“What do you think this is?”
Joseph, our guide, holds a small, green object in his hand, about the size of a grape, but clearly much firmer. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before, but given that we’re at the recently relocated Satok Market, one of Kuching’s most famous food markets, I’m reasonably certain the proffered item is at least edible. But whether it’s a fruit or a vegetable (it’s probably not an animal…), I have no idea. And given Joseph’s mischievous grin that is very nearly a smirk, it’s clear he doesn’t expect anyone to correctly answer his query.
We shuffle our feet and mumble various plant names, before Joseph puts us out of our misery.
“It’s an eggplant!” he crows ecstatically, delighted that such a commonplace vegetable has so thoroughly befuddled a group of adults.
The thing is, there are a lot of exotic edibles on display at this market, and even familiar veggies we know well camouflage themselves in unfamiliar guises. Joseph patiently walks us through the market, pointing out all the weird and wonderful local produce on display, stumping us repeatedly. From bundles of tightly coiled fiddlehead ferns to delicate pink bouquets of beautiful banana hearts to fresh green peppercorns still on the stem to fragrant beans that are actually fruits that smell like garlic and cheese, the tables we pass are laden with ingredients that confound our senses. Over and over again, we misidentify eggplant, as we never dreamed they could come in so many different shapes, sizes and colors. We eventually strike upon the strategy of simply guessing eggplant whenever Joseph shows us something new, but catching wise to our tactic, he throws in the occasional tomato or plum just to keep us on our toes.
Truthfully, I had not gone into this market tour—the start of an afternoon spent with Bumbu Cooking Class—with very high expectations. Considering myself a pretty savvy cook, I didn’t anticipate that I’d learn very much from the tour, so I am delighted to find it not just fun but really informative. Though Tony & I had undoubtedly spotted many of the ingredients Joseph shows us on previous independent jaunts through the local markets here in Asia, we almost certainly glossed over most of what we saw, either ignoring the things we couldn’t readily identify, or (as in the case of the many chameleon-like eggplants we are shown) incorrectly categorizing what we saw. With Joseph at our side, we swiftly realize that the local market is a treasure trove stocked with riches that far outstrip our limited ingredient knowledge… just as it was in Kota Kinabalu, it is here that we witness the flow of life in Kuching, the shoppers and sellers that surround us completely in their element. As we move from stall to stall, picking up ingredients for the dishes we’ll make—mounds of freshly grated coconut, creamy dollops of blended curry pastes—we discover that every thing we purchase has a story behind it and some sort of personal connection. Unlike the big box supermarkets back home, everything we buy here seems to be freshly plucked from the earth or scooped from the sea, a celebration of how bountiful nature can be.
Bags filled with vegetables and fresh herbs, we pile into a mini van and head back to the building housing the Bumbu Cooking Class. Initially I’m disappointed to learn that the day’s menu will consist of chicken curry, a stir fried fiddlehead salad, and a traditional dessert; when I signed up for the class, there hadn’t been a menu posted so I was prepared for a surprise. Still, I’ve made a lot of chicken curries in my day and I was hoping for something a little more exotic, a little more interesting, and a little more challenging. I was hoping for dishes that, should I ever find myself with access to a kitchen again, that I could whip out with pride, dazzling dinner guests with an authentic meal straight from Borneo. I doubt that chicken curry will knock anyone’s socks off.
What’s done is done, however, and we’ve already paid for the class, so I roll up my sleeves and prepare to make the best chicken curry of my life. What I always seem to forget is that simple dishes like this are ones that hinge upon every step being executed perfectly, and I soon feel like I’m not just learning how to cook this dish, but am learning the building blocks of cooking that will make any dish better. As my favorite off-his-rocker professional chef, Marco Pierre White, is prone to reminding cooks in his kitchen, “Perfection is a lot of little things done well.”
And, of course, the brilliant thing about making a chicken curry, is that there is no universally accepted version of the dish: just as Indian curries differ from Thai curries (and there is more than one style of curry within each country), a Borneo chicken curry is its own thing too. Every chef has his or her own unique recipe, and at Bumbu, the ladies running the class, a mother-daughter duo, teach us a version that has been passed down through countless generations. We learn the secret to potatoes that maintain their structural integrity (par-cook them by frying them first before adding them to the curry), how to get the most flavorful chicken that falls off the bone rather than bland, rubbery pieces (only add small amounts of water to the gravy at a time while the chicken is simmering because this will help the spices penetrate the meat in a way that isn’t possible if you dump all of your water in from the start), and that when using coconut milk or cream in a curry it should only be drizzled in right at the end to prevent curdling. Though I might have worried initially about being given a boring dish, the end result is one of the richest, most flavorful curries either Tony or I have ever made.
While our curry is stewing away, we turn our attention to dessert preparation, learning how to slice up pineapples in a fancy, though extremely laborious, fashion. We strip away the prickly outer skin and swivel our knives in a swirling pattern so that the final slices looked like delicate little pinwheels. Then we turn our attention to a traditional dessert called kuih tako that is a bit like a coconut pudding crossed with a mousse, sprinkled with kernels of corn for sweetness. Though I’m normally all thumbs when it comes to anything with a whiff of arts and crafts about it, I dutifully cut up pandan leaves and fold them into sturdy little molds in which the dessert will set, and am vindicated when I successfully assemble as many of the boxes as everyone else in the group.
Our final dish is fiddlehead ferns sautéed with sambal. Despite our teachers’ earnest urgings, I only add in the tiniest pinch of dried shrimp to the ingredients to be smashed in my mortar and outright refuse to add in any of the fermented and incredibly pungent shrimp paste known as belican, because I find its funky fish flavors far too overpowering for my seafood-sensitive palate. Although I get many a look of consternation thrown my way and our teacher laments that the dish won’t taste quite right without, I soldier on and am immensely pleased with my belican-free version of the dish.
When all the dishes are completed, we sit down and feast until our bellies bloat and we are all slightly uncomfortable. As we head out into the late afternoon, a slight drizzle beginning to fall from the gray skies above, I wonder if I’ll ever feel hungry again. The next day at noon, when my tummy finally starts to rumble with hunger, I decide to try a curry for lunch… only to immediately decide that the one I made was infinitely superior. I don’t try the dish again until weeks later when we’ve hit Thailand. I suppose that’s the Catch-22 of attending a good cooking class, and if that’s not a sign that Bumbu did its job well, then I’m not sure what is.
[Note: We paid for our cooking class with Bumbu in its entirety and did not receive any kind of kickback or special treatment for writing about our experiences.]
Tell us: Have you ever taken a cooking class while traveling? What’s the best dish you learned?