Known for its beaches, jungles and colourful temples, the Indonesian island of Bali is also home to a vibrant and hugely varied offering of local dishes, from grilled octopus with starfruit to rich Padang-style curry.
This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).
There’s something powerfully compelling about Balinese food. Whenever I arrive back home on the island, my taste buds immediately cry out for local cuisine. I head straight to the eastern outskirts of the capital, Denpasar, to my favourite warung (a simple roadside stall or shop), Nasi Tekor. This rustic spot recalls Bali in the 1970s and offers a fix of nasi campur, the Indonesian staple of plain rice usually served with vegetables, egg, meat or fish to make up a composite meal. I eat my fill and despite my familiarity with Indonesian and Balinese food, I’m no closer to understanding why I find it so addictive. Certainly, though, it’s in part due to its rich and diverse origins.“
The moment you start exploring the history of Indonesian food, you learn about the trading activities and migration through the Strait of Malacca into what’s now Indonesia,” says Will Meyrick, the famed street food chef. Originally from Scotland, Will has a string of food venues to his name including fusion spot Mama San Bali, in Seminyak, and hip Indonesian restaurant Hujan Locale, in the inland town of Ubud.“
Many of the region’s distinctive flavours and cooking techniques were shaped by early Arabic traders — the Hadhrami merchants of Yemen, as well as the Chinese, Indian and Dutch traders and settlers,” he continues.
Prior to opening the Indonesian restaurant Hujan Locale in 2014, Will travelled around Indonesia — which he documented in his Trans TV show, Street Food Chef — on a mission to source the recipes that would become his inspiration. He was particularly impressed by Sumatran cuisine, especially the dishes from Aceh on this large Indonesian island’s northernmost tip. When I visit Hujan Locale, this inspires me to order the Acehnese charred grilled octopus from the grazing menu. Served with young, sour starfruit, curry leaves, pandan leaves, green chilli and okra, it’s delightfully spicy and tender. I also sample the vegetarian gulai pakis and terong balado, which is a rich Padang-style curry from West Sumatra made with fern tips, aubergine and egg, full of flavour and texture.
Hujan Locale is in Bali’s cultural hub of Ubud, a tourist spot that encompasses most reasons people come to this island — traditional art communities, ancient temples, rice terraces, jungle-clad river gorges and jaw-dropping views of distant volcanoes. But Will suggests I take one of his street food tours into the gritty heart of Denpasar. Not many tourists visit Bali’s capital but it has much to recommend it — a busy vibe, local culture and history in the old city, where the brick shrines and gates are the simplest yet most exquisite in Bali.
Kadek Miharjaya, born and raised in Denpasar, is a knowledgeable guide. Our first stop is Warung Babi Guling Pan Ana for Bali’s famous delicacy of spit-roasted pig. The place is packed with locals and my plate is laden with no fewer than eight side dishes, including a piece of crispy skin, lawar (made with young jackfruit, grated fresh coconut and pig’s blood), rice and a dollop of the flavourful stuffing. I tuck in as enthusiastically as my companions. At another warung, I’m served an ominous-looking dark green dessert-like drink called daluman, comprised of grass jelly blended with a swirl of coconut milk and a drizzle of liquid palm sugar. Topped with ice cubes, it’s surprisingly thirst-quenching. We wander through the busy central market, Pasar Badung, which is showcasing a rainbow of fruits and vegetables from long coils of snake bean to shiny purple mangosteen, and the pungent spices that drive the flavours of Balinese cooking: turmeric, ginger, lemongrass, vanilla, cinnamon, galangal plus 10 different varieties of local chilli.
I get the chance to blend some of those spices at the cooking school of Swiss restauranteur, Heinz von Holzen. He arrived in Bali in 1990 and worked as executive chef at the Grand Hyatt. Then, seven years later, he and his Balinese wife, Puji, opened Bumbu Bali restaurant and cooking school in Tanjung Benoa — a peninsula that juts into the bay north of Nusa Dua. Benoa village, on the tip, was once a bustling trading port for Indonesia’s eastern islands, and many Chinese and Bugis descendants of these traders still live locally.
“For me, Balinese cooking is not just about incredible food, it’s about preserving culture,” says Heinz. A renowned photographer, Heinz has published 12 books exploring local cuisine and runs a second restaurant, Art Cafe Bumbu Bali, with his son Fabian. Both of his restaurants are named after bumbu Bali, the island’s signature blend of freshly ground spices, which varies from village to village and dish to dish, enlivening and adding depth to food.
During Heinz’s cooking class I laboriously pummel fresh garlic, shallots, chillies, galangal, ginger and turmeric in an ulekan cobek, a traditional pestle and mortar made from volcanic stone. The result is a harmonious-yet-complex blend that’s inimitably Balinese.
“I have 16 ingredients in my bumbu Bali, the ‘mother sauce’ we call it,” says Bali-born chef Wayan Kresna Yasa when we meet at HOME by Chef Wayan, his minimalist modern restaurant decked in warm woods and tropical greens. “Making it can take three hours. You must cook it slowly and caramelise it properly to release all the umami flavours. Balinese food is not easy food to make, and it all starts with bumbu.”
