How to make Bumbu Bali

ingredients at Ubud markets

At the base of any great Balinese dish is a good Basa Gede, or Bumbu Bali. Translated literally, Bumbu means spice, Basa means bases, and Gede means Big. Sometimes you might see it called a Base Genep. However it’s described, it is a complete spice mix that adds big flavours to any dish.

Anyways, the ingredients list in this all purpose bumbu is huge, but it keeps for a few weeks in the fridge and a couple of months in the freezer, so it’s worth making a batch, and popping it away in individual portion sizes of, say, 100g, or thereabouts. I’ve tried to use bought pastes in my nasi goreng or chicken curry, but it just doesn’t taste the same.

Besides, there’s not a lot that’s more therapeutic than popping on some loud music, pouring a glass of wine, and smashing down pastes in a mortar and pestle. Just saying.

A general rule of thumb is that you need around 25g bumbu for each 100g of protein, but don’t get too hung up on that. If you’re making a chicken curry, for example, and are using 4 chicken thighs, just dollop on paste equivalent to one of them. Too easy.

When it comes to a vegetarian dish, or a nasi goreng, use less, adding little by little to taste.

This recipe is a combination of one that we made at a cooking school in Ubud – Bumi Bali – and one that’s in Janet de Neefe’s fabulous Bali: My Island Home.

Ingredients for bumbu bali

What you need

  • 8-10 shallots, peeled and chopped
  • 8 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 3 long red chillis, seeded and chopped
  • 3 small chillies, seeded and chopped
  • 5cm galangal, peeled and chopped
  • 5cm turmeric, peeled and chopped
  • 5cm fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
  • 3 stalk lemongrass. Smashed with the back of a knife and chopped roughly
  • 2 salam leaves(or bay or curry leaf)
  • 150ml coconut oil
  • 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
  • 5 candlenuts
  • 2 teasp black peppercorns
  • 1 teasp white peppercorns
  • 1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 cloves
  • 1 teasp belacan or shrimp paste. If you’re vegan, you can substitute oyster or mushroom sauce

What you do with it

  • Depending on what sort of day you’ve had, and how much time you have, pound all the ingredients (except the salam and the oil) in a pestle and mortar…or use a blender. I use the nutribullet when I’m feeling lazy. Add water as required to moisten. As an aside, making spice mixes by hand is amazing therapy. Don’t worry too much if it seems too watery- this will cook off.
  • Heat the oil in a wok or heavy pan and add the leaves and cook for a minute or so.
  • Add the spice mix and cook over a high heat, stirring frequently, until the excess water has evaporated and the mix is a rich golden brown colour.

How to make Balinese chicken curry

Using this paste to make a chicken curry couldn’t be easier.

Chop about 750g of chicken thighs into a dice. Do the same with a few potatoes and a couple of carrots. Don’t be too precious about the quantities.

Heat some coconut oil in a large wok or deep saucepan, add your curry paste  and fry over high heat for a minute or so until fragrant. Reduce heat, add a stalk of lemongrass that you’ve bruised with the back of a knife, and a couple of finely shredded lime leaves.

Stir it all together for another minute or so. Add the chicken and your veggies, and stir to make sure the spice paste has coated it all and cook for a couple of minutes each side to get a little colour. Add a cup of chicken stock – maybe more depending on how much chicken you have. Bring to the boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer gently for 40 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through and the potatoes are soft. Add a 400ml can of coconut milk and a few squeezes of lime juice and simmer for 5 more minutes.

Notes on the Ingredients

  • Shallots: Sometimes called golden shallots these are milder than normal onions, are a bugger to peel and chop, but an absolute must have in Indonesian cooking.
  • Candlenuts: Here in Australia, it can be tough to source candlenuts. We have a few good Asian grocers around us that we source ours from, but if you have problems getting them, or simply can’t be faffed looking for them, macadamias are a good substitute from a texture viewpoint – although, to me, the taste is more like a cross between a macadamia and brazil.
  • Galangal: One thing we can’t get here is a differentiation between greater and lesser galangal. You see, not all galangals are the same. Both look like ginger root, but are very different in taste. Lesser galangal appears more like young ginger and has a more concentrated flavour. Sometimes the galangal we buy is technically lesser galangal, sometimes it’s very obviously greater galangal. Either way, it’s sold simply as galangal. Most Balinese recipes will use both, but I’ve just simplified it to galangal. If you really can’t find it, substitute ginger, but it is worth seeking out.
  • Turmeric: I get fresh turmeric at the local markets, but used to find it a tad difficult to source when in Sydney. If you don’t use it all, it freezes ok for next time. Another root spice, it looks also a little like ginger in shape, but is bright orange inside. It’s the turmeric that gives the final dish it’s amazing colour. When peeling it, if you don’t wear gloves, it will also give your fingers an amazing colour – as if you’ve been smoking three packs a day for the last fifty years! It has incredible health benefits too, so please make the effort to find the fresh stuff. If you must, substitute with 2 tablespoons turmeric powder.
  • Belacan: is a foul smelling shrimp paste that is absolutely essential in Indonesian cooking. It’s made from fermented shrimp and…you don’t really want to know. We buy it in our local supermarket in pre-roasted sealed portions. Trust me, there’s no personal glory involved in roasting your own.
  • Salam Leaves: You probably won’t find these, so don’t bother driving around town looking for them. Substitute with bay or curry leaves.
  • Coconut Oil:  Coconut Oil has many health benefits (which I won’t go into here), but it also allows frying at a high heat. Any other vegetable oil (other than olive) is a good substitute.