Food in Bali (and How We Learned to Cook It)

Before we start posting about our current location, Cambodia, we want to finish up a few posts about our much-loved first destination, Bali, Indonesia. 

One of the best parts about exploring a new place is getting to know the food. After all, we eat it three times a day, so food is a big part of life. And in Bali, none of the lodgings where we stayed had kitchens, so we were eating all of our meals out instead of cooking them.

Breakfast (when included in the price of our room) often consisted of very fresh scrambled eggs, a small vegetable omelet (whatever vegetables were around—carrots, cabbage, bean sprouts, etc.—very odd), or a large banana or pineapple “pancake” covered with honey. Those were usually accompanied by some cut-up fruit—such as watermelon, pineapple, papaya, or banana—and perhaps a slice or two of lousy toast. The bananas and watermelon in Bali are sweeter than the ones we’re used to in the United States, but the pineapple is a bit less sweet. The oranges available in Bali are much less sweet than oranges at home, so orange juice—which is invariably fresh squeezed rather than bottled—always comes with sugar mixed in. Except in tourist areas, where there’s likely to be bakery selling European- or U.S.-style artisan loaves, most bread for Westerners’ morning toast comes from perfectly square loaves of white bread sold in stores in plastic wrap with all of the crust cut off (little American kids must be thrilled).

Looking down from an upper floor in one of the main covered markets in Denpasar (Pasar Badeng), which was near our guesthouse

One of the main features of Balinese food is that it’s very fresh. Almost everything eaten on the island is produced on the island; fruits and vegetables and meat are typically bought each morning in street markets for that day’s use. Few people have refrigerators, and those that do use them mainly for drinks. In most cases, restaurant food is cooked for you from scratch after you order. In a small establishment with only one or two people in the kitchen, it’s common to wait 20 or 30 minutes for your food to arrive. So it’s a good idea to have an engrossing topic of conversation, or a game, ready to help you and your dining companion pass the time.

As our many photos of rice fields attest, rice is the number one staple in Bali. It comes in four colors: white, red, black (both of which have a slightly nutty taste), and yellow (white rice cooked with saffron). No matter how large it is, a meal that doesn’t include rice is considered a snack, not a real meal.

An upscale nasi campur

If Bali has a national dish, it’s probably nasi campur. This lunchtime staple consists of a pile of rice surrounded by small servings of five or six different dishes, such as stir-fried vegetables, stewed meat, a piece of fried chicken, and various vegetable fritters. You never know what you’ll get; every place is a little different each day. Two other staple dishes in Bali (which come from elsewhere in Indonesia) are nasi goring and mie goring—fried rice or ramen noodles mixed with small pieces of vegetable and chicken and topped with a fried egg. Chris can pretty much eat veggie fried noodles every day and never get tired of it! (Neither of us likes fried egg, but we sometimes forgot to tell waiters that; rather than wasting food, we try to surreptitiously slip the egg to some nearby dog.) Another common meal or snack is satay—yummy little skewers of grilled chicken or pork served with peanut sauce (carts on the side of the road cook it on long, narrow grills over charcoal made from coconut husks and charge less than 10 cents a skewer).

Dinner from a streetside cart: freshly grilled pork satay in peanut sauce

Satay can also be made from fish. Our favorite kind (satay lilit) is minced fish mixed with coconut and chilies and then pressed around bamboo skewers and grilled. Yum! Fish fillets wrapped in banana leaves and steamed or grilled are also common in coastal areas, served with white rice and some vegetable side dish. Most of the fish we ate was mahi-mahi or barracuda caught by the little local fishing boats. (After encountering scary-looking barracuda many times while snorkeling, it was interesting to discover that they make good eating!)

The Balinese have a real sweet tooth. The most popular brand of bottled ice tea is so sugary that it would have the deepest of Deep South Americans reaching for a water bottle to water it down. Iced tea is everywhere, actually, and is good quality tea freshly brewed and poured over ice. It’s somewhat less sweet than the bottled kind (Melissa, who likes Southern tea at home loved the stuff) and sometimes served with a piece of fresh ginger or lemongrass mixed in. The Balinese also make a wide variety of little sweets (called ja ja) out of rice flour or cassava flour (tapioca). Some have the look and texture of pink gummy worms. Others are tiny round cakes made from rice flour and filled with dark palm-sugar syrup. (As we learned by trial and error, the only way to eat one of those is to pop it in your mouth whole. If you bite through it, the sticky syrup sprays out all over you and your surroundings.)

