Indonesian cuisine: what to eat and where to eat it
There is a tendency to believe that Indonesian cuisine is a little boring and only consists of the standard nasi goreng (fried rice) or mee goreng (fried noodles) that is available in every little restaurant. It is easy to get stuck in the comfort zone of ordering these safe options.
However, dig a little deeper and there is an array of incredible taste sensations and culinary creations to keep you craving the taste of chilli, the zing of ginger and the melodic undertones of turmeric, lemongrass and lime in your food.
There are plenty of places to try out the diverse food culture of Indonesia throughout Bali, from some corn or Bakso (meatball soup) perched on the side of the street, to some internationally recognised gastronomic giants. The quest for the perfect authentic dish is an an adventure in itself. The best place to start is at a traditional warung; this is the Indonesian word for restaurant or café, so you are sure to see it everywhere.
A lot of traditional warungs have a long buffet style counter where you can choose from plenty of different dishes to sample. These are traditional establishments and are basically the bet place to sample lots of different dishes in one go. It can all get a bit confusing so just ask if you can’t identify something. Seafood, chicken and tofu are all used, but so too is liver; make sure you are not getting the wrong thing shrouded in a mysterious curry gravy.
Indonesian cuisine: Bambuku
Bambuku (Jln Sunset Rd, Just Before Sunset Point from Jln Kerobokan turn off) is a lovely little place eclectically put together from colourful pieces of reclaimed wood. There is a small counter, but it’s full of the most delicious home cooked food, constantly fed from the small kitchen behind.
There is a wide selection of wonderfully fresh choices and plenty of tofu and tempe (soya bean) mixed in curries and milder choices for the vegetarians. But the main attraction (sorry vegos) is the Beef Rendang. People literally queue for this dish and it has even been claimed to be some to be the best on the island, if not Indonesia. One thing is true, this is melt in your mouth good and a perfect balance between the creaminess of the coconut milk and the bite of the green chilli.
Rendang is a very traditional Indonesian dish that is extremely complex and served at occasions such as weddings and Hari Raya, or New Year. Rendang is a spicy meat curry that comes from the Minangkabau peoples of West Sumatra. It can be made as a dry dish or more like a curry with a gravy sauce. The traditional cooking method involves slow cooking the meat in coconut milk and spices for up to 24 hours. The outcome is well worth this rich and piquant dish that was actually voted by readers as No. 1 in CNN’s ‘World’s Most 50 Delicious Foods’ in 2011. Rendering rendang a definite must try food for any trip to Bali.
Indonesian cuisine: Warun Sulawesi
Another great choice in Seminyak is Warung Sulawesi, though eaters be warned: the food here leans towards the spicy. If you are already a big chilli fan then the Prawn Sambal is a must have. Sambal is a chili sauce that is usually used as a condiment, but when prawns are added it becomes a mix between a condiment and a dish unto itself.
A sambal sauce made in this way basically consists of a blend of chili, garlic and galangal mixed with the prawns and coconut milk for hours producing a rich and fiery sauce. It is a great complement to the myriad of other consistently wonderful dishes here. Be sure to finish off your meal with their wonderful Dadar Gulung or a green pandan (coconut leaf) flavored pancake filled with a mixture of coconut flakes and brown coconut syrup to create a heavenly desert experience.
Indonesian cuisine: Warung Ibu Oka
Up in Ubud you will find the most famous restaurant to eat the ubiquitous Balinese dish of Babi Guling – a whole suckling pig cooked in spices. Located just opposite the market and palace, Warung Ibu Oka is one place to get to early; the queues start in the morning and once the food runs out, that’s it for the day. Being that Bali is Hindu, this really is a gold mine, as pork is not widely available on the more predominantly Muslim islands.
Usually reserved for religious ceremonies or occasions, in Ibu Oka the babi guling is plentiful and succulent. A very simple place where the majority of seating is on the floor, this is ‘The Place’ to indulge in this wonderfully decadent and delicious dish. Request your preferred piece of pig served with simple rice and vegetable for some of the best suckling roast in the southern hemisphere.
Indonesian cuisine: Cafè Lotus
Wander up the road and you will come to Café Lotus, another famous restaurant not only for its wonderful selection of authentic Indonesian dishes but also for the temple hovering above the sprawling lotus ponds that come alive at night with magnificent Balinese shows of the Hindu Classics, such as the Ramayana. Whether you choose to stay for the spectacle or pop in for a leisurely lunch; the Mini Rijstafel for two is a must. Rijstafel is a Dutch word that literally means ‘rice table’, a name that has stuck since colonial times.
The dishes are however all Indonesian and served around various types of rice. At Lotus they have a wonderful sayur urap, which is vegetables and coconut, a Balinese specialty. It also comes with a selection of chicken, meat and fish satay – marinated and grilled skewers – a traditional and typically incredible tasting Indonesian dish.
Indonesian cuisine: Merah Putih
At the pinnacle of the fine Indonesian dining is Merah Putih in Seminyak. A meld of both traditional dishes and modern interpretations on classics, this is a restaurant bound to impress anyone from a novice to connoisseur of the culinary traditions of the archipelago.
Set in an eco architectural masterpiece with stunning rainwater catchment columns and other sustainable touches, food is locally sourced and attention is paid to organic ingredients. The Papuan Slipper Lobster and Surabayan Lamb Shank Curry are infused with new and old techniques to create mouth-blowing dishes to set your senses on fire. This is the perfect indulgence to conclude any Indonesian culinary journey through Bali.