Tuesday, August 9, 2011

English Chef's Pit Stop in Bali

Dean Fisher stalks through the crowded aisles of Badung Market like a makcik (auntie), making a beeline for the second floor.

"This is one of the oldest and biggest markets in Bali," says the chef, who heads the Mediterranean restaurant Cafe Vivai in upscale Seminyak. "It's great for spices."

I am in Bali for a short break with a friend. I had been there several times and always liked this island of the gods. Traffic now is dreadful. If I did it all over again, I would not stay in Nusa Dua, which is a painful 45-minute commute into town, but in Seminyak, which is convenient but not tacky like Kuta.

But Bali has the same charm. This time, it helped that we had Dean to show us around.

We knew him from his days in Singapore as head chef at a Newton bistro. He moved to Bali a few months ago, where he puts a local twist to some European staples at Cafe Vivai. (The creme brulee, for example, is made with local cacao and dusted not with caramel but with gula melaka. There is also an awesome soup made from a local starchy potato with a touch of truffle oil.)

But what got my attention on this trip was that he also conducts market tours and cooking classes (www.deanfisherbali.com). Since we did not have that much time, he combined the highlights of his top tours: the tour to local markets, with a babi guling pit stop.

The market tour starts with a visit to the fish market at Jimbaran right on the beach. The fish market is not for the faint-hearted. It looks and smells like a serious fish market. Luckily, the sight outside the market is even more amazing than the sights within.

On the jetty, weatherbeaten fishermen clambered up from the beach barefoot. Some of their catch was so large, it took two to three men to bring it in, slung on wooden poles on their shoulders. They came up to the jetty and got their catch weighed.

In a crowded pavilion, large tuna the size of a pig and stingray the size of a small car, weighing more than 100 kg, are hacked into smaller pieces so they can fit into the backs of trucks: eyes gleaming, bloody gore and all.

I had been to Bali a few times, but the famed babi guling - barbecued suckling pig - had eluded me. This trip had similarly begun with a disappointment, when the hotel we were staying in said they did not serve it.

Dean took us to a roadside cafe in Gerenceng near the spice market. The hawkers had a pig's head in the glass showcase to advertise its babi. The dish came with tender pork flesh, crispy crackling, fish otah and some pickled vegetables. Washed down with iced teh botol (sweet jasmine tea), that was my best meal in Bali.

From Denpasar, we moved on to Ubud, which has its famed babi guling at Ibu Oka which American chef, author and television personality Anthony Bourdain and then everyone else went to. It was decent, but Gerenceng's was better.

We boasted to our driver that we preferred the local babi guling at Gerenceng.
Oh, that is nothing, he said. The best one is in a small town 15 minutes away from Ubud. Only locals eat there.
"Next time, I will bring you there."
Looks like another trip to Bali has to be planned.

Full article by Chua Mui Hoong - Straits Times Indonesia

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