On TripAdvisor you can read hundreds of rave reviews about Bali Asli and their cheerful executive chef Penelope Williams. Among the few critics is an expat who has lived in Bali for several years. She describes the restaurant as a place for naive tourists and her advice is to get far less expensive but good Balinese food at a local warung. There’s no accounting for taste and it’s certainly not cheap, so why would you go to Bali Asli? Let’s find out!
Add a new life experience to your Bali bucket list
Join Penny’s cooking class and you could add a new life experience to your Bali bucket list, because you will not only learn about Balinese cooking but also about the local way of life that makes Bali so special. Plus the view from the restaurant is simply stunning!
The journey begins when you drive to Bali Asli and follow the gently winding road to the foothills of Mount Agung. From the restaurant you have an amazing view over the valleys and Bali’s highest and most sacred mountain. Here the members of the cooking class gather at eight o’clock in the morning. This is the best time to catch the great mountain in full glory in a clear blue sky!
Participants from Sweden, Indonesia and Australia
The members who are joining Penny today include a couple from Sweden with their son, who is also a cook. They read about Bali Asli in a Swedish magazine and decided to join. The other participants are a lady from Australia and a woman who is originally of Indonesian descent, but who has lived for a long time in the Netherlands.
We put love and passion into everything we do.
To introduce the participants of the cooking class to Balinese vegetables and spices, Penny takes them to the local market in nearby Amlapura. She’s been a regular visitor there for more than 3 years so everyone at the market knows her. She talks to the Balinese women in Bahasa Indonesia and lets her customers taste and smell the local specialties.
‘We buy from the local market, we cook on woodfire stoves, we use no electrical equipment — only traditional techniques and our hands. We put love and passion into everything we do,’ says Penny, summarising what is unique about Bali Asli.
Bali Asli extensive feast for the senses
Back at Bali Asli the class is welcomed with a special fruit punch, ‘Spicy Salak’, made to Penny’s own recipe, with pieces of the local Salak (‘snakeskin’) fruit and a sugarcane to stir it. It’s a bit reminiscent of stewed pears, but in a fresh and tasty cool drink. While sipping fruit punch, local sweets from the market called ‘Bali cakes’ are served.
How did Bali Asli come about? A lonely hill in the green valley overlooked by Mount Agung called out to Penelope Williams to settle down and use her skills as a chef and entrepreneur. On this magic spot she presents her guests a tasty and extensive deluxe Bali adventure. ‘My mood goes into the food. I like creating food that will give people good energy and happiness.’
For me Hinduism in Bali is not only a religion.
‘I believe in being in harmony and peace with your environment and to have respect for the local culture. For me Hinduism in Bali is not only a religion but it’s a culture that’s part of the daily life here. Actually I would like to advise everyone to stay in a place with a different culture than your own because you really learn a lot.’
No secondhand offering
Penny knows all the basic details about the Hindu religion as it’s practised in Bali. After she demonstrates how to make the little baskets for an offering, she explains how to decorate them with colourful flowers and which god is honoured by which specific flower. She also indicates in which direction to place the flowers so they point towards the holy Mount Agung.
Actually, not all Balinese people know about this aspect of Hindu theology. As people automatically sniff the flowers, Penny explains that this renders it a ‘secondhand offering’, so don’t do it! After everyone has finished making their offering, Penny takes the class to the house temple and introduces them to the art of Balinese offering to the gods.
Bali chose me! I had no plan to come.
For someone with no previous attraction or emotional ties to Bali, it’s remarkable to see how Penny has integrated so well into Balinese society. ‘I was born in England but lived most of the time in Sydney. When I was offered a job at Alila Manggis [near Candidasa] for two years, after someone tipped me, I was ready for a sea change. I thought, what’s two years out of your life? If I didn’t like it I could simply go home! But I didn’t go home and I’ve been in Bali for eight years now. Bali chose me! I had no plan to come.’
Throw a plate Gordon-Ramsey style
Some people think it’s odd to learn to cook Balinese food from an English-born Australian lady, especially considering Bali Asli means ‘authentic Bali’. But what is authentic about Bali Asli? ‘My cooks are from Karangasem but they were never trained before. Actually, one of them worked as a dive instructor. I learned from their home cooking traditions and adjusted the spicy flavours to what people from abroad can take in.’
