One of the (many) great things about holidaying in Bali is the sheer abundance of dining options, from high-end restaurants to world-class cafes to street food and night markets. Here is everything you need to know about the Balinese and Indonesian dishes you must try.
Bali is a province of Indonesia, and while there are many Balinese specialities you need to try, there’s a large migrant workforce from Java, Sumatra and some of the other 17,508 islands that make up the Indonesian Archipelago so the range of regional cuisines is pretty wide and varied.
Local Food Translations
Here’s a handy list of words and phrases that will help you identify what you’re eating and how to order. The first word is warung (pronounced wah-roong), which loosely translates to a local eating place. It could be as small as 2 seats to much larger open-air stalls located independently or within a pasar malam, or night market.
Here’s an easy way to navigate the Indonesian language when it comes to food.
Nasi = rice. Goreng = fried. Nasi goreng is fried rice. See… simple.
Basic Food Names
- nasi = rice
- mie = noodles
- ayam = chicken
- bebek = duck
- babi = pork
- sapi = Beef
- ikan = fish
- sapi = beef
- kaming = lamb (or goat)
- bakso = meatball
- cabe = chilli
- pisang = banana
Basic Cooking Methods and Styles.
- Goreng = fried, in a wok
- Sate = grilled meat over a very small charcoal bbq
- Bakar = grilled over larger, charcoal fueled bbq
- Kari = curry
- Kecap = braised in sweet soy sauce
- Campur = mixed (as in a mix of food on a plate)
- Lilit = minced (usually meat on a skewer)
List of the most popular Balinese dishes
No guide would be complete without kicking off with sambal which is served with pretty much every meal. It’s like the tomato ketchup of Bali, only much spicier and way better. While there are around 300 varieties os sambal in Indonesia, the three most popular in Bali are:
- Sambal matah – made with finely chopped shallots, lemongrass, garlic, chilli and lime, then mixing it together with hot oil, salt, sugar and a dash of shrimp paste. This is my favourite, and after 5 years here I cannot live without it.
- Sambal tomat – tomato based, usually a bit spicier than sambal matah.
- Sambal terasi – made with a paste from fermented prawns. Let’s just say it’s an acquired taste.
If there is anything that identifies Balinese food culture as far as tourists go it’s nasi goreng, the ubiquitous fried rice sold pretty much everywhere. From street vendors to high-end restaurants, an eating establishment of any kind is often judged by the quality of their nasi goreng.
The brown colouring comes from the spices, but street vendors and small warungs often use low grade cooking oil which also tends to colour the rice. Nasi goreng from a street vendor can cost as little as Rp 10k, from a warung between 15-30k up to 60k in a cafe or restaurant, which will also have a lighter colour.
The lower the price the less vegetables will be used. Higher-end places will often serve the dish with a couple of sate ayam (chicken skewers, but you knew that already), a fried egg, some shrimp crackers and of course sambal.
We do a version of nasi goreng at Villa Koru with a few more vegetables than is usually traditional and a secret ingredient, and it’s been such a hit my housekeeper/chef has declared it her own “grandmother recipe” to be passed onto her children’s children.
If you are looking for an introduction to local Balinese food, you can’t do better than order nasi campur – a moulded mound of rice in the middle of the plate surrounded by the specialities of the house. Often comes in 2 kinds – vege (self-explanatory) and special, with the latter having proteins like a spoonful of ayam betutu and beef rendang and costing a little more.
If you’re looking for a great version of nasi campur I recommend Nook. It’s here that I’ve managed to quietly persuade a lot of my friends and family to try the local dish, getting them past the burgers and western items on the menu, only to have them become instant converts on the lookout for great nasi campur in local warungs where the staff doesn’t speak English.
The variety of side dishes that are served also helps you find out what you like and what you don’t. When I first arrived here this is how I found beloved dishes like balado, tempe in all its forms and urap.
While Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim majority country, Bali is an outlier with 82% of the population being Hindi. This is important because it means that a huge part of Balinese cooking revolves around pork as the primary protein. The remainder are 12% Muslim, 5% Christian and less than 1% Buddhist.
In my experience, Balinese are not just exceptionally creative but also very tolerant. While there are always religious fundamentalists in every society, Bali has been an international trading post for much of its history, which clearly contributed to the local food culture.
And there is no food more popular with the Balinese than babi guling.
