A gourmand's guide to Bali food
Some people come for the roaring reef breaks; crashing left to right around the coves and vine-dressed cliffs of the beautiful Bukit Peninsula. Others come for the raucous parties of Kuta and Seminyak; going on all night in the sky bars and bamboo cocktail dives that fringe the Bali Sea. Others come for the inland jungles and the beautiful vistas of cascading green rice paddies around monkey-dotted Ubud. Others to hike the volcanos and case out the wonders of the ancient Bali Aga folk on the island's northern edge.
And then there are the foodies, who can't seem to pull themselves away from the earthy warungs (traditional Balinese eateries). With a smorgasbord of gado gado rice and peanut satay, of smoked duck wings in banana leaves and boiled bumbu eggs in spicy coverings at their fingertips, it's hardly surprising that the traveling gourmand feels right at home on the gorgeous Indonesian Isle of the Gods.
But what is it they are eating exactly? What are the top dishes to come out the Balinese kitchen? What Bali food must we all try before departing this salt-sprayed isle in the tropical midst of the Nusa Tenggara? Well, these of course:
Nasi goreng and mie goreng
Nasi goreng and mie goreng is very much the duo of rice and noodle dishes that brings up the forefront of Balinese cuisine. Basically a simple stir-fry with added vegetables, the dish can be packed with a whole load of extra proteins, from fresh fish straight out of the Bali Sea to chicken to tofu (for the veggies). The mainstay ingredients are the sweet flavors of kecap manis soy sauce, peanut infusions, and the fried or omelette-style egg on top for garnish. Both are eaten for breakfast, dinner, lunch, supper, snack – you name it!
Vegetarians and vegans look away now, because Bali's most iconic dish is never going to be suitable. Made from the complete body of a pig, this controversial but famous option is hailed as the real speciality of the Isle of the Gods. First, the carcass of the animal is packed with a secret blend of spices – turmeric, coriander seeds, lemongrass – that only the chefs of each warung know. Then, the whole thing is roasted for hours on a spit of bamboo, slowly being turned over the open flame as the meat cooks. The result is a succulent, spicy and famously tasty cut of meat that can be served up with some fresh lime-doused salad.
Spelt sate, but similar in many ways to its more common sister dish of satay, this Indonesian staple is another of the real meat-eater treats to be found on Bali. Essentially a set of eight to ten skewers of compressed chicken meat (there are also fish versions) that come doused in spices and infused with the fresh aromas of lemongrass, the whole lot is served with a charred outer edge and the trademark flavors of barbeque. For the seafood version, be sure to look for lilit ikan on the menu of that warung, and be sure to try it both with and without the famous local peanut sauce on top.
Not a main, not even a desert, but rather a tipple, kopi luwak refers to perhaps the most famous type of coffee on the planet. And if not famous, then expensive – some estimations place the price of kopi beans at around a whopping $700 USD per kilo! You may know it simply as civet coffee, which also gives a clue to where this one comes from: the produce (ahem, if you know what we mean!) of the Asian palm civet, which is uber-common in the jungles of Bali. Yep, folk actually go out and collect the droppings of these little weasel-like creatures, dry them out, and serve them up as a brew. Some aficionados of the caffeine world say that the taste is like nothing else on the planet; other says there's nout special, and it's all a novelty to sell poop to tourists. We'll umm, let you be the judge of that!
A mouthwatering medley of ground coconut, Balinese herbs and spices, lawar is one of the most popular side dishes to appear on the menus of warungs up and down the Isle of the Gods. Other additions to the mix include kaffir lime leaves, broad beans, peas, charred shallots, onions and coconut oil, all of which imbues the ground chicken or pork (the main protein here) with a fresh and undeniably oriental flavor. Be sure to order this one to accompany your sate skewers or suckling pig!
Not so much a dish on its own, but an ingredient that makes so many of Bali's creative mains as tasty as they are, tempeh is a compressed mixture of soybeans, fermented and packed into a patty. Actually originating from the nearby island of Java, this one's become super popular on the Isle of the Gods, largely thanks to the fact it's vegetarian (and there are more veggies here than you might think!). It's particularly tasty when barbequed and served with that famous peanut satay sauce, when fried up and made into a crispy snack between meals, or when sautéed in soy sauce and chilli and sizzled with all the usual stir-fry suspects. Warning: mouth is watering.
Taking us back into the world of the meat eater, and the luxury-loving meat eater at that, are the melt-in-the-mouth shreds of duck that make up bebek betutu. Infused with a cocktail of spices, ranging from sweet, fried shallots to galangal ginger root, colourful turmeric to shrimp paste and more, the meat is slow-cooked for a whopping 24 hours before being carved up and served. It's typically laid out on a banana leaf and sided with a medley of spicy rice and salad.
Pepes ain't no dish, but a cooking method. And boy do those fresh seafood cuts from the Bali Sea taste darn good when wrapped up in a banana leaf and steamed over a broiling pot of spiced water! The whole package is fastened together using little bamboo pins, before being placed on the steamer and left to cook through. And pepes doesn't have to be meat either – marinated tofu and soy-doused tempeh are also downright taste-bud-tingling when made in this way!
Have you just gotten back from a foodie adventure around the Isle of the Gods? Can you think of any more Bali food dishes to add to this list? We'd love to hear about them in the comments below. Or, are you ready to wax up the walking boots, get on the board shorts and ride the waves to Bali? Then be sure to check out all the Indonesian odysseys on the menu over on LBW's Bali itinerary page.
Learn more about our Bali tours HERE!
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