Ah, Bali food. Our relationship with Balinese cuisine got off to a rocky start, but a Balinese cooking class in Ubud, night markets in Sanur and simple restaurants called warungs conspired to change our minds and inform our palates. The result: an overview of the components of Balinese cooking, common Balinese dishes and where to find them when you visit Bali.
When we first arrived in Ubud, Bali we found a lot of restaurants geared towards foreign palates. Flavor and spice seemed in short supply, our stomachs often felt empty after eating. Menus usually consisted of uninspired combinations of fried rice, mixed rice, underwhelming curries and bland vegetable dishes. We were obviously making some bad choices, but we were also tapping a similarly unexceptional food vein on other parts of the island.
And just when we were about to give up on Balinese food, we discovered the real deal in a cooking course – dishes full of intensity, beautiful flavors and a philosophy and technique that made us want to run to the kitchen and fire up the pan. This was authentic Balinese cuisine, done well, flavorful and unique.
From there, we were inspired to go deep and eat well. This is what we found.
Bali Food: Ingredients and Philosophy
What's at the foundation of Balinese cuisine? To make the point during our Balinese cooking course, our instructor did something really simple but effective — he suggested we taste each of the basic components of Balinese cuisine in the raw, on its own that we'd just purchased at the fresh market in Ubud.
The point: know your ingredients.
Fragrant Seeds (Balinese 8-spice combination): white pepper, black pepper, coriander, cumin, clove, nutmeg, sesame seed, and candlenut.
Fragrant Roots: shallots, garlic, greater galangal (what most of us think of simply as “galangal”), lesser galangal (more pepper, almost radish-like), turmeric, ginger.
Chili peppers: Tiny green and red Balinese chili peppers take center stage. Larger red peppers that most of us also consider hot, the Balinese consider “sweet.” Sweet.
Palm sugar: Balinese have a sweet tooth. They also enjoy combining spicy with their sweet. To do this, they use raw palm sugar. This is no ordinary sugar — it tastes like molasses, almost smoky. Go to the local market and you'll find palm sugar in a range of hues, quality and flavor depths.
Fish Paste: Like their neighbors across Southeast Asia, the Balinese also appreciate the role of fermented fish in their cuisine. Sounds gross. To many, it smells gross. But fish paste is absolutely crucial and delightful when used in cooking.
Authentic Balinese Dishes from our Cooking Class
Authentic Balinese food is not easy to find. As some Balinese we spoke to tell it, Balinese specialties are time- and ingredient-intensive, and as such they are usually reserved for special occasions and are not often found in ordinary restaurants.
Basa Gede (or Bumbu Bali)
Balinese use either sambal, a chili-based sauce, or basa gede, a basic spice paste to give the best Balinese dishes their distinct flavor and kick. To make basa gede, put all the fragrant seeds and roots into a blender with a little fish paste. The result: a paste thinner than a Thai curry paste that can be used in myriad ways, as we'd find out in our cooking course.
Sayur Urab (Mixed Vegetables)
We learned the hard way that not all sayur urab is created equal. The first time we tried this at a restaurant, we called it “boiled salad” or more accurately, a tasteless pile of boiled vegetables. Done correctly, it’s actually a delicious and healthy dish of mixed vegetables combined with grated coconut and a lovely, crunchy sambal of crispy golden-fried shallots, galangal, chili peppers and garlic.
Tuna Sambal Matah (Seared Tuna with Raw Sambal)
Perhaps our favorite dish of the cooking course. Fresh tuna is covered with basa gede (Bumbu Bali) and seared in a hot pan. The “raw” sambal topping is composed of chopped shallots, lemongrass, chili peppers, and ginger all doused in lime juice. Yes, it tastes as fabulous as it sounds.
Tempe Manis (Tempe in Sweet and Spicy Sauce)
Tempe (or tempeh), boiled soybeans pressed and fermented, is a common ingredient in Balinese and Indonesian dishes. In tempe manis, the tempeh is cut into small pieces and fried until crispy. It's then tossed in a sweet palm sugar sauce turned with fried garlic and chili peppers. Great taste, a texture play.
Opor Ayam (Chicken Curry)
Chicken, carrots and potatoes in a spicy curry sauce of basa gede and coconut milk. Delicious and rich.
Bali Sate Lilit
A twist on what we know of as sate, or traditional Indonesian meat skewers. In sate lilit, a uniquely Balinese dish, minced or ground meat is blended with bumbu Bali and other spices. The minced meat mixture is then lumped and twisted around a wooden skewer or lemongrass stalk, and grilled.
Sambal Udang (Prawns in Spicy Sambal Sauce)
The final crown jewel dish in our Bali cooking class, and it was over the top. Large prawns flash cooked in a spicy sambal made of sautéed onions, green pepper, and red chili peppers topped with bumbu Bali spice paste and coconut milk. A touch of palm sugar and chopped kaffir lime leaves round out the dish.
Bali Cooking Class Details:
Bumi Bali Restaurant, Monkey Forest Road, Ubud. 250,000 IDR ($30) for market visit, apron, cookbook and cooking (plus eating) all the dishes above. Only one cooking station, but everyone participates by taking turns.
You can also book in advance this Balinese cooking class in a local village or this Balinese cooking class that takes place at an organic farm. Both include visits to local markets and free pickup from your hotel in Ubud.
Popular Dishes in Bali
Suckling pig, spice-rubbed and spit-roasted. Yep, as fabulous as it sounds. Meat is melt-in-your-mouth tender.
Where we ate it: Ibu Oka in Ubud (near the main market). Ibu Oka is babi guling central. Go early as it closes when the pork is finished for the day.
