Back home in Bali: banana leaf snapper with sambal and coconut salad – recipe | Indonesian food and drink

lit’s five o’clock in the morning. My niang (grandmother) is bent over her clay stove with a bamboo pole in her right hand and stoking the freshly lit fire. “It’s better to fill your mind with fun thoughts when you’re cooking,” she says.

Maya Kerthyasa prepares ingredients with her niang in Bali
Maya Kerthyasa prepares ingredients with her niang Anak Agung Rai in Bali

My niang and I have been cooking together for four years now. Our conversations in her kitchen – a traditional open-air pavilion with a wood-burning stove – brought me to Bali.

Before that I had spent most of my life in Australia writing about almost every other cuisine under the sun. On my travels home, I’d go straight to my niang’s kitchen—her smoked rice, delicate broths, and flavorful sambals—and wonder why the rest of the gourmet world paid so little attention to Balinese food.

I now understand why. My niang’s generation taught and passed on knowledge orally, so the best recipes are rarely put on paper, and restaurants rarely have the time and tools to match the depth, complexity and spice of Bali’s home kitchens. So Balinese flavors have flown under the culinary radar, largely unexplored by chefs, food publications and hungry travelers. I hope these recipes will change that.

Sambal matah (raw sambal with lemongrass)

This sambal is similar to a salsa. It is probably Bali’s most beloved seasoning and every region, village and household puts its own spin on it. Chop the ingredients as finely as possible and use your fingers to mix.

Bali's most beloved seasoning: sambal matah
Bali’s most beloved seasoning: sambal matah

makes 250g

150 g (about 6) red (Asian) shallotsfinely sliced
18 tabasco peppers
finely sliced
4 stalks of lemongrass
only the white part, finely chopped
6 lime leaves
finely sliced
80 ml coconut oil
1 tbsp lime juice
2 tsp shrimp paste
lightly fried
Sea salt

Using your hands, stir together the shallot, chilli, lemongrass and lime leaves in a medium mixing bowl.

Heat coconut oil in a small saucepan over medium heat for three to four minutes and pour into mixing bowl.

Let the mixture cool slightly and gently squeeze everything together with your hands to incorporate the coconut oil into the other ingredients.

Add the lime juice and shrimp paste and toss again. Season with salt and you’re good to go. Best eaten fresh, not preserved.

Urab timun (cucumber and roasted coconut salad)

This cucumber number normally comes out on special occasions. You can reduce or even omit the chilies for less heat if you prefer.

Clear, refreshing and full of contrasting flavours: urab timun
Clear, refreshing and full of contrasting flavours: urab timun

For the salad
220 g toasted coconut
finely grated
4 cucumbers
peeled, halved lengthwise and sliced
Sea salt
4 lime leaves
finely chopped, to serve
Juice of ½ lime
to serve

For the sambal
4 tbsp coconut oil
4-5 red (Asian) shallots
finely sliced
5 cloves of garlic
finely sliced
6 red bird’s eye peppers
finely chopped (optional)
1 tsp shrimp paste
rolled into a ball
Piece of galangal the size of a miniature
finely sliced
1 tsp salt

For the sambal, heat the oil in a small wok over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook for two minutes, or until translucent. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly to make sure nothing sticks or burns, for four minutes, or until the garlic and shallots are gently caramelized.

Add the chili, shrimp paste and small galangal and cook, stirring, until the shrimp paste is completely dissolved, the chili has shrunk and the small galangal becomes fragrant. Add the salt, stir again and remove from heat.

Pour most of the sambal into a bowl, keep a handful aside for seasoning and combine with the coconut using your fingers.

Add the cucumber and some of the coconut mixture to a large bowl and toss with your hands. Massage it well, being careful not to bruise the cucumber too much, and add more coconut mixture until you’re happy with the cucumber-to-coconut ratio. The cucumber should be nicely covered, but not too soggy.

Season with salt to taste and possibly more sambal for extra spice. Garnish with the lime leaves and a squeeze of lime juice and enjoy immediately.

Pepes be pasih (spiced snapper grilled in banana leaf)

Pepes be pasih is insanely popular all over Bali, especially in the coastal areas where you can easily get fresh seafood. I chose snapper for this recipe because it’s what we ate growing up. My mother also made this recipe with albacore tuna and octopus, which you should definitely try. It’s one of my favorite ways to cook seafood, as the banana leaf retains all the moisture, the charcoal provides smokiness, and the spices add punch, warmth, and color to the dish.

