Some know Bali as a honeymoon destination; others as a yoga retreat. Some go there to seek solace, and some, spiritual healing. Travel writer Pico Iyer was concerned if Bali would be overrun with women looking for Javier Bardem, after the success of Eat, Pray, Love. The island is looked upon as a tourist heaven and natural haven. But Bali is undoubtedly and unforgettably also a food lover’s paradise. Indonesian variations, indigenous recipes, gourmet creations and raw concoctions take up equal room in a motley mix of classic and exotic, local and international.
For years, Balinese restaurants were geared towards foreign palates, with uninspired combinations of over-fried rice and underwhelming accompaniments. But that has changed, and visitors can now choose from foods that pander to every palate.
Catering to all cravings
There are different styles of dining in Bali. Small restaurants, with loud music, grass roofs and cane furniture, serve a smattering of local and international dishes. Even smaller and simpler are the warungs — snack bars and shacks that mainly cater to local workers. Examples are Warung Enak, notable for its exhaustive menu; Ibu Oka’s Babi Guling, which can be identified at lunch time by a long line of motorcycles and large crowds of people (on an episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, the famous host declared that warung was the best roast he had ever had); and Ayam Taliwang, both the name of a popular warung and its signature dish, an addictive grilled chicken.
Bali’s night market and marketplaces feature an array of carts and stalls selling specialities. Bakso is very common — a soup that combines broth and meatballs, with choices in noodles, herbs and sauces.
Across the island, restaurants serve sophisticated international cuisines, and others embody fine dining. Bali is mindful of its many health-conscious visitors, and a slew of new restaurateurs also pander to purists, raw food lovers, vegans, vegetarians, fruitarians and the like.
Balinese cuisine draws from the mother lode of Indonesian fare, and on the island — as in the country — the most popular local dishes are nasi goreng (fried rice) and mie goreng (fried noodles), with vegetarian options available on request. A popular dish I have eaten the most has been different each time: nasi campur is a mound of rice surrounded by several sides of beef, chicken, seafood and vegetables. Beef rendang is an evergreen favourite with meat eaters — slow-cooked in spices, coconut milk and cream, until it achieves a spicy dry-fry consistency. Bebek betutu, spice-rubbed duck slow-cooked in banana leaves, is impressively tender.
But it is the Balinese specialities that compel appreciation and admiration. Across Indonesia, satay consists of pieces of chicken or beef skewered and grilled over hot coals, served with a peanut sauce, but Bali begs to differ. Sate lilit, for instance, is a twist where the spiced ground meat is wrapped around a lemon grass stalk.
On festivals and ceremonies, men make lawar for their families. These savoury dishes are finely chopped combinations of vegetables, fruits, meats, organ meats, fresh animal blood, egg and coconut, served on banana leaves. Time- and labour-intensive, lawar dishes do not usually feature on restaurant menus. And if you are curious, the blood is to make the dish look red.
Indonesia’s culinary gifts to the world include kopi luwak — coffee beans first eaten by civets, then washed off from the faeces and roasted over a fire. A 100mg packet of coffee cost me Dh300, but I also drank a few cups in Bali’s chic cafés for about Dh15 each. The smooth brew is particularly low in acidity.
Sweet Balinese offerings include peanuts in palm sugar, pisang goreng (fried bananas), jaja (multi-coloured coconut sweet), and bubuh injin (black rice in a sweet sauce of palm sugar and coconut cream).
Authentic Balinese dishes are full of intensity and use smart techniques. One of my recent experiences of learning to cook like a true local was at Como Shambala Estate, among the best and most breathtaking resorts I have visited in Asia.
The food philosophy at Como Shambala is inspired by the concept of ‘living foods’, and cooking methods are minimised to maintain the nutritional integrity of ingredients. This fosters full benefit of the life force of specific foods, which in their raw state are rich in enzymes, vitamins and minerals, explains general manager Paul Linder. The cuisine, developed by group executive chef Amanda Gale over a ten-year period, caters to those with health issues and restrictive diets.
The detox and cleansing menu at Como Shambala is nothing short of impressive, featuring 19 juices and six booster shots. For instance, the Lymph Purifier is designed to support a detox of the liver and lymphatic system — with fennel, celery, broccoli, ginger, green apple, kale and lemon, while Culture Shock is designed to balance the digestive tract and repair skin, with strawberry, banana, passion fruit, rambutan, orange and yoghurt.
Mozaic is another cooking school in Bali, with recreational classes and facilities for professional chefs. Classes for tourists concentrate on fresh Balinese ingredients with traditional French techniques, while professional classes vary between curriculum-based study and technologies such as sous vide (a method of preserving food by partial cooking followed by vacuum-sealing and chilling). Mozaic is also a fine-dining destination. Chris Salans, the celebrated chef at the gastronomic restaurant, uses French ingredients and methods and Indonesian flavours to create several constantly changing menus, all worthy of the accolades and awards it wins.
Of note is their Surprise Menu, based on patron’s likes and dislikes, and featuring six surprise dishes with fine and rare ingredients. July’s Javanese-farmed quail and foie gras pastilla with Balinese rujak sauce and apple saffron marmalade is a taste that still lingers.
Raw food haven
Bali is a new world capital for raw food. Not only do buyers flock there from all over the world, it is also home to a thriving community of raw food enthusiasts and pioneers. As a result raw foods not only have dedicated homes but also feature alongside cooked dishes in mainstream restaurants. This places Bali in the company of famous raw food meccas such as New York and Los Angeles — perhaps even above.
Raw food expert Mark Ament offers group classes in his kitchen, teaching how to cook dishes such as neatloaf (meatless meatloaf), sunburgers, and no-egg eggnog. Radiantly Alive’s unique Raw Chef Certification Course is run by raw, vegan, or macrobiotic chefs. Little K, located in the garden at the Balispirit Yoga Barn, serves a memorable rawsagne — layers of zucchini, tomato, and cashew, marinara and pesto sauces. The Green School’s Living Food Lab is the most unusual school cafeteria in the world; it serves only raw food. The Bali Buddha Chocolate Bar is worthy of mass hoarding — a dense fudge brownie with dates, raw chocolate, coconut oil, honey, almonds and cashews, packed in a banana leaf.
One glorious afternoon, I had a memorably long lunch at Uma Ubud’s open-air restaurant, Kemiri, set by a large waterfall in a lush tropical garden. Bali’s beauty is such that you feel thoroughly happy and relaxed, and thereby are likely to eat and enjoy food far more than usual.
Uma Ubud hosted a charity dinner in July, inspired by megibung. This ancient Balinese culinary tradition dates back to the 1600s, when Balinese warriors ate communal meals from common plates before setting off for battle.
This is the essence of eating in Bali. If you want fortification during your holiday to take on the world and all its worries, look for it in its food.