Bali is an island of treasures, and while many find their riches at the beach and in the shrouded Balinese interior, an oft-overlooked aspect of any holiday on the island is the traditional eats that Bali has to offer. Here I take my stomach, and mouth, on a culinary journey through the Island of the Gods.
Holidays in Bali isn’t like holidays in Switzerland or Vietnam, where food plays an integral role in the enjoyment experience, but that’s not because the food here isn’t good — it’s simply because the waves, shrouded interior, and spirituality of the Island of the Gods have a funny way of taking over once you touch down. But, having visited Bali a handful of times, it only feels right to explore the oft-neglected culinary scene that is secretly thriving in this tropical getaway.
Packed with kick and dripping in flavour, babi guling, I reckon, is probably the best way to get into Balinese cuisine, and while Ibu Oka holds the throne, there are a smattering of joints that can be found around the island that are no slouches in the roast pig game.
When one hears about the food in Bali, the first thing that often gets mentioned is babi guling (suckling pig), and rightfully so. In an archipelago nation where 90% of the 250-million-odd people are firm believers in Islam, and thus don’t eat pork, Bali’s food culture is a change from the rest of its island neighbours given its Hindu majority. To get better acquainted with this succulent dish I head to Ibu Oka in Ubud, a haunt known to locals and tourists alike as the go-to stop for tender pork goodness on the island. Large and open-air, this (Ibu Oka 3) is actually one of three locations that have been established in Ubud, but I find it to be the most beautiful, as it is set against the greenery for which central Bali is renowned. I find a seat near the natural backdrop and pop down when almost immediately, a smiling server approaches. “Alright, how do we do this here?” I ask, “What am I looking to eat, what’s the must-try?” My server responds that the ‘special’ should be the first dish to try if you’re new here, and if you want to do it right — the Balinese way — you’ll get a cold bottle of Bintang on the side to wash it down. Done and done. Minutes later, my food is heaped down in front of me in a woven basket lined with paper on the hefty wooden table. “Enjoy,” chimes my server. And enjoy I do. Rice takes centre-stage on the plate, but only as it can be happily mixed and mashed with the portions of juicy pork that fringe the heaping white mound. Pork sausage, sliced pork, crisp and golden pork skin, fried pork fritter bites, and a healthy serving of urap, an Indonesian vegetable mix of green beans, beansprouts, chopped cassava leaves and coconut shavings — it’s all here, for now. As I take a bite of each, the thing that becomes so abundantly clear to both my stomach and me, is the freshness of it all.
My server says that each day the restaurant I’m in now will go through about five pigs, all butchered and roasted as needed, such that by the end of the day there won’t be a drop of leftovers — true island freshness. Packed with kick and dripping in flavour, babi guling, I reckon, is probably the best way to get into Balinese cuisine, and while Ibu Oka holds the throne, there are a smattering of joints that can be found around the island that are no slouches in the roast pig game. But don’t be mistaken, babi guling isn’t the only food you’ve got to get your hands on when you’re in paradise, and for our next stop, we’re taking our stomachs just down the road.
Bebek Bengil — or Dirty Duck, as it is translated — is an institution in Ubud, plain and simple. Founded in 1990, and now with a handful of locations scattered across Indonesia, this restaurant specialises in our aviary friend, the duck — more specifically, bebek betutu. Betutu is the Balinese style of cooking such that whichever meat one chooses, usually chicken or duck, it is stuffed with Balinese spices and wrapped in banana leaves before it is then cooked overnight. As I am only in Ubud for a night, I haven’t got time to put in the order a day before for a betutu-cooked duck (orders for this delicacy must be placed 24 hours in advance), but I figure I can’t go wrong popping into Bebek Bengil for a fresh helping of fried Balinese duck anyhow. Low-lit, and more five-star-cuisine than roadside-food-shanty, I grab a seat at the elevated bamboo lesehan (sit on the floor, not on chairs) table, which comes comfortably lined with cushions and pillows, before I put in my order for nasi campur bebek, one of the restaurant’s go-to dishes for those not diving into things betutu-style. Nasi campur (literally, mixed rice) is a popular dish in Bali, and I can’t help but feel I made the right choice as I see the plate approaching. Rice again makes its home in the middle of the plate, but instead of pork, this time I’ve got a quarter of a friend duck, Balinese peanuts, another helping of urap, a chicken satay stick, some fried crisps and a helping of fresh garden vegetables. To be honest, I’ve never been the biggest fan of duck, I’ve found the taste to be particularly gamey for my liking, but at Bebek Bengil I am shown just how good duck can be. Crisp but tenderly cooked with the fat rendered perfectly such that it’s easy to get through but not overcooked, perfectly fried but not oily, and gamey, but not overpoweringly so, this duck has it all, and for one of the first times, I find myself tearing through a chunk of duck like it’s the pork from earlier. Well done, Bebek Bengil.
