~ A journal entry by Chef Nam ~
Bali, Indonesia may have its fair share of tourists seeking nothing more than seven days of sun and sands in the southern party triad of Kuta, Legian, and Seminyak. However, this only formed a small part of what the island has to offer. In reality, Bali is a lush Indonesian island filled with cultural experience, delicious food, and exhilarating adventures.
For centuries, the Balinese led a very isolated existence. Inhabitants of other parts of the archipelago were not interested in this island paradise because it had little or nothing to offer in terms of economically. For hundreds of years, Bali was left forsaken from the rest of the world which explained why Balinese can now boast a cuisine that is uniquely their own, a culinary tradition not influenced by external factors for much of its history and one which has maintained its authenticity. Balinese cooking retains a truly original character, one that relied on ingredients indigenous to the island, such as vegetables, fruits, herbs, and spices.
It is no surprise that many people think of Balinese food as frugal. Although the island’s volcanic soil combined with warm and moist climate conducive to growth, it has always yielded a plentiful harvest, adding to the fact that meats have always been very expensive – in part due to the outlaying existence of the island, not often eaten and that fish cannot be served every day on religious grounds hence it becomes clear that the cuisine consists mainly of “green” dishes. However, it cannot be said that Balinese food is monotonous, thanks to the creative and at times, intricately complex use of herbs and spices which go towards creating extraordinary taste sensations.
Although still largely authentic, Balinese culinary tradition has seen some changes over the years. It is an age-old adage that, as far as meat is concerned, the Balinese will eat anything that walks, crawls and swims. They can wax lyrical about the taste of dragonflies, crickets, ants and bee larvae as well as hedgehogs, lizards, sawa-eels and sea turtle. These kinds of meats are eaten almost daily in the past and the true Balinese still enjoy eating them although less frequently these days. However, you will not likely to find many of these items on the menu of a Balinese restaurant.
The main difference between Balinese cuisine and other Indonesian cuisines is the use of two basic spice pastes, base megenep (also known as base genep) and base wangenan. Prepared by pounding of different herbs and spices on a flat mortar and mixing them together afterward, both were originally intended to mask and neutralize the strong flavors of various meat. Gradually, they became an integral part of Balinese cooking. The most typical ingredients are shallots, ginger, long pepper, garlic, candlenuts, lesser galangal, bird’s eye chilies, dried shrimp paste, lime, turmeric, galangal, palm sugar, tamarind, coriander, nutmeg, benzoin, cinnamon, cloves, kaffir lime leaves, and sea salt.
This volcanic Indonesian island’s cuisine absolutely explodes with flavor! Compared to the food in most other parts of Indonesia, Balinese cuisine is extremely unique. It’s filled with intense signature spices! Unlike most of Indonesia, there aren’t many Muslims in Bali and so, cooking with pork is generally acceptable. The Balinese love pork and consume it with great enthusiasm especially during ceremonies and celebrations.
In all over Bali, you can see the characteristic dark pigs which often have an enormous belly. The meats from these pigs form the basis of the best-known Balinese dish, Babi Guling. The dish is prepared from using a three to six months old pig weighing between four to six kilos. After the animal is slaughtered, the hairs are removed and the skin rubbed with turmeric, which will result in a beautiful golden color during the spit-roasting. It is then stuffed with herbs and spices, and the belly is then sewn up. The pig is roasted for several hours on a spit over a fire made from coconut shells and husks. To prevent burning, the spit is turned continuously. It is this action that contributed the dish name “Guling” which means “turning”.
Pork has always been much cheaper than beef which helps explain why it is so ubiquitous in Balinese cooking. The beef comes mainly from the light brown Balinese cow. These cattle can has been seen grazing around the rice paddies on the island. Many dishes containing either pork or beef are braised in santen or coconut milk because the meat is tough and require long braising in order to be edible and digestible. Like elsewhere in Indonesia, goat meat features on the menu and among the most well-known goat dishes are sate kambing, a satay of goat meat that is cut into small pieces and threaded onto sticks. These satays are freshly roasted on street stalls all over the island and are served with a sauce of sweet and spicy kecap with ground peanuts and finely chopped shallots.
Bali is completely surrounded by water, so it is natural that tourists would expect to find a lot of fish dishes which always ended up disappointing them. Due to religious grounds, fish is of utmost importance in Bali. According to the Hindu faith, the gods, holy beings and ancestors live above the ground and have taken possession of the heavens. When they descend, they dwell in mountains and when they leave the heavens, most of the gods take up residence in the Pura Besakih, the mother temple which has been erected on the slopes of the Gunung Besakih. Shiva, the highest god, has his own seat there. The belief that the gods dwell in the mountains has led the Balinese to believe that all good things come from these mountains.
To the gods, the earth consists only the island of Bali and then the sea, which lies beneath the level of the earth. This is the dwelling of demons and monsters. Therefore, the sea inspires fear and is also considered unclean. For centuries, this kept the Balinese away from indulging in eating fish and other fruits of the sea. The coral reef closed to the coast also made fishing very difficult, acting as a vast barrier to the tiny fishing vessels. Fish has always been an inferior food, eaten mainly by the poor and is it often much cheaper than meats.
A Balinese fisherman who takes a small boat out to sea in all weather conditions in the hope of returning with a rich harvest is considered to be a truly brave man. The numbers of fisherman had increased over the recent years with the discovery that fish can be a lucrative business. When the Balinese want to catch fishes, they prefer to use a rod and net from the safety of the reef or beach, so that they do not lose contact with the earth.
The main catch consists of mackerel, sardines, tuna, red snapper, and octopus. Due to their limited shelf life, most fish is first dried on the beach under the sun before taken to the market for sales. Fish is also salted or put into the brine to prolong storage life.
Here are some of my recommended local eateries.
- Warung Liku – Jl.Gandapura III F No.10 Denpasar, Bali
- Sate Babi Bawah Pohon (Pork Satay Under the Tree) – Jl. Dewi Sri IV, Legian, Kuta, Kabupaten Badung, Bali
- Nasi Ayam Kedewatan Bu Mangku – Jl. Raya Kedewatan, Sanggingan, Ubud, Bali
- Warung Makan Teges – Jalan Cok Rai Pudak,Peliatan,Ubud, Bali
- Warung Mel Juwel – Sayan, Ubud, Gianyar, Bali
- Warung Dobiel – Jl. Srikandi Jl. Raya Nusa Dua Selatan No.9, Benoa, Kuta Sel., Kabupaten Badung, Bali
- Babi Guling Chandra – Jl. Teuku Umar 140, Denpasar, Bali
- Babi Guling Pak Dobiel – Jl. Srikandi Jl. Raya Nusa Dua Selatan No.9, Benoa, Kuta Sel., Kabupaten Badung, Bali
- Nasi Campur Wardani – Jl. Yudistira No.2, Dangin Puri Kauh, Denpasar Utara, Kota Denpasar, Bali
- Nasi Campur Warung Adi – Jl. Danau Buyan No.15, Sanur, Kec. Denpasar Sel., Kota Denpasar, Bali
- Warung Mak Beng – Jl. Hang Tuah No.45, Sanur Kaja, Denpasar Selatan, Sanur, Bali
- Warung Lesehan Sari Baruna – Jalan Raya Pesinggahan, Klungkung
- Depot Kepiting Crabby – Kompleks Ruko Tuban Plaza, No.4 Jl. By Pass Ngurah Rai Tuban Kuta, Bali