A holiday abroad never seems complete to me unless I can participate in a cookery class. Like any true foodie, getting busy in the kitchen is one of my favourite pastimes. It’s also a great way to learn about other cultures. For my recent trip to the Gili Islands, the thought of learning some spicy Indonesian dishes against an idyllic island backdrop sounded totally peachy.
You cannot miss the large open kitchen of Gili Cooking Class, located opposite the Gili Air pier. It’s a white-tiled space with four modern cooking stations and a wide wooden bench overlooking the main street. However the clean and modern kitchen is inherently the problem of Gili Cooking Class. None of the utensils – or recipes for that matter – are traditional.
We booked the “four of a kind” lesson starting at 4.00pm during which we would learn to make the following four dishes: kelopon, peanut sauce with fried tempeh, mie goreng and Indonesian yellow curry. The other cookery students with us that day included a youngish, solo backpacker from Belgium and a pair of female friends in their mid-50s from Australia.
Breaking all tradition, we started with the dessert first. Kelopon is a popular sweet common throughout Southeast Asia and also known as ondeh ondeh. They are pandan-flavoured rice balls filled with melty palm sugar and covered in coconut. The recipe is simple. We started by mixing the rice flour and coconut mix into a glutinous mix. However things took a turn for the worse when the chef advised us to add green food colouring in lieu of the pandan. I was horrified, what the… food colouring in Indonesian cuisine!?!? I asked the teacher why we couldn’t use real pandan leaves, which I am more accustomed to using in my cooking. He explained that Indonesian pandan doesn’t have any flavour anyway and the food colouring would be easier.
As I nearly passed out on the floor, the rest of the class carried on without me. They proceed to roll the now green dough into small balls taking care to add a dollop of palm sugar in the centre. Just as I was recovering my wits, the teacher suggested we could replace the palm sugar with nutella if we were making this at home. Nutella???? It was at this point that I understood we would be learning dumbed-down Indonesian food and not the authentic stuff.
We finished the dish by cooking the balls in simmering water and then rolling them in shredded coconut. We sat down together to savour our efforts. To be honest, the kelopon tasted tasted a little blah. I mean, the hot palm sugar in the middle was nice but the rice dough had no flavour and the texture was glutinous.
Moving on… we headed back to the kitchen to learn how to make traditional peanut sauce. A lot of foreigners think satay means peanut sauce but they are wrong. Satay refers to meat, fish or vegetable cooked on skewers. Peanut sauce just happens to be a popular accompaniment. Earlier, during our stay on Gili Air, we had gone to an apparently traditional Indonesian restaurant and ordered chicken satay with peanut sauce. The skewers were served drenched in thick, clumpy peanut butter that had been mixed with coconut milk and ketchup – catered to Western tastes. I dreaded to think what variety of peanut sauce we would be making during our lesson.
I’m happy to report that no jars of peanut butter were opened during the making of this next recipe. We fried some fresh-shelled peanuts in a pan with loads of oil and then buzzed them up with chilli, onion and garlic in the blender. We then moved this dry-mix to the mortar and pestle and banged in some palm sugar, water and sweet soy until we accomplished a gluggy, brown sauce.
Because we were on the cheaper menu, we deep-fried some tempeh for dipping into the peanut sauce instead of cooking meat satay. Tempeh is soy beans that have been fermented into a solid block. It kind of looks like a white, nutty pound cake but it tastes like mouldy tofu. Whilst fried slices of tempeh may be healthier than regular crisps, I would say the health benefits are marginal. We fried the crap out of that tempeh using tonnes of highly-saturated oil. We then enjoyed another break at the wooden table to munch on our tempeh with peanut sauce.
Next up was mie goreng. This is popular Indonesian street food consisting of stir-fried meat, vegetables and noodles. The dish is quick and easy to prepare, which makes it the perfect comfort food for lazy days at home. This was not my first time cooking mie goreng. So, when the chef showed us the ingredients we would be using, I immediately noticed that kecap manis was missing and I nearly had heart palpitations! You CANNOT make mie goreng without kecap manis!! That’s like attempting to cook bolognese without onions. I immediately queried this with the chef who was very good humoured about it. He rationalised that he was impressed by my knowledge of Indonesian cooking but for the purposes of this class, we would only be using soy sauce.
We made a vegetarian version of mie goreng and we cooked the dish in under ten minutes. Chop up some carrot, beans and cabbage, toss it in the wok with chilli and cooked noodles, add soy and Bob’s your uncle… you have a primitive version of an Indonesian classic.
The class finished on a high note with a classic yellow Indonesian curry. We blended some shallots, chilli, candlenut, palm sugar, galangal, ginger, turmeric and a dash of water into a nice paste, which we used to fry up some cubed chicken breast along with a stick of lemongrass. We then added our vegetables and finished the dish by simmering for a few minutes in coconut milk.
The cooking lesson itself was very basic but nonetheless it was good fun. We didn’t spend more than twenty minutes preparing any of the dishes and we had lots of breaks in between to sit down, sip some water and sample our cooking. The chef cracked plenty of jokes along the way and he spent time helping the less experienced students with their cutting and frying. I didn’t need any help. In fact, I felt I was far too advanced to be doing this class. Gili Cooking Class is more suited to millennials who have yet to learn how to boil an egg, or those privileged enough to have a helper cook for them at home. But for $35 per person it was good value for a few hours of entertainment and a four-course meal.
Just as the cooking lesson concluded, we heard a clap of thunder and the heavens began to pour. So we stuck around for a further hour, taking time to savour the fruits of our labour and chatting with the other students.
Did I learn anything from the cooking class? No. Would I ever make any of the dishes at home? Maybe the yellow Indonesian curry (but with added chilli).
Gili Cooking Class
Gili Air harbour
Lombok 83125 – Indonesia