The menu also features a long list of drinks that is stocked by a full bar, a healthy selection of other non-duck offerings, and list of desserts that is sure to sit nicely on top of the duck in your stomach. As Ibu Oka takes top honours for pork, so too does Bebek Bengil take the crown in the race for the perfect duck. But as pork is a staple on the island, so is duck, and the betutu-style of cooking can be had in a number of places including the cheaper, albeit more poultry-focused, Ayam Betutu Khas Gilimanuk, and a host of others — just keep your eyes peeled for the word betutu, and make sure to pop your order in a day early for true Balinese bliss.
But at the end of the day, no Balinese culinary exploration is complete without some of the freshest seafood you can find, and whether it’s on the east coast in the fishing-outpost-turned-dive-haven of Amed, or down on the shores of Bali’s southern coast in Jimbaran or Canggu, you’ll be wondering how it’s possible to find such fresh goodness for pennies on the dollar. Mahi-mahi, red snapper, marlin, barracuda, they’re all choice selections in Bali, but for a truly traditional surf meal, there’s nothing better than Balinese sate lilit (minced fish or minced chicken wrapped around a lemongrass or thick bamboo skewer), and tonight I’m enjoying just that at Sate Bali on the shores of Canggu’s Echo Beach (southwestern coast of Bali). Wooden tables here sprawl on the sandy patio overlooking the crashing waves of Echo Beach as smoke from the open barbecue sit just metres away crushing the air with a mix of sea-water and freshly grilled surf, and if you time it right, this can all be topped off with a lovely view of the Balinese sunset just down the strand. I sit down and grab the menu and immediately look for sate lilit, and just as they should, they’ve got it. I place my order and saunter over to catch the maestro behind the grill flipping, brushing, checking and shuffling the freshly caught bonanza before I realise my order is just about finished. Back at the table, I rendezvous with my meal, and I couldn’t be happier. Fresh, minced fish mixed with lemongrass, skewered, and grilled over the open fire. I’ve got six skewers on the plate and as I bite into my first I’m greeted with a burst of flavour. It’s fresh, undeniably so, and the fishy taste that so often plagues dishes is all but absent, what’s left is a chewy yet tender burst of perfectly accented Balinese treasure. A few dips into the customary peanut sauce — made fresh with Balinese peanuts on the premise — and before I know it my plate is full of wooden sticks and not much else. If you’re looking for seafood, but want to eat it in the traditional Balinese style, sate lilit is your best bet. Sate Bali has several locations, Seminyak being one of them, but do yourself a favour and grab a bite while catching the sunset in the increasingly hip Canggu to get that fresh sea-breeze while chowing down on your Balinese skewers. If you can’t make it down, however, worry not, as sate lilit, has been around for quite a while in Bali, and finding it is just a matter of asking.
It’s fresh, undeniably so, and the fishy taste that so often plagues dishes is all but absent, what’s left is a chewy yet tender burst of perfectly accented Balinese treasure.
While Bali has a plethora of five-star restaurants, and a healthy dose of international cuisine, the oft-neglected cuisine of the island is nothing to scoff at, and it can elevate any vacation to the Island of the Gods to something that leaves not only your tan in good shape, but your stomach as well. Suckling pig, Balinese cooked duck, and only the freshest of seafood, this is where you should start in this tropical getaway, where you end, though, is entirely up to you. For me, it’s here, at Sate Bali in Canggu, as I sip on a lychee tea and grab a sunset that I won’t soon forget.
(Featured image: Babi guling has become synonymous with Bali and is one of the food attractions on this island. A whole pig is lovingly slow-roasted over a fire to create meat that is tender and succulent on the inside and crackling on the outside. Featured here is how The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah in Ubud prepares their babi guling from the island’s finest black pig before it is served on their Sunday ‘Barbecue Under the Stars’ dinner.)