Bali - smoke and sambal
Since colonisation by the Dutch East India Company in the late 16th century, the nation now known as Indonesia has been one of the spice centres of the world. Its top spice exports these days are pepper and nutmeg, but a huge variety are grown across Indonesia - turmeric, cloves, ginger, tamarind, lemongrass...the list goes on.
Indonesia includes over 6,000 populated islands, so naturally the cuisine is extremely varied - and in the paradise island of Bali, where so many of the spices grow and are used both fresh and dried, the cuisine is deliciously complex in flavour.
Fresh red chillies used mostly in cooking, and the mixture of red and green for sambal, sold next to bags of ginger, lemongrass and turmeric pastes
Many Balinese recipes use the same base spice blend - known as base gede - which is then combined with different ingredients for different effects. This spice blend itself varies with every chef (of course!), but it’s generally a combination of: chilli, shallots, ginger, galangal, kencur (aka lesser galangal), black pepper, nutmeg, lemongrass, cloves, turmeric, coriander seed, shrimp paste, salam leaves (aka Indonesian bay leaves) and candlenuts (an oily nut, similar to macadamia in texture).
As the spices grow locally, spice blends are often made using only fresh ingredients (even with soft fresh nutmegs rather than the hard ones we use!)
Sambalaccompanies everything - whether the bright red gloop from a bottle or a strange mixture in a little pot on the table of a street food stall...but my favourite condiment in Bali is sambal matah or raw sambal - made from shallots, birdseye chillies, toasted shrimp paste, kaffir lime juice, garlic, lemongrass and coconut oil.
Sambal matah, and sambal
There are street food stalls, known as warung, almost everywhere, from tiny carts to established family restaurants - these each tend to specialise in a particular type of food.
Much of Bali is Balinese Hindu - so there’s rarely beef on the menu. Mostly there’s chicken, pork and a wide variety of seafood. The fish markets are full each morning as restaurants vye for the freshest fish from Java & Bali. Almost every meal is eaten with rice, and one of Bali’s main meals is nasi campur- a pile of plain white rice surrounded by small portions of other dishes. There’s usually one or two meat or fish dishes, a few cooked vegetable dishes, maybe a raw veg dish and (of course) sambal.
This nasi campur includes fried chicken, a mild pork curry, potato cakes, peanutty spinach, stewed green chillies and a fresh sambal
Smoke is a key flavour component in Balinese street food - aka “coconut charcoal”, the dried husks of coconuts are burned as fuel.
Fish is basted with a spice blend then grilled over the fragrant flames
Satay skewers both pork and chicken, are popular throughout Indonesia, served with spiced peanut sauce
Indonesia’s classic nasi goreng - spiced fried rice, topped with fried egg
One of Bali’s famous dishes is babi guling, or suckling pig. Traditionally for celebrations, a whole pig is stuffed with a mixture of numerous herbs and spices then roasted and basted for hours. The flavoursome stuffing is served alongside a selection of meat, innards and crispy skin.
One of the more impressive remnants of Dutch colonisation is the rijsttafel style of eating, found in the fancier restaurants - the Dutch colonials liked trying a bit of everything at once (and impressing their guests), so the table will have somewhere between 7 and 40 different foods
rijstaffel for two at Bumbu Bali restaurant, including 3 types of satay, curries, steamed duck and fish balls, vegetable dishes and more
Bali is great for vegetarians, there’s heaps of tofu, aubergine and tempe. This tahu ces(pronounced chess) is a tofu dish of spicy fried tofu and beansrouts.
Murtabak ayam - looks unimpressive/unhealthy, but is actually really great (but not healthy). Dough stretched thin, filled with a chicken omelette mixture, folded and deep fried.
And then my favourite thing of all...lalapan. Not for the weak of stomach, lalapan meals involve meat, tofu or tempe grilled (in a seriously spicy sauce) then served with more sambal, rice and fresh vegetables.
On the left is the basting sauce which appears to be mostly chillies, and sweet soy sauce (kecap manis) and on the right is addictively spiced grilled fish lalapan
Heinz von Holzen is one of Bali’s top chefs, passionate about Indonesian cuisine and its deliciousness, but also the practicality of creating great food. He runs the award-winning Bumbu Bali restaurant and cooking school, which is a great place to try specifically Balinese food - many of the warung sell Javanese food, or food from other parts of Indonesia, rather than Balinese in particular. Heinz reckons that one reason that Indonesian food is known as so delicious is umami. The “fifth taste”, mostly pinpointed as the savoury dimension in foods such as parmesan and anchovies, umami is what makes food taste especially delicious - and Balinese food, with its use of ingredients such as shrimp paste and soy sauce, as well as the love of deep-frying, is packed with umami.
Many thanks to Heinz von Holzen for his insights (do check out Bumbu Bali restaurant & the cooking school if you are headed to Bali!)...and also huge thanks to Putu for introducing lalapanto British tastebuds.