When I look at all the places I’ve travelled to, there is one thing most of them have in common…awesome food! And local Indonesian food stands out for this food-obsessionist. It’s fresh and full of spices and while it might be the same spices you find in other Asian cooking, the way it is mixed together is different. Bali is definitely food heaven for me!
The basis of a lot of Indonesian and Balinese cooking is chilli, garlic, shallots and coconut oil. Then depending on the food, 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). Nuts are widely used in Indonesian cooking so be aware of this if you have allergies, as is seafood or derivatives of seafood (e.g. shrimp paste). You can always ask for this not to be included in your dish but in a kitchen, it’s easy for flavours and foods to mingle so be careful.
If you haven’t tried Indonesian local food before, sometimes the spices are strong and not for the faint hearted! So to get your tongue and stomach ready, perhaps start your Bali food odyssey at a more Western restaurant and just try a few flavours. Launching yourself head first into local food at a warung when you have never tried sambal, might end in disaster…for a few uncomfortable days anyway!
But once you have found your way through a few sambals and nasi gorengs, start being a little more adventurous. Eat at the local warungs, find the ones packed with locals because you know then that it is good local food. One of my favourite local warungs is Warung Krishna in Sanur. They are packed and only do a lunch menu. Although the menu is just one thing, Nasi Campur. Balinese style with ayam betutu, sayur hijau, sambal matah, sate lilit and all the extra bits like egg and peanuts. But it packs a punch so maybe try it without sambal first and then up the spice ante as you go.
Nasi Goreng and Mie Goreng are essentially the same thing, just either rice or noodles, and you can make them vegetarian if you like by asking for tempe and tofu instead of meat. Or ask for cap-cay to be added. Cap-Cay (pronounced chap-chai) is mixed vegetables in a spicy broth.
It’s always handy to know what different words mean on a menu so you know a little about what you are ordering if eating locally. 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 Indonesia, I asked if the jamur were from her chickens. Fairly confident she now calls me ‘mushroom chicken lady’.
You’ll often see pepes ikan on a menu, which is pieces of fish wrapped in a banana leaf with spices and a type of curry sauce almost, done over a bbq or grill. It comes with vegetables and rice and it’s fragrant and hot, lemongrass-y and spicy goodness! 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 light but a 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 the famous peanut sauce. Ayam bakar or ikan bakar is grilled chicken or fish, and usually it has some kind of tomato based sauce with it. It is delicious and can be a healthy way to enjoy local food.
Beef rending is a famous Sumatran dish using slow cooked spiced beef with rice added. Different versions then depend on whether the cook prefers it with a sauce or more as 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 take away (bungkus) and add nasi tipat (like rice cakes) and sambal. Sate lilit is where they mince the meat first, add spices, then wrap the mixture around lemongrass sticks and grill over a BBQ, often using coals or coconut husk.
The thing with Indonesian food, it’s all about texture and flavour so while it might not seem like there are lots of ingredients, even a simple dish is bursting with flavours and spices. Having said that, I’ve done a bit of Balinese cooking with friends or in cooking classes, and it is not easy. While a dish may seem simple, the betutu base can have between 10 to 20 different spices or ingredients and it’s needs to be pounded into the actual paste – so a simple dish might actually still take hours to make!
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!