The rich array of food found in the rest of Asia is, to many, sadly lacking in Bali. But then again, many who come to Bali don't experience authentic Balinese cuisine. However, though food plays a central role in Balinese ceremonies and offerings, food is seen more as a staple of life rather than a luxury. This is reflected in the manner in which the daily ration is served, usually portable and often without too much experimentation and choice. Balinese meals tend to be eaten quickly and without fanfare. People simply eat when they are hungry and dining out or in groups is not a normal social convention. Festivals are the major exception, when food is prepared in an elaborate and decorative manner and eaten communally, marking the occasion as something out of the ordinary.
Most of the daily staples center around rice, accompanied by vegetables and a small amount of either fish or meat, with a range of spices and chilies, usually cooked in the early morning, and consumed whenever the need arises. Coconut remains central to Balinese cooking and can be either grated or squeezed to produce cream, or the oil is used for frying. The husks can be used for cooking in an open fire which, when barbecuing fish, can sometimes be an overpowering flavor. Other spices and herbs common to Balinese cooking are ginger, galangel and turmeric, lemongrass, chili, and lime with palm sugar and tamarind to sweeten it all up.
Given their Hindu origins, the Balinese rarely eat beef although this is also partly due to the inability to keep meat fresh, given limited refrigeration.
Warungs in Bali and Indonesia are best described as the equivalent of a French cafe. Almost all locals will buy at least one meal a day at their local warung. You should at some stage consider eating at one. The obvious dish to choose is nasi campur, rice with a mix of whatever else has been cooked that day. You go to the counter, where the dishes are on display behind a glass screen, armed with a pointing finger (about the only time pointing is acceptable in Bali), and point out what dishes you want. The options will usually include roasted and/or curried chicken, tempeh, sweet and sour pork, fried fish, various steamed greens, and urap, a pungent, warm salad of steamed vegetables with coconut and spices.
A similar way of serving an array of food is padang style, which originated in Sumatra, where all the dishes for the day are laid out on a table and you help yourself. Hygiene can be an issue here as many customers take from the communal dishes using only their hands and dishes will then be served to subsequent customers. You'll see the same array of food with side dishes of sambal, but in general the dishes tend to be very spicy. A favorite padang dish is rendang, a spicy stew, usually beef or mutton, slow cooked in coconut and spices until the sauce is almost fully absorbed by the meat.
For more freshly cooked foods, bakso is a soup of noodles and meatballs, served as an anytime snack. Bakwan has spicy wontons. Soto ayam is chicken soup with noodles, topped off with egg, tomatoes, and spices typically for lunch.
The perennial favorite, for when you cannot think of what to eat or just want something simple, is nasi goreng, fried rice with vegetables and chicken and/or prawns. Alternatively, mie goreng has noodles rather than rice as the base. Gado gado is a vegetable salad served with a spicy peanut sauce dressing and usually crispy prawn crackers.
For a snack, there is plenty of choice. Tempeh is crunchy shelled soy beans mixed with a special strain of yeast to form a small flat cake, then fried. Spring rolls, lumpia, are large crispy pastry skins filled with meats and/or vegetables with mild spices then deep fried. Sate (satay) is ubiquitous on the island and makes a great snack. It is made of either chicken, beef, goat (kambing), or fish, which is threaded on bamboo skewers and grilled over coconut husk coals, then usually served with a spicy peanut sauce (saus kacang). Sate lilit is minced meat or fish with spices on lemongrass skewers -- possibly the most delicious way of serving sate.
Warning: A Dish You Might Want to Avoid -- Beware of sate anjing, made from dog.
Palm sugar and coconut are the anchors on the sweet side. You will find black sticky rice, bubuh injun, served in hot sticky sauce of palm sugar and coconut cream. Rice flour cakes are popular and at breakfast you may also see Balinese pancakes, which are coconut pancakes dipped in palm sugar. Other dishes use bananas such as godoh or pisang rai, which are fried or steamed bananas, respectively, coated in coconut.
The menu and preparation changes for ceremonies. Much care and attention is given to not only the preparation of food but also the choice of dishes appropriate to serve as offerings to show commitment to communal social obligations. Among those traditionally served are babi guling, bebek betutu, and lawar as they require much preparation; they are usually undertaken by the whole community. At large festivals, you can see whole teams working through the day making the ceremonial dishes.
Babi guling is spit-roasted whole stuffed baby pig presented intact on the table for feasts or banquets. The spicy filling is made of, among other things, chili, turmeric, ginger, galangal, onions, and garlic all basted in coconut oil and a bit more turmeric. Duck, or bebek, is best served as bebek betutu, covered in a spicy paste, wrapped in banana leaf, and slow cooked in pit of embers. Lawar remains one of Bali's most famous local dishes and, as it must be consumed immediately, is not found in restaurants. Made from pig's blood and spices, together with an assortment of other goodies, lawar can be found in every village in Bali. The meat distinguishes the type of lawar -- chicken, duck, beef, pork, turtle, or even dragonfly but thankfully turtles are now rarely used.
