While Asian ingredients have often managed to smuggle their way into western cookbooks and fads, from Japanese whiskies to Korean BBQ, some of the continent’s best cuisines still lay beneath the radar. And standing high on that list is most definitely Indonesian food, particularly Balinese.
Of course, if you ask an Indonesian about their makanan, they don’t just call it ‘Indonesian’ — such is the nature of living in a nation of 18,000 islands. Instead, each dish has a genealogy that can be traced back to an area such as East Java, West Sumatra, or North Sulawesi. One of the biggest jewels in the Indonesian crown though has to be Balinese cooking. So here’s a guide to some of the most delicious dishes that you can enjoy in Bali. Most are from the Island of the Gods, but a fair share come from around the country.
The first word most tourists learn thanks to ubiquitous signage is babi guling. A suckling pig rubbed with turmeric, stuffed with base gede and roasted on a spit above coconut shells, it was once a splash-out festival food. Nowadays, however, you can order its toffee-crisp crackling, tender flesh, and a slice of any organ between snout and tail from countless warungs.
If you spot an asterisk on your menu, it’s most likely decorating something like bebek betutu. That’s because ceremonial dishes like this often need a day to prepare. But, gosh, does the love and attention pay off. Rubbed in tamarind puree and salt, then stuffed with eggs, cassava leaves and bumbu rajeng, the duck is then wrapped in betel nut husks and slow-cooked until the meat can no longer cling to the bone.
Imagine pouring peanut butter over all your greens – weirdly it works! In reality a huge comfort salad of cooked and raw veggies, with fresh (mortar-and-pestle grinded) peanut paste liberally slathered on. Literally gado gado means ‘mix-mix’, ensuring the chef’s right to put anything they really want into the mix.
Step back veggies! This crunchy mix of fruit, veg, pepper and jackfruit may look about as ethical as you can get but, lacing the shredded coconut and potent herbs lies a lip-smacking seasoning of minced meat and blood.
Not a dish as such but a much-loved type of west Sumatran cuisine, masakan padang marries gulai (curry) with lado (chillies) and bareh (rice) in any combination you want. If you’re wondering where these eateries are hiding, almost all places with big bowls of food burdening their window sills are offering padang food. Favorites across Bali include the sweetcorn fritter, ayam pop chicken, and udang balado (spiced prawns) – but get to your local before 6pm, so that you’ll still have options!
If you can’t decide what you want, order nasi campur. Basically a smorgasbord of dishes that orbit a splash of rice in the middle, the quality may yo-yo but it’s hard to stop ordering it anyway.
While it’ll never win an award for complexity, nasi goreng (literally ‘fried rice’) does exactly what it says on the tin. There are few things, from pickles to meats, that can’t be mixed into its egg-topped mound of sambal-spiced rice.
Often available early in the morning or later at night stalls, nasi jenggo (also called nasi jinggo) is to Bali what the kebab is to most western cities – the cheekiest of takeaway dishes. Simply rice topped with shredded chicken and serundeng (coconut with myriad spices), if you’re waking up or need to sober up, nasi jengo’s what you should be asking for.
Pepes is less a dish than a cooking method. Placing tapas-portioned pieces of fish, meat, tofu, or vegetables inside bamboo-sewn banana leaves, the steamed contents provide aromas that bewitch the nose for days after.
Basically fried banana, which sounds underwhelming – until you try it that is. Positioned perfectly between the ice-cream’s sweetness and the batter’s savory base, pisang goreng is nature’s coup de grace.
What would Indonesian food be without sambal? Each region has its own style and for Bali, it’s sambal matah. While not technically a dish, this Balinese specialty condiment deserves to be highlighted on its own because it’s an all-star in Bali cooking. Shallots, lemongrass, shrimp paste, garlic, lime zest, and a shit ton of bird’s eye chilies give it that refreshing punch of flavor that’s so characteristic of Balinese food.
Anybody on a Balinese roadside who looks like they’re grilling stuff is doubtless cooking the latest round of sate lilit. A mixture of minced meat, grated coconut, lemon juice, shallots and chilli, smothered all over a bamboo or lemon grass stick, each lolly costs next to nothing and yet provides an experience few can forget.
Chicken broth. It’s hard to find a backstreet in Bali that doesn’t have a soto ayam seller on or off his colorful moped. And for good reason; cheap to make and hardly more expensive to buy, it’s one of the worker’s favorites. It’s only real competition being bakso – a meatball variety that President Obama is rumored to love.