Basa gede or Balinese sauce is a classic Balinese spice paste in the tradition of Asian pastes such as Thai curry paste and Cambodian kroeung, commonly used for saté and duck and chicken betutu. While available commercially, it’s best fresh from the mortar and pestle. Here’s an authentic recipe for basa gede or Balinese sauce, courtesy of a Balinese cook.
While perusing the bookshelf at our delightful Villa Tukad, I discovered myriad guidebooks on Indonesia and Bali. There’s a rather dry but informative old copy of a Dorling Kindersley-style Knopf guidebook, a conservative Insight Guide, a detailed Rough Guide to Indonesia, and a couple of insubstantial Lonely Planet guides that appear to pander to pissed-up Australians*.
One Lonely Planet claims Balinese cuisine is “Not as sweet and subtle as the food of the neighbouring island of Java,” while the Rough Guide calls the local cuisine “sweet and not overly hot”. Of the rest of the books, only the Insight Guide really makes an effort to understand the cuisine and the ingredients that distinguish Balinese cuisine from the other islands in Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia.
I decided I needed to learn more about Balinese cuisine from a local so I sought the help of our in-house Balinese cook, Desak. I subsequently spent much of our time at the villa cooking with Desak, learning everything from this Bubur ayam recipe to the basa gede Balinese sauce recipe, below, and Balinese-style saté and ayam betutu, a steamed chicken dish wrapped in banana leaf that are made with the basa gede.
Basa Gede Balinese Sauce Recipe – How to Make the Traditional Balinese Spice Paste
As I quickly learnt, Bali is known for a couple of distinctive dishes, both of which were traditionally only eaten for Balinese feasts – babi guling (suckling pig) and bebek betutu (marinated duck wrapped in banana leaf). You can order bebek betutu 24hrs ahead at some restaurants and see suckling pig at roadside stands, but they’re not really the same as the dishes served at Balinese ceremonies.
Another Balinese dish that is unique is saté, but, unlike Thai satay sticks, it’s not comprised of cubes of marinated meat on skewers cooked over charcoal. Rather, it’s mince pork, seafood or chicken pounded together with the same traditional Balinese spice paste that marinates the duck dish, basa gede – commonly translated in English as ‘Balinese Sauce’ – on ‘skewers’ of lemongrass or bamboo.
While these all sound delicious, it’s difficult to find good Balinese restaurants where you can try them, because sadly the island doesn’t just cater to foreign tourists, it panders and kowtows to them. Generic French, Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Thai, and Japanese restaurants abound, as well as the dreaded ‘International’ places with menus featuring at least one dish from each of the cuisines on the aforementioned list.
Say that you’re going to try street food and the locals get very nervous – they don’t like seeing their guests get the dreaded ‘Bali belly’. There are restaurants that do feature local specials, of course, but all the guidebooks agree that the best Balinese food is to be found in the home.
Thankfully, we’re staying in one. And one with a local Balinese cook, Desak, who grew up making these dishes – and she definitely has an opinion on how they should be made. Our Balinese villa has a menu of local Balinese specialities, so every meal has been a Balinese cooking lesson as I’ve sneaked into the kitchen to watch Desak cook.
We tried the local Balinese saté first. Both the chicken and pork piqued my curiosity, as Desak served the saté without sauce, saying that the sauce was part of the saté mix of the ground meat. She was right – it was fantastic.
Keen to try another Balinese dish that used the same sauce, we asked her to make bebek betutu, however, she said she preferred to make ayam betutu, substituting the duck for ayam (chicken) as she insisted the ducks were not very good around here: “dry and tough” she said. We weren’t going to argue. Especially since we saw the duck looking just that way in a couple of restaurants that specialised in the dish.
Desak’s ayam betutu was amazing. Moist and tender, with the Balinese sauce providing a complex spice kick that we couldn’t get enough of. We’d enjoyed Desak’s cooking so far, but this was a knockout. Even when we reheated the leftovers the next day the chicken was still moist.
Given that you’re not going to make suckling pig at home, I thought that the most practical dishes to make were the saté and the chicken dish, both of which use basa gede. You can serve the satay as an appetiser and the chicken as a main course. A great introduction – or reminder – of the real cuisine of Bali.
Firstly, the basa gede balinese sauce. This is one that you simply cannot mix in a blender. Desak says that she has tried it but it simply does not taste the same. Her stone mortar and pestle gets a real workout every time she makes it – and she prefers to sit down on the floor to do it as it takes a while to pound down to the right consistency.
While basa gede sauce may be available as a commercial product, Desak won’t even buy it from women at the local markets who make it at home! Once again, she says that it simply does not taste the same. Blend it if you want, but I’ll take the advice of a local Balinese cook over the TV chef I saw making it in a blender the other day.
This recipe makes a good batch of basa gede but double this amount if you’re making the sauce for the chicken as well. Part 2 of this post has the recipes for the saté and the chicken.
*Yes, I am Australian, but a quiet drunk. And, yes, I used to write for Lonely Planet.
Basa Gede Balinese Sauce Recipe
- 18 shallots peeled and roughly chopped
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and crushed a little
- 3 stalks lemongrass chopped roughly
- 3 Indonesian bay leaves dried
- 6 candlenuts
- 2 ” ginger peeled and roughly chopped
- 3 ” fresh turmeric peeled and roughly chopped
- 3 ” kencur peeled and roughly chopped
- 5 Medium red chillies
- 1 tsp. peppercorns
- 1 tsp. coriander seeds
- 1 tsp. shrimp paste
- Get that pestle moving, grind the ingredients from hardest to softest.
- Add a little neutral oil to help moisten the mixture if necessary.
- The final mixture should not have any identifiable pieces of any ingredient.