/4 cup yellow onion chopped
- 1/3 cup coconut milk
- sea salt and pepper to taste
If you are making your own coconut milk, do so now. I was especially excited to learn to make this myself. Chop 2 cups fresh mature coconut flesh.
Place coconut in blender and cover the flesh with enough water to be able to puree.
Run the pureed coconut through a sieve and there you have it fresh coconut milk. Set aside.
Puree peppers, shallots and garlic. Heat coconut oil over medium high heat. Saute pepper puree for 5-7 minutes. Add shrimp paste, and 4 tablespoons coconut milk.Stir and continue cooking for another 5-7 minutes. Add bay leaf. This sauce is called “ bumbu merah.” Set aside.
Saute tomato slices, onion with 1/4 cup bumbu merah until tomatoes and onions begin to soften. Add fish and 1/3 cup coconut milk and cook another 6-8 minutes.
Wrap fish mixture in banana leaf. Scoop about 1/4 cup fish concoction onto a 10 inch square of banana leaf. Wrap and secure each end with a toothpick.
Steam or grill fish packets for about 10-15 minutes until fish is cooked to your liking.
As Tonok and I made the fish, I thought of the Halibut in Fig Leaves I would be making at home in California this time of year. Normally, we just add a little salt and olive oil to the fish before wrapping it up. Tonok’s Pepes Ikan made me think I that I should try marinating the fish next time before wrapping it up and tossing it on the grill. Maybe a citrus, herb and olive oil concoction; or coconut milk, shallots, lime and ginger. Even if you aren’t going to go out and track down all of the ingredients to recreate this Balinese dish, try wrapping snapper, halibut, or tuna in fig or grape leaves and savor how moist the fish is. Plus the leaf packets are fun to serve.
We also made long beans with shaved coconut. Tonok’s recipe calls for all sorts of cool local spices like “aromatic root” and candlenut. Instead of giving you a recipe that is difficult to recreate, let me suggest trying blanched green beans tossed with curry, grated coconut, lime, and crispy shallots. It is a great flavor combo. Crispy shallots seem to top so many Balinese dishes. The shallot are thinly sliced and fried in coconut oil. Yum!!
I have endless things to share about our trip so far. We are relaxed in a way we haven’t been in years, or maybe ever. The kids are weaned off TV, and they now get excited by stone carving and walks through the jungle. We are meeting extraordinary people every day. This Island is ridiculously beautiful. We feel so lucky!