Elsewhere on the island, tourists stretched their limbs lazily on the golden sand, or dived beneath the waves to swim alongside the elegant turtles which frolic in these waters. But inside the Sweet and Spicy cooking school, the mood is serious. Rolling the perfect klepon, after all, takes solemn concentration.
The bright green rice cakes, stuffed with palm sugar and rolled decadently in coconut, were set to make up the final course of the Indonesian feast we novice chefs had rustled up under the patient eye of Chef Merry. The giant green balls looked a little odd, but a quick quality-control check confirmed they were indisputably delicious.
We had traipsed into the beachfront kitchen four hours earlier. A beaming Merry had decked us out in spotless white aprons and chef’s hats, determined that we would at least look the part, even as our collective cooking inexperience became clear. Taking pity on us, Merry started us off easy with a simple peanut sauce, a staple accompaniment to any Indonesian dish. We were directed to our individual stations and, following her example, started slicing, frying and blending peanuts, chillies and soy sauce. Merry bustled around, tasting a little here, adding a little there, until she’d convinced us all that the perfect peanut sauces we ended up with were entirely of our own making.
With a somewhat misplaced confidence, we threw ourselves into the main courses. We made ayam taliwang (a spicy chicken dish) and mie goreng, which I was already familiar with as a backpacker staple. Fish in banana leaves, neatly trussed up like Christmas parcels, and Bali yellow sauce followed. This being the Gili Islands, it was already very hot, and slaving over our stoves had slicked our hair with sweat and flushed our cheeks pink. Yet we barely noticed, so intent were we on adding just the right amount of chilli to give our dishes that traditional Indonesian fire without overwhelming our pathetic Western pallets.
By the time we were done, a mountain of food was piled on the tables and we were all starving. Merry invited us upstairs, where a low wooden table was to hold our feast. Laughing and chatting, we squished in, grabbing up platefuls of food, and refilling them until we were too stuffed to move. Everything was scrumptious; bursting with flavour and laced perfectly with spice. Fancying ourselves as newfound cordon bleus we scampered happily out onto the sand, just in time to catch another of Gili Trawangan’s brilliant sunsets.
Merry emailed over the recipes, so upon my return to England I attempted to impress my friends with my culinary talents. Disaster! The taliwang burnt, the mie goreng stuck to the pan, and the klepon ended up less apple green than bruised brown. I could have attributed the reversal in my cooking fortunes to Merry’s absence. But I preferred to imagine that, as with everything on Gili T, the island exerted a magic that was impossible to replicate elsewhere.