Spice-rubbed duck slow-cooked in banana leaves. Like almost any meat in a banana leaf, the best bebek betutu is beautifully tender and the spices pronounced.
Where we ate it: Warung Enak, Ubud. 65K IDR ($8). A bit higher end than most places we tried, but Warung Enak features an extensive menu with descriptions of where each dish originated (e.g., Java, Sumatra, Bali, etc.). In other words, it's an education. Great décor and service too. Recommended for a splurge.
Pieces of meat slow cooked in a mixture of coconut milk, spices, and roasted coconut paste. The coconut milk is evaporated to the point of a dry fry, leaving a rich, thick spice crust. Yum.
Where we ate it: Sari Bundo (Jalan Danau Poso) and Retro Restaurant (Danau Tamblingan 126) in Sanur.
Satay (in Indonesia, Sate)
Pieces of chicken, pork, beef, fish, tofu — just about anything — on skewers and grilled over hot coals. Usually served with a rich peanut-based dipping sauce. Although originally from the Indonesian islands of Java or Sumatra, satay can be found in restaurants and markets all over Bali. We recommend trying something a little offbeat like tuna sate for a special treat.
A fresh salad combined with mixed cooked vegetables and tofu, served with peanut sauce on top. Although not originally from Bali, this Indonesian dish is served in many restaurants. Ideally, vegetables should be crispy and fresh, although some restaurants serve it as a mush of overcooked vegetables with peanut sauce. Because of the brown peanut sauce on top, this is not a particularly photogenic dish. You'll have to use your imagination on this one.
Nasi Campur (mixed rice)
A plate of rice surrounded by several side dishes. When restaurants serve nasi campur, they usually choose the sides for you. At warungs, the more local street food type places on Bali, nasi campur is up to you. You pick which sides you want – sate lilit, spicy tempeh, chopped vegetables, spice-rubbed meat, chicken, tofu. You get the idea.
We found this dish particularly uninspiring at tourist-oriented restaurants, so try to make your way to a local market or warung to get something spicy with a more authentic taste.
Where we ate it: Night market and Warung Sari (turn right into alley at Jl. Danau Tamblingan #146) in Sanur, Warung Lokal off of Hanoman Street in Ubud.
Nasi Goreng (Indonesian fried rice)
What country in Southeast Asia doesn’t have its own version of fried rice? The Indonesian style features more spice and tomato paste than your typical fried rice. But at the end of the day, it's still fried rice.
Mie Goreng (fried noodles)
After flavorful char keow in Malaysia and pad thai in Thailand, we could never really get into mie goreng on Bali. It always felt like mie goreng noodles came from a Ramen noodle soup packet, even if they hadn't. And more often than not, there just wasn't a lot flavor. Maybe we just had bad luck. But, if noodles are your thing, there's no shortage of mie goreng to keep you going on the island.
Sounds like chop suey, doesn't it? While we're not certain of the history, that's probably not a coincidence. A Chinese-style Indonesian stir-fry or stew made with cabbage and other vegetables, depending on where it's served.
Bumbu Bali Fish
Translated as “fish in Balinese sauce”, this dish consists of chunks of fish cooked in coconut milk and bumbu Bali spice paste. Rich and spicy.
Where we ate it: Pantai Indah in Sanur. With a view of the beach (and supposedly the cheapest beer on the beach in Sanur) to boot, it’s difficult to beat for atmosphere.
Bakso soup begins with broth and ends with Indonesian meatballs (usually made from ground beef and tapioca flour). Depending on the bakso stand, you'll find some noodles, tofu, and some herbs thrown in. Bakso stands usually offer a choice of condiments and hot sauce so you can make it just as you like it. Be careful with the local chili sauce; it’s incredibly potent. We learned this the hard way, with tears.
Savory dishes composed of very finely chopped combinations of various ingredients (green beans, green papaya, shallots, pork meat and pork skin, eggs and coconut) and served on top of banana leaves. Time intensive, nasi jinggo dishes tend to appear at ceremonies and celebrations, but if your timing is good, you can find them on the street (image below).
Balinese Desserts and Drinks
Bubur Sum-Sum (Rice Porridge with Palm Sugar Sauce)
Creamy porridge made from rice flour topped with a thick, molasses-like palm sugar sauce and grated coconut.
Bubur Injun (Black Rice Pudding)
Black sticky rice mixed and coconut milk. Our host family in Ubud would also occasionally serve it for breakfast.
Sweet parcels of sticky rice, coconut, sugar and fruit (usually bananas, sometimes orange rind or even mango essence). Sri Rathi hotel in Ubud offered them for breakfast and all day long as a pick-me-up.
Luwak Coffee (Kopi Luwak)
Also called civet coffee or “poo coffee.” Why? Weasel-like animals called civets are let loose into coffee plantations at night to satisfy their predilection towards eating only high-quality coffee berries. The civets eat the coffee berry, but they only poop out the coffee beans. Their coffee-bean filled turds are collected and washed. The harvested coffee beans are then roasted over a fire.
The result? The most expensive coffee in the world. A cup of luwak coffee in London supposedly runs about 40 pounds ($65). On Bali, you can quaff a cup at a luwak plantation for about $4. A smooth cup of brew with surprisingly low acidity.
Practical Details for Traveling in Bali
- Find hotels, guest houses or hostels in Ubud, Sanur, or Lovina. Airbnb also has a good selection of apartments or homes to rent if you're staying in one place for a while. (Note: Get $25 off your first Airbnb rental.)
- To reduce plastic bottle waste, refill your reusable water bottle in cafes, restaurants and other businesses for free or a small charge. The Refill Bali map shows all the refill stations on the island. Very cool.