From about the age of 18 Penny started to get interested in cooking. From her early childhood memories of England, she remembers running around in fields and trying to catch insects. Later, when she went back to the UK to work as an apprentice at the Savoy Hotel in London, she was introduced to Gordon Ramsey, one of the most famous master chefs on TV worldwide. And so Penny became familiar with the habit of cursing, shouting and throwing a plate to someone’s head to get things done!
You cannot talk to me like that!
When she was confronted with her behaviour by one of the Balinese cooks she started to change her habits. ‘Ibu [Mrs], you cannot talk to me like that!’ he had said. Looking back at that hectic and stressful time in the British kitchen, Penny says, ‘I’ve learned how to discipline myself. Otherwise I could not operate this business.’
Come to think of it, it’s a big investment to have this restaurant on this lonely hilltop at the foot of Mount Agung. Penny got lucky when a couple from Singapore decided to invest in her dream. The concept works, but many more people need to find her off the beaten track.
Think outside the box
Back in the kitchen, all the spices have been put in a bowl in a colourful display. Penny shows the best way of getting the flavour out of each ingredient — for instance, breaking herbs like lemongrass — and what can be added to make the food taste sour, salty or sweet.
Now the cooking can begin. The dishes for today’s menu are: satay (grilled chicken and fish), pepes ikan (fish in a banana leaf), tofu (steamed in a banana leaf), urap (a Balinese salad) and nasi goreng (fried rice) plus peanut sauce.
Penny demonstrates how to make the special mix of spices by using a ‘cobek’ (a sort of mortar and pestle). This requires a special technique in the way you hold your shoulder and hands. During a short break everyone gets a taste of one of Bali Asli’s delicious homemade fruit beers or cocktails.
Never present a dish without tasting it first
‘Never present a dish to your guests without tasting it first,’ is Penny’s important motto, plus ‘think outside the box.’ So after each round of tasting, the class decides what to add to make it tastier. When all the food is prepared and Penny has demonstrated how to serve it, it’s time to sit down together and eat the prepared meal. Everyone who completes the cooking class receives a certificate and the recipes from Penny to try at home. Also each participant gets a Bali Asli apron which they can keep as a souvenir.
Truly a rich and tasty ‘out of the box’ experience
During lunch the participants give their opinion about the cooking class.
The family from Sweden are very satisfied with the cooking class and will certainly recommend it to people coming to Bali.
The lady from Australia will be back in July 2015 and wants to reserve a private cooking class. ‘I’d like to have a three-generation cooking class for my father, myself and my young daughter.’
The Indonesian woman is impressed by Penny’s courage and how she has immersed herself in the Balinese culture, market, and kitchen! ‘This is truly a rich and tasty “out of the box” experience.’
Does Penny have more to wish for?
Penny concludes: ‘To have wisdom to teach, to have calmness to learn and to have clarity to see the way.’
Bali Asli cooking schools:
Cooking school class themes for 985,000 IDR per person (approximately 75 US dollars)
1. ‘A day in the village’
2. ‘A day in the life of a Balinese fisherman’
3. ‘A day in the Balinese beauty salon’
4. ‘A day in the life of a Balinese lady’
This article is a report of ‘A day in the life of a Balinese lady’. The cooking class starts at eight in the morning and ends after lunch at around two.
10:00 – 12:00 for morning tea
12:00 – 15:00 for lunch
15:00 – 18:00 for afternoon tea and sunset cocktails
Sample Menu Nasi Campur Bali Asli by Penny Williams:
Steamed organic Balinese rice with sweet potato from Penny’s neighbour’s garden Urab Paku sayur jepang
Steamed young fern tips plucked from the nearby gullies with exotic squash, sweet red chili and freshly grated coconut Pelecing kangkung
Karangasem-style water spinach dressed with a zesty tomato sauce, tiny limes and fried red beans Sate lembat be pasih
Fisherman-fresh sea fish sate wrapped around bamboo sticks Be siap betutu
Slow-cooked chicken, marinated in ‘Bumbu Rajang’, stuffed with cassava leaves, slow-roasted, wrapped in betel nut husks & homemade krupuk and sambal.