The cooking class I took in Ubud was one of the highlights of my trip to Indonesia, and a great way to familiarise myself with traditional Balinese cuisine. It was also a great way to ensure I would be well-fed and entertained for an evening, which is a serious perk when traveling solo. With over three thousand 5-star reviews on Trip Advisor, Paon Bali Cooking Class was the easy choice, and it more than lived up to expectations.
It was the most well-organised class I’ve ever taken (out of a sample size of one, lol, but trust me, they know what they’re doing).The food was easy to prepare, delicious, and full of fresh, flavorful local ingredients. Pretty much everyone taking the class was a young, fun traveler. Puspa, the owner, was truly the cutest human ever and someone who I can only assume is the Ina Garten of Indonesia. And we got a recipe book to take home. 10/10, would def take again.
There are two different classes offered, a morning session which includes a trip to various local markets to shop for produce, and an evening session where you get straight to work cooking. I opted for the evening class, since I would rather die than do anything even vaguely resembling grocery shopping. Hotel pickup and dropoff is included in the modest class price (350,000 IDR/~$25 USD), as long as you’re located within the Ubud area!
The class begins by prepping a variety of fresh local ingredients; everyone is assigned something to slice, chop, grind, etc. Friendly assistants will guide you through everything, and correct you if you’re doing something wrong. Zero cooking experience is required, so no worries if you have the knife skills of a small, clumsy child.
Traditional villages obviously don’t have access to things like food processors or blenders, so nuts and spices are ground together using a mortar and pestle to create a thick paste. The height of the stick is to give you extra leverage when grinding, so that you don’t wear out your wrist trying to do it on a countertop.
Here we were combining shallot, garlic, galangal, ginger, turmeric, candle nut, chilies, coriander, nutmeg, and cloves, into what would become basa gede, the base of a traditional Balinese yellow sauce. Even from far away the smell was tantalising. This sauce was used in several different preparations over the course of the evening and was absolutely delicious!
To complete the yellow sauce, we added coconut oil and a bundle of lemongrass to all the aromatics from earlier, plus some palm sugar and salam leaves. We then sautéed them for a few minutes until the sauce reduced and the color deepened into this lovely yellow.
The sauce was so good – I completely understand why it’s incorporated into so many Indonesian dishes. It’s literally packed with all the ingredients you’d think of when trying to add flavor to a dish – garlic, ginger, chili, 8000 different spices… I kept having to sneak a taste while the sauce was cooking because the smell was too enticing!
The class is organised in pairs, but even if you come alone, they’ll match you up with someone. I had befriended another American girl on my shuttle over, so we partnered up. The two other people at our station also ended up being American, which was crazy to all of us, since we’d all been traveling for over a year and were definitely not used to running into other people from the States.
Our group was quite large, probably around twenty people, so we didn’t all cook for the entire duration of the class. One person was usually delegated to the actual cooking, and one person was responsible for gathering/tossing in the other ingredients. We would swap roles for every dish, so no one was left out of the cooking process.
One of my favorite dishes was the appetiser we created, a clear mushroom & vegetable soup with a spicy, flavorful broth. We used a few ingredients I hadn’t had a chance to use before, including kaffir lime leaves and an Indonesian hot chili which had a serious kick.
We took a break from cooking to enjoy our soup, topped with a garnish of deep-fried shallots. After whetting our appetites we went straight back to work to prepare the rest of the dishes, for what would turn out to be a massive feast at the end of the class.
This was my favorite dish of the entire evening, which surprised me because it was completely vegetarian (normally I am a raging carnivore)!. The dish was really simple – sliced tempeh (a fermented soybean product) fried in coconut oil and then tossed in a spicy sauce of red chili, garlic, shallot, spring onion, and kecap manis (a sweet Indonesian soy sauce).
It was ridiculously delicious. The tempeh comes out crispy, chewy, and crunchy, and the sauce is serious dynamite, a perfect blend of spicy and sweet. I had to go back for seconds (and maybe thirds). I had never had tempeh before, but I would definitely make this again at home. Basically, every ingredient used in Indonesia is bomb, my pantry at home is severely lacking, and I need to make a grocery run ASAP to try to locate some of these ingredients stateside.
One of the most fun preparations of the evening was fresh tuna and vegetables steamed in banana leaves. We learned how to neatly roll the banana leaves, and our instructor demonstrated the traditional method of steaming them in a beautiful woven basket. The dish turned out bright and delicious thanks to fresh lemon basil and a generous helping of the yellow sauce we had cooked earlier.
The coolest presentation was sate siap, or minced chicken grilled on bamboo skewers. We combined minced chicken, yellow sauce, coconut, palm sugar, fried shallots, and lime, and then carefully molded the mixture onto thick, flat bamboo skewers. Two assistants then demonstrated the traditional grilling method, fanning the open fire while carefully turning the chicken to avoid burning it.
Though we did most of the prep work, many of the dishes were finished off by assistants, which is something to note if you’re looking for a 100% hands-on experience. This is definitely not the type of class where you fully compose a dish individually from start to finish – it was a collaborative group effort all the way through. I personally was fine letting someone else handle the menial work of slowly simmering sauces and steaming rice and didn’t think it detracted from the experience at all!
In total we created eight different dishes, ranging from peanut-sauce-drenched vegetables to a rich yellow chicken curry. All the food was laid out along two huge tables for a massive feast at the end of the class, and there was way more than was necessary. We were given as much time as we wanted to relax and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Most people went back for seconds or thirds. I ate to the point that I felt sick lol because everything was so good!!
The environment was really open and welcoming – definitely not stressful or awkward finding a table to sit at and people to chat to. I met a lovely Australian couple, who made me very homesick for the country that had become my home but which I was no longer allowed to enter (weird feeling). We all ate, chatted, and shared stories about our travels. As dinner was winding down, Puspa, the owner, came out and greeted everyone.
She is an absolute delight and a huge personality. We found out a bit about her background and the origins of the building we were cooking in (it’s a massive, traditional Balinese mansion where she lives with her family!). She then cooked our dessert for us, a very simple but tasty preparation of boiled banana, palm sugar, and coconut cream. And she closed the class by shamelessly demanding that we all write her 5-star reviews on TripAdvisor, bless her heart.
I couldn’t have been happier with my experience. It was great entertainment for a few hours, and I left totally stuffed. The food was amazing, I learned a ton about the traditional cuisine and local ingredients, and I spent an evening being productive instead of just watching Netflix and drinking Bintang in my villa. I’ll definitely plan on taking a cooking class everywhere I travel in the future!