Bali is a splendid destination for food. The local cuisine, whether truly Balinese or influenced by the rest of Indonesia and Asia, draws from the bounty of fresh local foods and is rich with spices and flavours. Savour this fare at roadside warungs (simple local cafes) or top-end restaurants, and for tastes further afield, you can choose from restaurants offering some of the best dining in the region.
Food, glorious food – or should that be food, laborious food? Balinese cooking is a time-consuming activity, but no effort at all is required to enjoy the results. That part is one of the best things about travelling around Bali: the sheer variety and quality of the local cuisine will have your taste buds dancing all the way to the next warung.
The fragrant aromas of Balinese cooking will taunt you wherever you go. Even in your average village compound, the finest food is prepared fresh every day. Women go to their local marketplace first thing in the morning to buy whatever produce has been brought from the farms overnight. They cook enough to last all day, diligently roasting the coconut until the smoky sweetness kisses your nose, painstakingly grinding the spices to form the perfect base (paste) and perhaps even making fresh fragrant coconut oil for frying. The dishes are covered on a table or stored in a glass cabinet for family members to serve themselves throughout the day.
Compared with that of other Indonesian islands, Balinese food is more pungent and lively, with a multitude of layers making up a complete dish. A meal will contain the six flavours (sweet, sour, spicy, salty, bitter and astringent), which promote health and vitality and stimulate the senses.
There's a predominance of ginger, chilli and coconut, as well as the beloved candlenut, often mistaken for the macadamia, which is native to Australia. The biting combination of fresh galangal and turmeric is matched by the heat of raw chillies, the complex sweetness of palm sugar, tamarind and shrimp paste, and the clean, fresh flavours of lemongrass, musk lime, kaffir lime leaves and coriander seeds.
There are shades of south Indian, Malaysian and Chinese flavours, stemming from centuries of migration and trading with seafaring pioneers. Many ingredients were introduced in these times: the humble chilli was brought by the fearless Portuguese, the ubiquitous snake bean and bok choy by the Chinese, and the rice substitute cassava by the Dutch. In true Balinese style, village chefs selected the finest and most durable new ingredients and adapted them to local tastes and cooking styles.
Rice is the staple dish in Bali and is revered as a gift of life from the gods. It is served generously with every meal – anything not served with rice is considered a jaja (snack). Rice acts as the medium for the various fragrant, spiced foods that accompany it, almost like condiments, with many dishes chopped finely to complement the dry, fluffy grains and for ease of eating with the hand. In Bali, a dish of steamed rice with mixed goodies is known as nasi campur. It's the island's undisputed 'signature' dish, eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
There are as many variations of nasi campur as there are warungs. Just like a sandwich in the West can combine any number of fillings, each warung serves its own version according to budget, taste and whatever ingredients are fresh at the market. There are typically four or five dishes that make up a single serving, including a small portion of pork or chicken (small because meat is expensive), fish, tofu or tempeh (fermented soy-bean cake), egg, various vegetable dishes and crunchy krupuk (flavoured rice crackers). Beef seldom features because the Balinese believe cows are sacred. The 'side dishes' are arrayed around the centrepiece of rice and accompanied by the warung's signature sambal (paste made from chillies, garlic or shallots, and salt). The food is not usually served hot, because it would have been prepared during the morning.
There's no better place to get acquainted with Balinese cuisine than the local market. But it's not for late sleepers. The best time to go is around 6am to 7am. If you're any later than 10am, the prime selections would have been snapped up and what's left would have begun to rot in the tropical climate.
Markets offer a glimpse of the variety and freshness of Balinese produce, often brought from the mountains within a day or two of being harvested, sometimes sooner. The atmosphere is lively and colourful with baskets loaded with fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers, spices, and varieties of red, black and white rice. There are trays of live chickens, dead chickens, freshly slaughtered pigs, sardines, eggs, colourful cakes, ready-made offerings and base, and stalls selling es cendol (colourful iced coconut drink), bubur (rice porridge) or nasi campur for breakfast. There's no refrigeration, so things come in small packages and what you see is for immediate sale. Bargaining is expected.
A Taste of Asia
Bali's multicultural population means many warungs serve pan-Indonesian and Asian cuisine, offering a taste of different foods from across the archipelago. Common menu items are often confused with being Balinese, such as nasi goreng (fried rice), mie goreng (fried noodles), the ever-popular gado gado, which is actually from Java, and rendang sapi (beef curry), which is from Sumatra. There are many restaurants serving Padang fare (which originates from Sumatra) in Bali, and Chinese food is common.