Fresh young coconut milk is refreshing and healthy. Drill a hole, drink the juice, then scrape the juicy coconut flesh from the inside of the shell. A variety of drinks are based on young coconut (kelapa muda). Es campur is somewhere between a drink and a dessert -- shaved ice topped with sweet condensed milk and a variety of agar-agar based jellies. Similar is es buah, which has chopped fresh fruit. Es rumput laut adds locally harvested seaweed.
Fresh juices (jus aneka buah) are available everywhere. Fresh lime juice (jus jeruk nipis) is a good thirst quencher, as is fresh watermelon (semangka) or orange juice (jus jeruk), sometimes confusingly made from tangerines, which tastes even better. When ordering, make sure you ask for any sugar to be served on the side. Many times you will ask for a fresh fruit juice only for it to be loaded with extra sugar.
You will find many places selling Bali kopi (coffee) and it is normally wonderful. Generally, Balinese coffee is processed using the wet method, which results in a sweet, soft coffee with good consistency. However, while the coffee is good here, the way it is served and presented can leave a little to be desired. For some reason they seem to overpowder and then underfilter the coffee, leaving large dollops of ground coffee in your mug.
Beer, Wine & Moonshine -- Bali sits outside the normal ways of the rest of the Muslim-dominated country and therefore alcohol, though expensive, is accessible. Imported wines and spirits tend to be expensive, as import duties are on a value basis which was raised to 300% in 2008.
The locally produced wines are Hatten and Wine of the Gods, with white, red, and rose varieties, from grapes grown in Bali. There is also Two Islands, red and white wines, made from Australian grapes imported as grape juice and then fermented and bottled here. The roses with plenty of ice are perfectly drinkable, the rest are more an acquired taste.
One shining bright light, literally, as its name means "star," is the local beer, Bintang, served ice cold everywhere. The other locally produced beer, by a Western-owned firm, is Storm Beer, both dark and light.
Home brews arak, brem, and tuak are popular among the locals but are basically moonshine. Arak is an extremely alcoholic brew made from rice, and distilled and fermented until it becomes a clear white spirit. Alcohol content varies greatly but it is usually just strong and not particularly tasty. It can be served either with ice or mixed with local honey and fresh limes or added to cocktails to disguise the taste. However the whole arak production was completely closed down in June 2009 as one rogue manufacturer added methanol to his batch which resulted in at least 27 deaths, among them four foreigners, and the blindness of many others.
Brem is a rice wine and has not been affected by methanol; white rice produces the white brem and black rice is used for red brem. Usually sold while still "young," the white tends to be slightly sour and the red, quite sweet, similar to a light port wine.
Tuak is made from juice extracted from the aren palm. When fresh, it is a light pink color and not alcoholic; the sweet drink with a strange odor is popular with locals, especially at feasts and parties. The alcoholic variety is made from tuak that has been mixed with palm sugar, poured into earthenware containers, and buried. Once fermented, the tuak turns a lighter color and has varying degrees of alcoholic content, depending on the strength of the original brew and the length of time underground. The smell and flavor are quite pungent and vaguely rotten. Along with arak, it is definitely an acquired taste.
Rijsttafel is an Indonesian feast, described as the "Crown Jewel of Indonesian Cuisine" and is translated from the Dutch as "rice table." Up to 40 dishes are served in small proportions and accompanied by rice. It originated in colonial times when the Dutch felt they needed a banquet that represented the multiethnic nature of the East Indies archipelago. Popular dishes include egg rolls, gado gado, sambal, and pickles, satay of all types, fish, fruit, vegetables, and nuts enhanced by coriander, basil, bay leaves, cardamom, galangal, and lemongrass.
Eating at the Kaki Lima
Kaki lima are small carts along the roadside and in busy areas around towns and markets that turn out a variety of quick, inexpensive meals.
Martabak is a deep-fried chicken or duck egg omelet with spices and ground meat. Carts selling martabak usually also sell putu, a small green colored roll like a pancake, filled with palm sugar, and terang bulan, larger pancakes with sweet chocolate-flavored condensed milk, nuts, and other toppings.
Kaki lima also sell fried rice or noodles (nasi or mie goreng). Bakso is a spicy and delicious soup with noodles, meatballs, and other local snacks such as gorengan, a selection of deep-fried tofu, tempeh, and savory pastries.
Use caution when eating at the kaki lima, as quality and hygiene can vary, as they have little access to running water to properly wash their plates.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.