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Kopi luwak didn’t seem to be my cup of, umm, coffee. But when in Bali, one does as the Balinese do. I pick up my cup, avoid breathing in the aroma, and sip. It’s strong and full-bodied. As it swirls around in my mouth, I feel an explosion of flavours: a hint of chocolate, a taste of nuts, a smooth and rich aftertaste. Hell, I am being seduced by the caviar of the coffee world—so what if it’s made out of coffee beans excreted by the Asian Palm Civet?

Boogie looks at me. I told you so, his smile says. Boogie, a jack of all trades on most days and cook extraordinaire four days a week, is our teacher for the day. He’s going to help us live a day in the life of an Indonesian cook.

Multi-hued: (clockwise from top left) A Hindu temple in Ubud; carving on wood and other material is an important art form; tourism revolves around the scenic rice fields; and (below) Legong is performed by girls. Photo: Thinkstock

The “kitchen", set up in Boogie’s garden, comprises a gnarled wooden table, a stove top, a few containers, a chopping board and assorted spoons and ladles. In the distance, the blue sea twinkles invitingly.

With its beautiful beaches, Bali, formerly a Dutch colony, is Indonesia’s biggest tourism draw. The Hindu island in what is mostly a Muslim archipelago is as commercial as it is spiritual. But in Ubud, situated in the hills leading up to Bali’s central mountainous region, there is no such conflict.

“You want party, fun, disco," Boogie’s wife tells me, “you go Kuta, Legian, Seminyak." My expression answers for me. “If no," she softens, “Ubud right choice." Her husband nods sagely.

Also See Trip Planner / Bali (PDF)

Tourism in Ubud revolves around the scenic rice fields, small villages, art and craft communities, ancient temples, palaces and rivers. And, most importantly, the people. People come here drawn by the promise of learning to do things the Balinese way.

Cooking courses in Bali are mostly home-run enterprises. You sign up for a course (which lasts anywhere between a day and a month) and learn to cook the Balinese way. We opt for a one-day course and plan our own menu: spiced fish in banana leaves, fragrant tuna curry, sambal, roasted white eggplant and nasi goreng, to be followed by fruit in coconut milk.

In the market, we discover a cornucopia of colours and textures: sleek and shiny fish, curly pink prawns, juicy red tomatoes, glossy purple eggplants, gleaming white shallots, colourful bell peppers, hairy rambutans, fat coconuts… But Boogie is a tough customer. He asks for fresher “feesh", grimaces over the state of the banana leaves, and digs deep into a basket in his quest for eggplant without bruises.

“Rice in India?" he asks us.

“We have lots," I say.

“In Bali, we have many varieties of rice—red, white and black," Boogie retorts. I look suitably impressed. “We even do glutinous and non-glutinous," he adds.

Back in the kitchen, I don an apron and help wash the vegetables and seafood. In Indonesia, Boogie tells us, the main dish is usually served with a range of spicy side dishes and condiments. He’s chopping herbs for the tuna curry when his one-year-old son crawls into the kitchen. We busy ourselves with arak (the local brew, it’s definitely a must-try with lemon, honey and lots of ice) and playing peekaboo with the chubby baby.

Just as there’s nothing like “Indian food", there’s no such thing as Indonesian cuisine, I realize. Though coconut, coconut milk and peanuts find a place in most dishes, the label represents a number of regional cuisines tempered by local and foreign influences.

Lunch is ready. The fish in banana leaves is tender and delicately flavoured. A hint of nutmeg in the spice mix is Boogie’s can’t-miss tip. The spicy sambal brings tears to the eyes, but it’s addictive. In its simplest form, a sambal could be just chilli peppers, onion and salt. Boogie makes us sambal dadu dadu (coarsely chopped tomatoes, shallots, bird’s-eye chilli, basil, vegetable oil, lime juice, salt) with a difference (he’s added Madame Jeanette peppers, red brown and very hot). The fruit salad with a twist—coconut milk—is the perfect ending to the meal.

The Indian parallel crops up again when we decide to take in a dance performance. Deeply rooted in Hinduism, Balinese dance usually tells a story. The Barong performance we watch depicts the classic fight between good and evil: Rangda, the mother of 10th century Balinese king Erlangga, is condemned by Erlangga’s father because she practises black magic. After she is widowed, she sets the evil spirits of the jungle after Erlangga, who seeks the help of Barong, the king of good spirits, to quell Rangda and her troops. A terrible fight ensues but, as always, good wins over evil.

The masks are huge, colourful and intricate; the costumes immaculate and bright; the gamelan music vibrant and pacy. The performance—kind of like an Indianized opera—leaves us spellbound.

Locals promise us we would have been as enthralled by the Legong (a dance performed by young girls), Kecak (a ritual dance that combines the chorus of the Sanghyang trance dance with a story from the Ramayan) or the fire dance (a dance to exorcize evil spirits). As with the cuisine, dance courses too are on offer at Ubud’s Foundation for Pure Art.

Over the following days we visit other “crafts" towns—jewellery (Celuk), stone carving (Batubulan), basket-making (Bona), bamboo and rattan work (Sakah and Bona), weaving and painting (Gianyar area) and bone and coconut carving (Tampaksiring)—and come back awed. Again, the takeaway isn’t limited to what one can pick up from the art markets.

By sharing their most authentic arts, Ubud also preserves its most enduring legacy.

Write to lounge@livemint.com

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