A plate of ja ja

Ja ja are generally sold in small unmarked plastic packages at the front of the zillion mini-marts that exist in every Balinese town. Also for sale there are numerous varieties of what we referred to as “mystery chips” (because they’re sold in clear plastic envelopes, stapled shut, with no label of any kind). As we gradually discovered, they range from big puffy potato chips drizzled with palm sugar syrup (surprisingly good), to puffy fried chips that taste like shrimp (also yummy), to flavorless cassava chips, to corn chips made with chilis (like the best Doritos you’ve ever had). Unfortunately, since we didn’t know the names for any of these things, finding them again when we came to a new town often proved difficult. (Chris was never again able to locate chili corn chips like the ones she got from a small stand at the vehicle repair shop in the middle of nowhere where we waited while our bus was getting its transmission fixed.)

After weeks of eating as much authentic Balinese food as we could, we spent a memorable day  learning how to cook it. Our class, which was excellent, took place at Warung Classic in Munduk. (A warung is a small family-run restaurant of the sort that we usually eat in.) Warung Classic sits on a little terrace overlooking a beautiful vista of green fields and forested mountains. After a dinner there assured us that these are people who know how to cook, we arrived for our class to find the tables rearranged and a portable three-burner propane stove moved out of the tiny kitchen and into the restaurant for us to use, so it was cooking with a view!

Our teacher (who cooked every meal at the warung, with the help of her husband) had meticulously chopped all the ingredients we would need and put them out on plates or in bowls. We only had four hours, after all, to make (and eat) a six-course lunch! We started with lumpia (Balinese spring rolls): making the crepe-like wrappers, stir-frying the chicken and vegetable filling, rolling them up, and frying them in oil. We made a Balinese sweet and sour sauce out of pineapple, sweet and hot peppers, tomato sauce, and fish sauce to pour over them and ate them right away!

Then we moved on to satay. We briefly marinated skewers of chicken before grilling them. As they cooked, we made a sauce out of little Balinese peanuts that had been fried, garlic, shallots, sweet and hot peppers, and water, all mixed in a blender and then fried. Again, as each dish was done, we sat down for a few minutes to eat it, often with a delicious glass of fresh strawberry juice to wash it down.

Chicken satay ready to eat

After that we made a type of potato croquette by smashing garlic, shallots, egg whites, and lots of cooked potatoes in a big, flat mortar and pestle. They were fried up and served with the rest of the peanut sauce.

Yummy crunchy but chewy corn croquettes
Ingredients for potato and corn croquettes and urab

The next two recipes were both based on a common Balinese curry paste (which cooks make by scratch before every meal, of course). It consists of fresh turmeric (looks a lot like ginger), three kinds of fresh ginger, lemongrass, nutmeg, garlic, shallots, and shrimp paste. We mashed that paste with fresh corn kernels and egg yolks (left over from the egg whites used for the potato croquettes) on the mortar and pestle and then fried spoonfuls in oil to make delicious corn croquettes. The other dish based on that paste is something ubiquitous in Bali, urab campur—finely chopped vegetables, boiled until just done and mixed with the curry paste and grated fresh coconut. We loved it in restaurants, and ours was at least as good!

The finished product

For dessert, we made one of Melissa’s favorites: dadar gulung, a type of sweet coconut roll that is common in many parts of Bali. (But the ones we had at Warung Classic were by far the best we ate.) First we made spongy pancakes, like thicker versions of the spring roll wrappers that we’d started with, only these were bright green and slightly flavored from adding water that had been blended with sudji leaves, which smell a bit like grass clippings. (The Javanese use another kind of leaf, from the pandanus plant, to make the green bread and cakes we saw for sale all over Bali.) After making the pancakes, we rolled them around a filling of fresh grated coconut that had been cooked slowly with palm sugar until it caramelized. Warm, sweet, spongey, coconut-y goodness.

Ingredients for dadar gulung (including leaf water for coloring)
Dadar gulung, Melissa’s favorite Balinese dessert

By the end of all that, we had had a wonderful time and learned so much about the island’s food. We were also so stuffed that we felt like we’d never need to eat again. Luckily, though, we had so many leftovers to take back to our hotel that we got to enjoy it all over again for dinner!


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