The Balinese certainly like a spicy kick with their meals. But where people get confused is when they assume Balinese food itself is spicy. Rather, the dishes are mild; locals relish a dollop of fiery sambal with every dish. Taste it to gauge the temperature before ploughing in. If you're averse to spicy food, request tanpa sambal (without chilli paste); better for most, though, is tamba (more) sambal!
One other note on sambal: if your request results in a bottle of the generically sweet commercial gloop, ask for 'Balinese sambal'. This latter request can open many more doors to eating joy because every Balinese cook has their own favourite way of creating sambal. If you add the many sambals adopted from other parts of Indonesia, especially neighbouring Lombok, you could get one of many variations, including:
Sambal bajak A Javanese sambal, this is a creamy tomato-based sauce that is redolent with crushed chillies, yet gets smoothed out with palm sugar and shallots and then fried. Very common.
Sambal balado Chillis, shallots, garlic and tomatoes are sauteed in oil for a literally hot sambal. Often fried up fresh on the spot.
Sambal matah A raw Balinese sambal made from thinly sliced shallots, tiny chilies, shrimp paste and lemongrass. Divine.
Sambal plecing A Lombok sambal, this one takes hot chillies and puts them in a tomato base, letting the heat sneak up on you.
Sambal taliwang Another Lombok sambal made with special peppers, garlic and shrimp paste. One of the few true culinary highlights of Bali's neighbour and a favourite on Bali, where spicy Lombok-style chicken is adored.
Many Balinese save their appetite for lunch. They might kick-start the day with a cup of rich, sweet black coffee and a few sweet jaja at the market: colourful temple cakes, glutinous rice cakes, boiled bananas in their peels, fried banana fritters and kelopon (sweet-centred rice balls). Popular fresh fruits include snake fruit, named after its scaly skin, and jackfruit, which is also delicious stewed with vegetables.
The famous bubuh injin (black-rice pudding with palm sugar, grated coconut and coconut milk), which most tourists find on restaurant dessert menus, is actually a breakfast dish and a fine way to start the day. A variation available at the morning market is the nutty bubur kacang hijau (green mung-bean pudding), fragrantly enriched with ginger and pandanus leaf and served warm with coconut milk.
Lunch & Dinner
The household or warung cook usually finishes preparing the day's dishes mid-morning, so lunchtime happens around 11am when the food is freshest. This is the main meal of the day. Leftovers are eaten for dinner, or by tourists who awake late and do not get around to lunch until well and truly after everyone else has had their fill. Dessert is a rarity; for special occasions, it consists of fresh fruit or gelato-style coconut ice cream.
The range of dishes for lunch and dinner is endless. Some local favourites include nasi campur (fried rice), babi kecap (pork stewed in sweet soy sauce), ayam goreng (fried chicken), urap (steamed vegetables with coconut), lawar (salad of chopped coconut, garlic and chilli with pork or chicken meat and blood), fried tofu or tempeh in a sweet soy or chilli sauce, fried peanuts, salty fish or eggs, perkedel (fried corn cakes), and various satay made from chunks of goat meat, chicken and pork.
If you visit a homestay, like the many in Ubud, you'll see family members busily preparing food throughout the day.
Bali is a dream come true for vegetarians. Tofu and tempeh are part of the staple diet, and many tasty local favourites just happen to be vegetarian. Try nasi saur (rice flavoured with toasted coconut and accompanied by tofu, tempeh, vegetables and sometimes egg), urap (a delightful blend of steamed vegetables mixed with grated coconut and spices), gado gado (tofu and tempeh mixed with steamed vegetables, boiled egg and peanut sauce) and sayur hijau (leafy green vegetables, usually kangkung – water spinach – flavoured with a tomato-chilli sauce).
In addition, the way nasi campur is served means it's easy to request no meat, instead enjoying an array of fresh stir-fries, salads, tofu and tempeh. When ordering curries and stir-fries such as cap cay, diners can usually choose meat, seafood or vegetarian.
Western-style vegetarian pasta and salads abound in most restaurants and many purely vegetarian eateries cater for vegans. Seminyak, Kerobokan and Canggu are good for meat-free fare while Ubud excels thanks to its yoga and healthy lifestyle ethos.