The process starts with small-scale families all over Bali that set up early in the morning and slow-roast whole pigs over a fire fueled with dried coconut husks, giving the pork a unique flavour and aroma.
Hundreds or warungs all over Bali will have a standing order from a regular supplier for the cut of their choice – the larger warungs will get in whole spit-roasted pigs and the smaller ones will have delivered their own personal cut – a shoulder for example.
These warungs then break it down and mix a number of dishes using different parts of the pig – mixing some parts with herbs and spices, others with finely diced vegetables, making soup from the bones and off-cuts and sausages (really, the best bit).
So when ordering you don’t get a hunk of pork – you get a few slices along with a mix of other dishes all made in-house. A small serving (10-15k) will come with rice and some dishes, a medium serve (15-20k) with a few more slices of the suckling pig, and the complete version (20-35k) usually served with a piece of crackling and a side dish of soup used to spoon over the rice when eating for an extra flavour kick.
Expert tip, if you are renting a villa with a group of friends or have an occasion where you want the wow factor, you can get a whole suckling pig with all the sides delivered for a memorable night of feasting, Balinese style.
Following hot on the heals of babi guling is the street-side sate babi – small, marinated pieces of pork char-grilled over a small bbq. As a snack in between feasting elsewhwre this can’t be neat. It’s served with either nasi (plain white rice) or nasi lontong – compressed rice cooked in banana leaves, and of course sambal (usually tomat).
Whenever I take family or guests for a tour through the countryside I always stop for sate babi at a few places where I’ve come to know the vendors quite well.
A word to the wise – sate babi is often served with an optional pinch of salt and a whole chilli to chew for seasoning. Beware, these chillis are seriously hot!
Sate ayam is chicken pieces skewered and grilled over the ubiquitous road-side bbq and served with a delicious mixture of peanut sauce. The authentic street food version is sold almost everywhere except the tourist enclaves, where street food vendors are slowly being squeezed out.
You can also get more sophisticated version sold in cafes and restaurants, which the former going for around IDR50-60k and the latter around IDR60-80k.
It’s probably one of the better known Indonesian dishes, and everyone has their own favourite roadside vendor. I quite like the sate across the road opposite from the main entrance to the infamous Kerobokan Prison.
Sate Lilit Ikan
Sate lilit is minced meat with herbs and spices and moulded onto a wide wooden skewer or fresh lemongrass shoot for something a little bit fancier. Sate lilit can be made with pork or chicken but the fish version is my favourite, and you generally won’t even know it’s fish because it won’t have that fishy smell.
Bebek or duck is a big deal in Balinese cuisine. One of my absolute favourite Balinese dishes in Bebek betutu, which is duck braised in herbs and cooked wrapped in banana leaves.
The recipe includes cinnamon, and a paste made with shallots, turmeric, candlenut, chilli, shrimp paste, ginger, lemongrass, palm sugar, lemongrass, peppercorns, salt, coriander seeds and lime juice.
OK. I know what you’re thinking. How can a duck deep fried be a good thing. But I’m here to tell you this is an absolute must-try while in Bali.
The great places have a special blend of oil with a high flash-point that also renders the duck fat leaving the finished product much less greasy than you would expect. And oh my god it’s delicious.
If you really want the best of the best, then get yourself to Bebek Goreng H. Slamet in Legian. The warung is one of the old joglo-style buildings with easy access from Sunset Road to Dew Sri. It’s awesome, but it’s basic. The serve duck and very little else. It’s a Muslim joint, so they have no beer or wine (coke and iced-tea is about it) and the menu is almost all focussed on the heavenly fried duck.
As an example, the menu runs to a quarter, half or whole duck. With rice and sambal if dining in.
There are a few somewhat famous places that I would avoid, like Bebek Bengil in Ubud, where the popularity means you get (what we call it here) overpriced dried duck. Bebek Tepi Sawah in Ubud is a much better option, although I’m at pains to dissuade you from the franchises of the same name at Beachwalk Shopping Mall or Batu Belig.
Balado is a red hot spicy sauce that you can use to stir fry all kind of food, with prawns, squids, eggs, potatoes, and eggplants being the most popular choice. It comes from Padang, a city in West Sumatra famous for its cuisine.
This dish is called terong balado, eggplant with chilli sauce, and is made with red chillies along with palm sugar, tamarind, shallots garlic and salt.