Ben Hills

First we learn what we are not to eat – the turtles. They are languidly paddling in a moat that surrounds the dining-room at Bumbu Bali, a bustling Nusa Dua restaurant that boasts it is one of the few places where you can get genuine Balinese cuisine.

As sarong-clad waiters bustle about with trays of prawn satay on lemongrass skewers, bowls of fern tips in coconut milk and bottles of Bintang beer, proprietor/chef Heinz von Holzen, an intense, sinewy German, explains why.

“When I was first exploring the possibilities of Balinese cooking I went one night to the turtle abattoir,” he says. “What I saw there was so terrible I will fight to stop it until I die.” He doesn’t go into details, but it is said that the turtles weep as they lie on their backs with their throats cut, slowly bleeding to death.

True to his word, Heinz now has spotters at the markets down on Jimbaran Bay and whenever the fishermen bring in one of the endangered green or hawksbill turtles for the cook-pot, Heinz scoots down and buys it. The other day he took a class of children from the local school along to watch as he liberated more than 50 of them back into the ocean.

Turtles aside, his other great passion is the food of Bali. Heinz originally came to this beautiful island a decade ago as executive chef for one of the upmarket hotels chains. He fell in love with Puji, his Balinese wife, and stayed on to open his restaurant and resort, specialising in authentic local cuisine.

That was not as easy as it sounds. The recipes were all handed down by oral tradition; home cooking from mother to daughter; ceremonial food like roasted, stuffed suckling pig from father to son. When Heinz sat down with a bunch of renowned cooks, fierce disputes broke out about the “correct” way to prepare smoked duck or snail soup.

And, inevitably in an island that has been someone else’s colony (Java, Holland, Japan, Java again) for most of its modern history, it’s difficult to say what is truly indigenous. The most popular fare at the little backstreet warungs (stalls) is nasi goreng (fried rice) and mee (noodles), both of which originated in China.

Eventually, six years ago, Heinz came up with the first cookbook to codify Balinese cuisine. Then he began spreading the message through his restaurant and by offering cooking classes to holidaying foreigners. His is one of two schools offering visitors an experience of a very different side of Balinese culture. AT 6am Heinz makes the rounds of the resort hotels in Nusa Dua picking up tourists – and a Balinese mother-and-daughter team – for an intensive, one-day workshop in which we will tackle no fewer than 27 dishes. In the days before the bombing, the classes were regularly full.

First stop is the local market, where Heinz plunges up to his elbows into a pile of pig meat, hacking off choice cuts. The stalls are piled with ingredients now familiar in most Australian cities (shrimp paste, candle nut, galangal, lemongrass, tamarind pulp) alongside exotica such as green jackfruit, salem and betel leaves, kencur root, and hemispheres of beige palm sugar set in coconut shells. Nearby, gamblers bet on a roulette-like game while ancient crones fight to earn a few cents carrying your purchases on their heads.

Then it’s down to the beach to see what the fishermen have brought in. No turtles today, thank God, but plenty of fresh prawns, cuttlefish, snapper, and histrionically coloured fish which we hope haven’t been caught using the traditional method of poisoning coral reefs with cyanide.

Back at the ranch – actually an open-air kitchen at Heinz’s resort – we get busy grinding chillies, shallots, garlic, turmeric, ginger and the other ingredients for the four bases which are the basics of Balinese cooking: the red, brown, yellow and orange sauces used to enhance the chicken, fish, beef or pork you are cooking.

The rice is put on to soak; there is native Balinese white rice, rice coloured yellow with turmeric, red rice, even black rice.

Heinz maintains a non-stop patter as we plaster prawn paste onto lemongrass stalks for the best satay ever tasted, grill marinated chicken over the barbecue, fold banana leaves origami-style to make parcels for the fish and minced duck, and whip up the finest salad dressing with garlic, shallots, shredded kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, lime juice and coconut oil.

Eventually, about 2pm, we totter to a table where the fruits of our labours are spread out before us. Our enjoyment is considerably enhanced by the Mid-Western matron who kept whining sotto voce to her husband: “Honey, it’s so SPICY!”

There is another cooking school run out of the Serai Hotel, recently renamed the Alila Manggis – a luxury resort overlooking the ocean near Candi Dasa on Bali’s relatively unexploited east coast. The chef is again a foreigner, this time the likeable Simon Blaby, who refined his Asian cooking at the superb Spirit House Thai restaurant on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

With two of Australia’s “cooking safari” pioneers, Marieke Brugman and Sarah Stegley, of the Howquadale gourmet retreat in Victoria, the Serai has tailored a five-day course (you even get a diploma to hang on the wall) which involves a lot more than sweating over a pot of curry. Our class is a small but jovial crew – a couple of doctors from Victoria with their partners, a Melbourne deli owner and me.

