The food available in Bali is a mix of traditional Balinese food and Indonesian food, and to be honest we weren't really sure where those lines were drawn. We were just eating and enjoying. Overall, the flavors in Bali were very pleasing... tropical flavors like coconut milk in many dishes, some heat with local spices, rice & noodles, chicken, eggs, fish, and tons of fresh fruits and veggies. Also, many plates were a potpourri of little flavors, which I loved. LIke a sampler plate! And almost every dish came with prawn crackers on the side, and a cucumber slice to palate-cleanse when you were done.
Small restaurants in Bali are called “Warungs” which means kitchen, and this is where the most authentic food is found. Some warungs are more restaurant-like, and some are straight up shacks. Don't look too closely at the actual kitchen or back of house in a Warung, just eat and let the delicious flavors make your food safety fears melt away...
The Art of the Welcome Drink
One of the best parts about the Balinese hospitality is the art of the welcome drink. Everywhere you go in Bali, from beautiful hotels to the most basic guesthouses to cheapo massage spas, you will be offered a welcome drink upon your arrival. It's exactly the thing you want that you didn't know you wanted. You're hot, you've just traveled from somewhere, and you know what's always kind of an annoying process? Checking into lodging. But a fruity and cold bevvy puts you in an instant good mood. Our welcome drinks ranged from freshly pureed watermelon juice (my favorite) to hand squeezed OJ to refreshing mangosteen iced tea. American hotels need to get on this trend, please.
Bock bock bock bock
Roosters and chickens are the unofficial official bird of Bali. They roam open and free, so that as you're eating lunch in town, crossing the road, or say, trying to sleep at around 4am, you will see & hear them everywhere. Not surprisingly, chicken & eggs are the main event when it comes to protein. But, like many Asian cuisines, it's almost never a big piece of chicken and side dishes. They work protein into their diet in smaller portions, with shredded chicken in a noodle dish or a small chicken skewer topping a pile of rice. And eggs are definitely used everywhere to amp up protein content while keeping costs down, as is tofu. Little chunks of tofu in the most surprising places always added good nutty flavor. The other main “meat” is fish – it's an island, after all! Fresh fish was everywhere, and we loved this.
What the Balinese don't eat is beef. They're Hindu and as most of the world knows, the cow is sacred. There is usually one beef dish on every menu to appease the foreign tourists, but we didn't ever order it because it just felt a little disrespectful. I had this vision of a Balinese chef in the kitchen feeling disgusted and upset by having to prepare beef for the horrid tourists...
Bumbu Bali is the seasoning of Balinese cuisine. Also sometimes called Basa Gede, it's like a paste made of garlic, red chilis, shallots, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, palm sugar, cumin, and shrimp paste. It's a flavor powerhouse.
Nasi Campur- “Nasi” means rice, and this most basic dish is a mixed rice with little chunks of tofu and veggies, usually.
Nasi Goreng & Mie Goreng – A slightly more flavorful variation of Campur, again this is a mixed rice or noodle dish (“Mie” is noodles), but always includes eggs. Usually the dish is topped with a thin egg omelet, which is delicious and filling. The Nasi and Mie dishes were staples of every menu, and also available at breakfast every day. We ate one of these three dishes at least once a day.
Gado-gado – this is a veggie salad that's covered in a peanut sauce. We didn't have a ton of this, but the few times we did, it was very tasty.
Sate (or Satay) – little skewers are everywhere! Chicken, shrimp, fish and even tofu. These things are delicious and were the highlight of many a meal. Usually dressed up with peanut sauce for poultry or fresh seasonings for the fish.
Fruits – Bali is tropical so it's another place to bring on the coconuts, pineapples, papayas, and watermelons! We found the watermelon to be the best, hands down, here in Bali. It's color was bright fuschia and so flavorful. Sadly, it wasn't mango season so we can't comment on that. And the papaya is still mostly gross to us, though we continue to try in case we get a rare one that is delicious instead of tasting like vomit. Why is papaya so fickle?
