Expanding culinary horizons with cruise cooking classes

Would-be cooks from the Silversea Cruises ship Silver Muse making Indonesian dishes at SanDaGen Kopitiam, a cafe and cooking school in Sandakan, Indonesia. (TW photo by Tom Stieghorst)

Would-be cooks from the Silversea Cruises ship Silver Muse making Indonesian dishes at SanDaGen Kopitiam, a cafe and cooking school in Sandakan, Indonesia. (TW photo by Tom Stieghorst)

Focus on Culinary Travel

Expanding culinary horizons with cruise cooking classes

By Tom Stieghorst

Would-be cooks from the Silversea Cruises ship Silver Muse making Indonesian dishes at SanDaGen Kopitiam, a cafe and cooking school in Sandakan, Indonesia. (TW photo by Tom Stieghorst)

Would-be cooks from the Silversea Cruises ship Silver Muse making Indonesian dishes at SanDaGen Kopitiam, a cafe and cooking school in Sandakan, Indonesia. (TW photo by Tom Stieghorst)

I had previously taken cooking classes on cruises, making macarons, a vinaigrette emulsion and Sicilian pasta sauce from scratch.

But this was a whole different animal.

Aboard the Silversea Cruises’ Silver Muse, we were on a foodie expedition through Southeast Asia. I was part of a trial run of the line’s new culinary program called Sea and Land Taste (SALT), which is set to debut on the Silver Moon in 2020.

The day’s assignment was to make lawar, a complicated dish that is traditional on the Indonesian island of Bali.

I had never before heard of this food or many of the ingredients in it, so I was pretty far out of my culinary comfort zone. 

To make the dish, my group of 20 or so fellow travelers divided into teams, each assembling a different ingredient in the dish. Feeling insecure, I went with the one task that offered some familiarity: chopping chicken.

My job was to reduce chicken chunks to a kind of minced state. A side benefit was using one of the coolest kitchen implements I had ever seen. It looked like a cross between a cleaver and a knife, long and somewhat lean but with a flat end instead of a pointed tip. The wood handle was weathered and felt good in my hand. The shank was battered and splotched with dark spots.

But when I gingerly ran my finger along the edge, it was sharper than any knife I’d ever handled. It made reducing the chicken to mince a walk in the park, and I wondered how to get one at home.

Our instructor, food journalist Maya Kerthyasa, said that authentic implements are important to traditional Balinese cooks. Wielding the knife, I felt much more Balinese than I had any right to. 

Slowly, our dish came together. While I was busy with the chicken, other team members were making sambal matah, a Balinese condiment of finely chopped shallots, ginger, red and green chilies and garlic hand-mixed with coconut oil, salt and lime juice and seasoned with kaffir lime leaves and heart of torch ginger flower.

Others were boiling Balinese greens, making a thin egg omelet or doing other tasks. We had to cook the chicken, simmer it in a grated-coconut broth, then mix it with the egg and the greens and serve with some rice.

The dish looked great, and having finished it, I realized it wasn’t so complicated, especially with a posse in the kitchen.

However, my next adventure on the culinary cruise left me feeling like I was barely a cook at all.

After leaving Bali, we docked at the Malaysian port of Sandakan and headed downtown for some more exotic fare at the San Da Gen Kopitiam coffee shop, where we were going to make some ondeh ondeh (sweet rice cakes).

A bowl of ondeh ondeh, a Southeast Asian dessert made with rice flour, palm sugar and shredded coconut. (TW photo by Tom Stieghorst)

A bowl of ondeh ondeh, a Southeast Asian dessert made with rice flour, palm sugar and shredded coconut. (TW photo by Tom Stieghorst)

Again, never heard of it. Co-owner Linn Ngui ran through the recipe for us and stuck around to help. But this would prove harder than the lawar. 

The first step was hand-shredding pandan leaves and running them through a food processor, then straining them to produce the green dye that gave the dish color. Next came making balls of rice dough. 

I should say that while I’m a cook, I’m not much of a baker. Dough and I aren’t best friends. So it took a long time and considerable anxiety to get the consistency and texture close to what they should be. I felt I was falling behind. I wanted to quit.

Next, we had to put dabs of palm sugar on the dough balls and fold them into the interior. Don’t leave any air pockets, we were warned. My ondeh ondeh looked misshapen and mottled. 

We boiled the dough balls for eight minutes or so, extracted and cooled them briefly, drizzled them in oil to keep them from sticking, then rolled them in desiccated coconut.

I was proud of myself for finishing, not giving up as I had wanted to several times. I felt even better after tasting my ondeh ondeh and finding them not half bad. I was not under the illusion that anyone would buy them, but someone might eat them.

There’s no doubt it was a challenging experience, following a recipe on the spot for a food I never knew existed. But I have to say the challenge made it memorable and encouraged me to stretch myself as a cook, which was, I think, one of the reasons I had signed up for a culinary cruise in Southeast Asia in the first place.

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