Food! Delicious dishes and exciting new flavours are the best part of holidays for a food-obsessed traveller like me. Indonesia has so many different regional food customs, and I’ve made it my mission to try them all. The food here is full of fresh flavours and spices, and cooked with distinctly Indonesian methods that have been perfected over many centuries. Bali is definitely food heaven for me!
The basis of most Indonesian and Balinese cooking is chilli, garlic, shallots and coconut oil. Then depending on the dish, it’s either a type of shrimp or fish paste or betutu – which is a mixture of spices famous in dishes like ayam betutu (chicken in Balinese spices). If you have allergies, or are travelling with children who have allergies, please take extra care as nuts and shellfish are widely used in Indonesian cooking. Don’t let this put you off though, learn the words for shrimp paste, shellfish and nuts and ask if they can make your dish without these ingredients. But be aware that in smaller or basic street kitchens, cross-contamination may be impossible to avoid, so choose where you eat carefully if this is a concern for you.
If you haven’t tried Indonesian local food before, and you’re not sure how hot you can handle it, go slow! Launching yourself headfirst into eating at a local warung when you have never tried sambal, might end in disaster…for a few uncomfortable days anyway. You can always work your way up to it, and ease into the new flavours by starting your Bali food odyssey at a more Western restaurant where the staff can talk you through the dishes.
Warnings aside, when you’re ready to move on from a few basic sambals or nasi gorengs, start being a little more adventurous. Eat at the local warungs, find the ones packed with locals because you know the food is good. One of my favourite local warungs is Warung Krishna in Sanur. They are packed at lunchtime despite only having one dish on the menu, as they perfected it and you won’t find it better anywhere else. The nasi campur is Balinese style with ayam betutu, sayur hijau, sambal matah, sate lilit and all the extra bits like egg and peanuts. If you’re new to a lot of spice, maybe try it without the sambal first and then up the spice ante as you go, and trust me, if you eat it once, you’ll be back for lunch again tomorrow.
Nasi goreng and mie goreng are essentially the same thing, one made with rice and one with noodles, and you can make them vegetarian by asking for tempeh and tofu instead of meat. Or you can ask for cap-cay (pronounced chap-chai) to be added, which are mixed vegetables in a spicy broth.
You’ll often see pepes ikan on a menu, which are pieces of fish cooked in a spiced lemongrass curry, wrapped in banana leaves, and cooked over a bbq or grill. The mouth-watering smell of pepes ikan cooking on the hot coals is irresistible, it comes with vegetables and rice, and is one of those classic Bali dishes that you will order again and again. I like ordering the pepes tofu from Pondok Baruna in Jungut Batu, Nusa Lembongan – best I’ve eaten in Bali…so far!
Soto Ayam is a light but filling soup and can be found in most warungs throughout Bali. Chicken, noodles, eggs, sometimes vegetables and potatoes, with a mixture of spices and you can add sambal and crackers or rice to make it more substantial. Gado-Gado is a type of salad using boiled or steamed vegetables, often with crackers and tofu, and its famous peanut sauce. Ayam bakar or ikan bakar is grilled chicken or fish, with a tomato-based sauce - a delicious and healthy way to enjoy local food.
Beef rendang is a famous Sumatran dish of slow-cooked, spiced beef served with rice. There are different versions depending on whether the cook prefers it to be a saucy or a dry curry. Sate and sate lilit are also famous in Bali. You will often see people cooking sate on little grills on the side of the road – whether it’s chicken or pork, and you can buy them in bags to take-away (bungkus) and add nasi tipat (like rice cakes) and sambal. Sate lilit is meat minced with spices, then wrapped around lemongrass sticks and grilled over a BBQ, often using coals or coconut husk. Again, the fragrance of this dish while it cooks is recognised all over Bali, and impossible to resist.
Indonesian food is all about texture and flavour with many layered ingredients, and even simple dishes are bursting with flavours and spices. The dishes are far more complex than you may think and a standard betutu base can have between 10 to 20 different spices or ingredients. The process of pounding all the ingredients into a paste can take hours and is a labour of love for the cook.
It’s always handy to know what different words on a menu mean so that you know a little about what you are ordering. When I first arrived here, I was always getting telur (eggs) and jamur (mushrooms) confused. I bought some telur from the lady on my street and testing out my Bahasa Indonesian, I asked if the jamur were from her chickens. After much laughter, I realised my mistake but it hasn’t saved me from being known as ‘mushroom chicken lady’.
I’ve included photos here of some of my favourite local dishes I’ve tried from around Bali but I’m always on a mission to find the best nasi campur… so if you have any suggestions on warungs I should try, or dishes you want to know more about (e.g. the secret spices that go into every dish), just drop me a line. I’m more than happy to try lots of food all in the name of research and getting back to you with foodie info or reviews.
By The Voice of Sanur Team.