HOME is in the coastal village of Pererenan, near Canggu, Bali’s hippest spot, but Wayan grew up on Nusa Penida, an island off Bali’s southeast coast framed by spectacular limestone sea-cliffs. Wayan has been a fisherman, a boat captain and a seaweed farmer but cooking has always been his passion. He studied and worked in the US at fine-dining restaurants in Chicago and New York before returning to Bali to lead the kitchens at beach club, Potato Head. “After seven years I stepped down to do something new with Indonesian cuisine, with a modern presentation yet without jeopardising the character,” he says.
About 30% of Wayan’s home-style Balinese and Indonesian dishes are vegan, some of them hailing from his native island, Nusa Penida. Standouts include ledok nusa, a savoury porridge made from whatever’s in season — corn, cassava, beans and other crops — finished with kemangi (lemon basil) which brings a sweet aroma. His plant-based creation of roasted tempeh with a crunchy baby cabbage known as keciwis is one of the best Indonesian dishes I have ever tasted.
Bali’s attracted generations of ex-pats and creatives since the 1930s. It’s a place people visit — and stay. One such person is Penny Williams, an Australian who came to Bali in 2007 as executive chef of Alila Manggis resort. Four years later she designed and opened Bali Asli Restaurant in the island’s east, under the gaze of Mount Agung, Bali’s highest volcano.
“It turned out to be the most amazing journey, the learning curve was about as steep as Mount Agung,” says Penny. “I realised that traditional Balinese cuisine is extremely diverse; you can travel less than two hours and the food will be prepared in a completely different way. That inspired me to create Bali Asli, where we do everything traditionally: cook on wood fires, prepare by hand using pestles and mortars, and only serve cuisine from the surrounding eastern region.”
Most of Asli’s ingredients are homegrown, and the menu — on lontar palm-leaf manuscripts — changes almost daily. Lunch includes a foraged speciality, mountain fern tips with grated coconut, and spiced fish steamed in banana leaf parcels. Outside, the sky is blue and I can see Bali Asli is blessed with views of Mount Agung, the rice fields and rainforest that’s laid across the foothills like patchwork. “Every day here makes my heart sing,” Penny says as she follows my gaze.
How to do it:
Tropical Sky offers itineraries exploring the best of Bali’s beaches, combined with a stay in Ubud. Start at the beach resort, Melia Bali, in Nusa Dua, then stay in Wapa Di Ume, in Ubud and travel to the northeast coast to Spa Village Resort Tembok.
Four restaurants to try in Bali
1. Merah Putih
An unassuming exterior belies the cathedral-inspired masterpiece within, with palm trees, a 30ft-high translucent roof and art deco-style columns that channel rainwater. The fine-dining menu includes ayam taliwang, Lombok spring chicken with water spinach, chives and kaffir lime, and bebek kalio — braised duck with cassava leaves, leek and chilli. Mains from IDR150,000 (£8).
2. Warung Gloria
This streetside spot sells more than 40 dishes including west Sumatran beef rendang stew, perkedel potato cakes, sesame-dipped, deep-fried tempeh and myriad rice dishes. Mains from IDR50,000 (£2.60). Jl. Raya Kedampang, KerobokanKelod, Badung
3. Ayung Terrace, Four Seasons Bali at Sayan
In a jungle-fringed river gorge, near Ubud, Ayung Terrace has an a la carte menu showcasing delicacies such as Balinese mixed satay and udang bakar — grilled prawn with raw sambal and morning glory (water spinach). Mains from IDR295,000 (£15).
4. Locavore NXT
Before Locavore closed in October 2023, it ranked in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list for five consecutive years. The sustainably built, trailblazing reincarnation opened in December 2023 near Ubud, complete with a roof garden and on-site permaculture food-forest growing indigenous fruits and vegetables. 20-course tasting menu IDR 1,800,000 (£93).
Five foods to try in Bali
1. Pepes Ikan
This fragrant spiced fish is steamed in banana leaf packages and baked on a fire of coconut husks. The juices inside the parcel explode with a moist smoky flavour.
2. Babi Guling
Bali’s signature dish of spit-roasted pig is stuffed with aromatic leaves, onion, garlic and bumbu Bali, brushed with crushed turmeric and served with lawar, spicy chopped meat and vegetables.
This warm salad of blanched or steamed vegetables, tofu, rice cake and hard-boiled egg is served with a sweet and spicy peanut sauce.
A small, sweet boiled ball of rice flour dough, coloured green with pandan leaf extract, filled with palm sugar and rolled in shredded coconut. The liquid centre bursts in the mouth.
4. Bubuh Injin
A sticky black rice pudding, blended with coconut milk, flavoured with pandan leaves and sweetened with coconut sugar.
Article written by Rachel Lovelock for National Geographic