Oh, snap: Balinese grilled snapper in banana leaf
Oh, snap: Balinese grilled snapper in banana leaf

Serves 2

100 g banana leavescut into 20 × 22 cm sheets
1 tsp palm sugar
minced meat
100g base kuning,
recipe below
300 g snapper fillet
cut in half
1 tsp sea salt
2 tbsp coconut oil
2-3 red (Asian) shallots
6 cloves of garlic
1 long red pepper
seeded and sliced
2 salam leaves
1 small bilimbi or green tomato
finely sliced
2 sprigs of carum (lemon basil)
steamed rice
to serve
Urab timun
to serve, above
sambal matah
to serve, above

Add the sugar and base kuning to a small mixing bowl and use your hands to massage them together until fully blended.

Season the fish with the salt and add it to the base mixture. Place the fish in the fridge for 30 minutes to marinate.

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallot and garlic and cook for three to four minutes, or until translucent, making sure nothing sticks or burns. Set aside to cool and toss with the chili. Once cool enough to handle, massage the marinated fish with the shallot mixture.

Preheat a charcoal grill or barbecue.

Place two pieces of banana leaf on top of each other and a salam leaf in each package.  Put the fish on it
Place two pieces of banana leaf on top of each other and a salam leaf in each package. Put the fish on top.

To make a banana leaf pack, place two pieces of banana leaf on top of each other, with the top (glossy) side of the bottom leaf toward the bench and the shiny side of the top leaf toward you. The veins of both leaves should point in the same direction.

Place a salam leaf in each package, place the fish on top and top with a slice of bilimbi or green tomato and carum.

Fold one side of the leaf over the fish and then the other side in a letter fold.  Secure with toothpicks
Fold one side of the leaf over the fish and then the other side in a letter fold. Secure with toothpicks

Fold one side of the banana leaf over the fish, following the grain of the leaf.

Fold the other side of the sheet into a letter fold.

Fold over both ends and secure with toothpicks or traditional bamboo sticks.

Grill the packets over medium heat for about eight minutes on each side – the banana leaf should become slightly charred as the fish steams in it.

Carefully unpack the package over a bowl to collect all the juices.

Transfer the meat to a plate, pour over the juices and serve with steamed rice, a side of urab timun and sambal matah.

Basic kuning (yellow spice paste)

The word base (pronounced bah-surr) refers to spices or mixtures of spices. Basic combinations are best made fresh, but you can also make them in bulk and store them in the freezer.

The traditional art of handcrafting your food adds a rhythmic element to cooking. We also believe that it connects the cook and the ingredients on an energetic level, where the dish becomes an offering laced with love and intention. So skip the food processor (as tempting as it is).

makes 450g

15 cm piece of fresh turmericcoarsely chopped
115 g fresh small galangal
coarsely chopped
1 cm piece of fresh ginger
coarsely chopped
115 g (about 30) garlic cloves
coarsely chopped
1 red (Asian) shallot
coarsely chopped
3 candlesticks
roasted and coarsely chopped
9 Tabasco peppers
coarsely chopped
100 ml coconut oil
250ml water
2 tsp sea salt
1 tsp sugar

Use a large mortar and pestle to grind the turmeric, galangal, ginger, garlic, shallot, candlenuts, and chilies into a paste. Most Asian supermarkets stock candlenuts, and you can buy them online – or replace them with their relative, the macadamia nut.


Heat the oil in a wok over high heat until it reaches the smoking point. Turn the heat down to medium, add the spice paste and slowly stir in the water for two minutes.

Reduce the heat to low and cook the pasta for 45 minutes to an hour, or until all the liquid has evaporated and it forms a deep yellow paste.

Add the salt and sugar, stir well and cook for a further 10 minutes over low heat. Adjust the spices to taste. It is ready when it is dark yellow in color with a clear aroma and a spicy, earthy taste. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for two to three weeks.

  • This is an edited extract from Paon: Real Balinese cooking by Maya Kerthyasa and Wayan Kresna Yasa, published by Hardie Grant Books (RRP$50). Photography by Martin Westlake