Shallots – The ubiquitous vegetable in Bali is the shallot. It's everywhere! Almost every dish we got was served with a little dish of carmelized shallots... which was always a great addition.
Sate Lilit – this is a super unique Balinese specialty found on many a plate. It's minced meat mixed with spices and grated coconut, formed into a a lollipop and stuck on the end of a lemongrass stick, then grilled. We loved these “meatsicles”!Note: We asked several times what the sate lilit was made of, and each time got the same answer “meat and coconut” - no one ever specified what kind of meat. We took that to mean it's best if we just don't know.
Bebek - “Bebek” means duck and it's a special occasion dish. We tried the Bebek Bengil, or crispy duck. We'll get into that more in a few paragraphs...
Babi Guling – roasted suckling pig. This is another dish saved for ceremonies and weddings if you're Balinese, but available for tourists every day. It's a whole pig slow roasted over a fire. We tried it at a roadside warung for 1/3 of what you'd pay in a tourist restaurant. We had three parts of the babi guling: The meat (which was unbelievably tender and juicy), this incredible broth flavored with a pig knuckle, and we tried the skin. Our guide Lionk told us the skin is a “treat” part of the meal, but to us it was too thick, like crispy leather with little hairs in it. We didn't love it, but had to try it!
Bumbu Bali, Tanjung Benoa, Bali.
Just about the only good part of being located in Nusa Dua for our last two nights was that it led us to this restaurant. We always aim to have a “best” meal on our last night in a country, but it never seems to work out that way. This time, it did! Bumbu Bali is also a cooking school, and I would have liked to have taken a course there, but we didn't have time. But where there's a cooking school, there's always good food....
The grounds at Bumbu Bali are lovely, like a little garden with an open kitchen. The entire staff greets each dining party when you walk in. And the food. Oh the food. It's Balinese cuisine at it's finest. We feasted on what felt like a hundred tiny dishes filled with different, unique flavors. We ordered the mixed skewer meal, and it came out on a tiny coal grill to keep skewers hot. It included chicken, fish, shrimp, pork, and of course sate lilit. Then little bowls filled with three kinds of rice, pickled veggies, and sauces added to the whole package. Chris deemed this the best peanut sauce he'd ever eaten.
We also got their famed grilled pork ribs. These were melt-in-your-mouth, fall-off-the-bone pork perfection. Whenever I order ribs, I always dream that they will come out like this but they rarely do. These were tender and moist, with just a little crisp on the outside, and a sauce that didn't overpower the pork's flavor but augmented it just enough. Divine.
For dessert, we opted for a trio of their homemade ice creams. Indonesian coffee, vanilla bean, and tamarillo (like a strawberryish flavor). These were all incredible, but the coffee was the best. Overall, the restaurant named for the cornerstone ingredient in Balinese cuisine lived up to it's label.
Best Individual Dish
This one goes to the Bebek Bengil from the Dirty Duck Diner! It's half a duck, deep fried perfectly. End of story.
We didn't drink much in Bali at all. The few beers we had were the ubiquitous Bintang, which is basically Heineken and even has an almost-indentical logo. The Bintang Radler is a better bet, it's their Balinese version of a summer shandy and tastes amazing after a hot day out. However, at 2.5% ABV, good luck getting a buzz on with that.
We did have a rare tropical cocktail here or there, which never disappointed in terms of flavor. Overall, the drinks are weak and there's a sketchy factor about liquor (bad rumours about pouring poisonous bathtub spirits into brand-name bottles) so we abstained a lot and didn't really care. Or maybe we just needed a detox, who knows.
What we did soak up were all the fresh fruit juices and delicious coffee! Chris claims he had the best cup of coffee of his whole life (pictured below), and I had at least one watermelon juice every day, and sometimes a second juice, too... cucumber, pineapple, honeydew or Chris's favorite – Lime mint. At $1-2 a pop for juice as fresh as it gets, it was far more appealing than alcohol. I know... Who are we?