We start the first day snorkelling on what’s left of the coral reef which, in a classic case of killing the goose, some developers were allowed to dynamite to make concrete to build the resorts that now struggle to attract guests because all the sand has been swept away.

Nevertheless, it’s a pleasant morning, the sea is as warm as fresh milk, and when we are deposited ashore in a little fishing village we find that a team from the Serai has erected a pavilion complete with stoves and other cooking paraphernalia, ingredients and plenty of cold beer.

The next day the lesson is in a different location: in the Serai’s kitchen garden, high on a hill among rice fields overlooking the ocean. We pick chillies, basil and other ingredients while a friendly local shins up a spindly palm to bring us a drink of coconut sap.

It is such a romantic setting that a Japanese tourist staying at the hotel decides to propose to his fiancee there one night. A table is set up in the paddock, a banquet is served, then the cake arrives with the enigmatic question written in icing “Would You Marry Me?” (Ms Nakamoto apparently gives an unqualified answer and, on cue, staff set off a display of fireworks.)

The recipes are surprisingly simple, and again often involve using bases though, in a concession to Western sensibilities, peanut oil is substituted for the traditional but heavy coconut oil. Some stand-out dishes were the duck simmered in coconut milk, a fish curry with lime and orange, and rujak – unripe fruit and raw yam in a sauce of sugar, shrimp paste, chillies and tamarind.

The cooks’ tour then moves to Ubud, Bali’s arts capital, where an evening lesson – this time in Thai cuisine – has been organised at what must be the most over-the-top, extravagant hotel in Asia, the Begawan Giri. The executive chef here is David King, formerly of Sydney’s Darley Street Thai.

After a week of chilli and coconut, the clean, cutting flavours of Thai cuisine are a pleasant change. David takes us through a banquet repertoire consisting of seared scallops on betel leaves, grilled salmon with green salad, and duck braised with cinnamon and star anise before we sit down to eat. We are the only guests in a magnificent, open-air dining room where the cheapest vin ordinaire is $20 a glass.

Back in business.

Gradually life is returning to the devastated Balinese economy, which lost an estimated $5 billion in revenue in the wake of the October terrorist bombings.

After the attack, which claimed almost 200 lives, half of them Australian, “Bali was deserted by tourists,” according to Heinz von Holzen, who owns a restaurant, resort and cooking school at Nusa Dua. “Within 10 days we lost 95 per cent of our business.”

However, six months later von Holzen and fellow tourism operators say visitors are gradually returning – often encouraged by bargain-basement deals – and business, while still little more than half what it was before the attack, is looking up. Operators like von Holzen have used the lull to undertake renovations and to increase security – he now has two full-time police officers and 11 private security guards protecting his guests.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade still warns people to defer non-essential travel to Indonesia. This is one of 247 travel advisories on its website which cautions against visiting places such as the UK (where Australians are “advised to be specially alert to their security”) but inexplicably excludes places such as the western Sahara, where Algerian-backed rebels have been fighting to establish an independent state for 30 years.

In spite of this, Qantas and Garuda – which slashed their schedules after the bombings – have increased flights between Australia and Bali.

On February 16 a new airline, Air Paradise, commenced operating seven return flights a week between Melbourne and Perth and Denpasar. The airline is owned by Wiranatha Kadek, the owner of Paddys Bar, which was destroyed by the first bomb. Kadek owns dozens of tourist-oriented businesses in Bali and employs thousands of people.

Gary Hilt, the airline’s national business manager in Australia, says that in its first five days of business it took 2000 bookings. It is drastically undercutting Qantas and Garuda, with Perth-Bali return fares priced at $539 and Melbourne-Bali at $739.

“People should be aware of the DFAT advisory,” says Hilt, “but I think they believe that you are as safe in Bali as anywhere else these days.”

Destination: Bali

How to get there

Both Qantas and Garuda fly Sydney to Denpasar return for $1323 and $1131 respectively (taxes are extra).

Freestyle Holidays has a six-night Alila Experience package from $2058 a person, twin-share. As well as a half-day cooking school, it includes return air fares from Sydney, transfers, departure taxes and daily breakfast. For travel to May 31. Other deals from $1099. Phone 1300 665 470 or email.

Cooking schools

The nine-day cook’s tour was organised by Gourmet Tours of Australia and cost $3750, excluding airfare.

The Alila Manggis resort offers a range of cooking courses, from $190 a day for in-house guests to $940 for the five-day course, excluding accommodation. Details available from the website The one-day cooking school at Bumbu Bali costs $130 and can be booked direct at, or through

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 5 April 2003
Edition: Late
Section: Travel
Sub section:
Page: 3
Word count: 1977
Geographic area: Indonesia
Photography: Ben Hills
Caption: Taste of Bali …
1. cooking up a storm at the beach;
2. Heinz von Holzen and his class;
3. student Phillip Hall shows off his satays.