Reason to Celebrate
Food is not just about enjoyment and sustenance. Like everything in Balinese life, it is an intrinsic part of the daily rituals and a major part of ceremonies to honour the gods. The menu varies according to the importance of the occasion. By far the most revered dish is babi guling (suckling pig), presented during rites-of-passage ceremonies such as a baby's three-month blessing, an adolescent's tooth filing or a wedding.
Babi guling is the quintessential Bali experience. A whole pig is stuffed with chilli, turmeric, ginger, galangal, shallots, garlic, coriander seeds and aromatic leaves, basted in turmeric and coconut oil and skewered on a wooden spit over an open fire. Turned for hours, the meat takes on the flavour of the spices and the fire-pit, giving a rustic smoky flavour to the crispy crackling. Short of being invited to a ceremonial feast, you can enjoy babi guling at stands, warungs and cafes across Bali.
Bebek or ayam betutu (smoked duck or chicken) is another ceremonial favourite. The bird is stuffed with spices, wrapped in coconut bark and banana leaves, and cooked all day over smouldering rice husks and coconut husks. Ubud is the best place to enjoy smoked duck – head to Bebek Bengil, which is actually the source for the many restaurants that offer bebek betutu if ordered in advance.
Often served at marriage ceremonies, jukut ares is a light, fragrant broth made from banana stem and usually containing chopped chicken or pork. The satay for special occasions, sate lilit, is a fragrant combination of good-quality minced fish, chicken or pork with lemongrass, galangal, shallots, chilli, palm sugar, kaffir lime and coconut milk. This is wrapped onto skewers and grilled.
The most common place for dining out in Bali is a warung, the traditional street-side eatery. There's one every few metres in major towns, and several even in small villages. They are cheap, no-frills hang-outs with a relaxed atmosphere; you may find yourself sharing a table with strangers as you watch the world go by. The food is fresh and different at each, and is usually displayed in a glass cabinet at the entrance where you can create your own nasi campur or just order the house standard.
Both Seminyak and Kerobokan in particular are blessed with numerous warungs that are visitor-friendly, but many are on offer across Bali and half the fun is finding your own favourite.
Dining – or Not – Balinese Style
Eating is a solitary exercise in Bali and conversation is limited. Families rarely eat together; everyone makes up their own plate whenever they're hungry.
The Balinese eat with their right hand, which is used to give and receive all good things. The left hand deals with unpleasant sinister elements (such as ablutions). It's customary to wash your hands before eating, even if you use a spoon and fork; local restaurants always have a sink outside the restrooms. If you choose to eat the local way, use the bowl of water provided at the table to wash your hands after the meal, as licking your fingers is not appreciated.
Balinese are formal about behaviour and clothing, and it isn't polite to enter a restaurant or eat a meal half-naked, no matter how many sit-ups you've been doing or how many new piercings and tattoos you've acquired.
If you wish to eat in front of a Balinese, it's polite to invite them to join you, even if you know they will say 'no' or you don't have anything to offer. If you're invited to a Balinese home for a meal, your hosts will no doubt insist you eat more, but you may always politely pass on second helpings or refuse food you don't find appealing.
Fast Food Bali-Style
Usually the most authentic Balinese food is found street-side (although Denpasar and other areas have some sit-down places that are excellent). Locals of all stripes gather around simple food stalls in markets and on village streets, wave down pedagang (mobile traders) who ferry sweet and savoury snacks around by bicycle or motorcycle, and queue for sate or bakso (Chinese meatballs in a light soup) at the kaki-lima carts. Kaki-lima translates as something five-legged and refers to the three legs of the cart and the two of the vendor, who is usually Javanese.
One note on health: food cooked fresh from carts and stalls is usually fine but that which has been sitting around for a while can be dodgy at best or riddled with dubious preservatives.
Bali has myriad eating options: every cuisine, every style, every budget. The diversity, quality and value make it a top dining destination.
- Restaurants Bali is a magnet for talented chefs, especially young ones as the cost of doing business is low. In south Bali and Ubud you'll find the kinds of casual, innovative eateries that wouldn't be out of place in Sydney or San Francisco.
- Cafes It's no surprise that Bali spawns relaxed, enticing cafes. Enjoy a coffee made from local beans and tasty fresh fare.
- Warungs Local food vendors know how to create great-tasting fare on a budget.