Dinner in Bali
Nasi Putih (White Rice)
Rice is the staple food of Indonesia, and the word nasi means both “rice” and “meal.” And while plain white rice might not seem like anything noteworthy, it is an almost necessary complement to the intricately spiced dishes that make up the majority of Balinese cuisine. Rice is considered a sacred gift from the gods, and in return, it is always included in religious offerings - especially to Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice. Balinese cultivation of rice stands out from Indonesia’s already vast production of rice because of its ancient supak system of irrigation. The supak system combines terraces and canals to harness the water necessary for rice production. Supak, though, is not simply a feat of engineering - it is a physical convergence of the spirit, human, and natural worlds, and the committees that control the subak systems are endowed with great authority and respect. The subak irrigation system was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. (Vegan, no gluten.)
Lawar Buncis Bali (Coconut and Lemongrass Salad)
Lawar is the name for any dish made of up chopped foods in Bali (lawar means “sliced”), and there are many, many iterations of this food. It is part of every ceremonial meal, though often with meat or offal as part of the dish. This vegetarian lawar is made with lemongrass, coconut, shallots, chilies, beans, and kaffir lime leaves - all tossed with bumbu, a Balinese spice paste made with an impressive array of spices, and used to flavor many different dishes. Bumbu showcases the spices that made Indonesia so important to spice merchants - turmeric, cumin, coriander, galangal, ginger, chilies, lemongrass, nutmeg, and cloves all grow on the islands of Indonesia, and nutmeg holds the title for Most Sought-After Spice of the 17th century. Nutmeg was so important to the spice trade that the Dutch traded their swampy, seemingly worthless, far-away colony of New Amsterdam (now the island of Manhattan) to the British in 1667 for the Indonesian island of Run, thereby gaining complete control over nutmeg production and trade at the time. (Contains soy; vegan, no gluten.)
Sate Lilit (Minced Chicken Satay)
Satay is probably a familiar food to you - though it originated in Indonesia, it has been rapidly adopted throughout the US, likely because it is not a huge stretch for people already comfortable with kebabs and grilled meat! Sate lilit simply means “minced meat satay”, and can be any kind of meat or fish (except beef, which is not generally consumed on the Hindu island of Bali). Here, minced chicken is seasoned with a bumbu (chili spice paste) similar to the one used for the lawar, and then shaped around a stick of lemongrass and seared. The distinctive ingredient in this skewer is the use of desiccated coconut which gives it a bright sweetness and slightly crunchy texture. Satay lilit is ubiquitous in Bali - from street vendors to home cooks to elaborate festival preparations. (Contains candlenuts, shellfish; no gluten.)
Babi Guling (Roasted Pork Belly)
Though they traditionally consume little meat in their everyday dishes, Balinese people usually use pork in festival and ceremonial cooking, as it is considered the preferred food of the gods. Since Bali is the majority-Hindu outlier in majority-Muslim Indonesia, there is no taboo against pork, and indeed, Balinese pot-bellied pigs are raised by most households (they are a decent source of income for some families, as they are cheap to raise, and can be easily sold at market). They are fattened up on kitchen scraps, rice hulls, sweet potatoes, and other starches. Babi guling is perhaps Bali’s best-loved food, and it is served for many ceremonial occasions. Though babi guling was once reserved for ceremonial occasions, more and more it is available at specialty warung for anyone who has an urge for it. Traditionally, an entire pig would be spit-roasted, the crunchy, almost candied skin being the real star of the show. Since we don’t quite have the set up for a whole hog, we’ve prepared pork belly in a more kitchen-friendly manner; no less tasty, though far less dramatic. The belly is spiced and briefly dry-aged before roasting until the skin crackles and the meat is meltingly tender. (Contains candlenuts; no gluten.)
Bebek Betutu (Shredded Duck)
Ducks serve a dual purpose in Balinese cuisine - they work the fields, and they are cooked up in ceremonial dishes. They are raised in the rice paddies, where they perform important weeding and insect control duties; when evening falls, they will actually line up and follow the rice farmer (who carries a flag on a bamboo pole!) home to their protected enclosure adjacent to the paddy. Unlike pork, duck remains prohibitively expensive, so this dish is still generally made only on special occasions. A whole duck is smothered in an intricate spice paste, swaddled in banana leaves, and roasted for hours. For major temple ceremonies, the whole roasted or smoked duck is presented to the priests, who will bless the duck and pray over it, ring bells and chant, and then return the duck to the people, to be eaten in the temple. In Balinese Food: The Traditional Cuisine and Food Culture of Bali, Vivienne Kruger describes it thus: “Bebek betutu explodes in your mouth like a flavor firecracker. It is full of hot, hand-crushed peppers, spice-driven excitement, and a deep, abiding love for the gods.” We definitely could not improve upon that description! (Contains candlenuts, shellfish; no gluten.)
Sambal Matah and Kerupuk (Raw Chili & Ginger Slaw and Prawn Crackers)
Sambal is a chili-based condiment that is always served with Indonesian food. Where bumbu (in the lawar and the sate above) is used in cooking, sambal is used by diners to adjust the spiciness of their food. There are infinite variations on sambal - some fiery hot, and some more mild; some complex in flavor, some more straightforward. For our Dinner in Yogyakarta, we made sambal bajak, which is more typical of central Java. Sambal matah is the most commonly served sambal in Bali, and it is unique in that it is a raw sambal, where most sambal is cooked. It is prepared with chilies, shallots, garlic, ginger, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and a hint of palm sugar for sweetness. It is bright and fragrant, and enjoyed with everything from vegetables to meat to rice. Kerupuk are salty, puffy prawn crackers that are a favorite snack food in Indonesia and add a crunch to every meal. They’re delicious with the sambal, and with anything else you can scoop up onto them (though maybe not the wajik below…)! (Sambal contains no allergens; vegan, no gluten. Kerupuk contains shellfish; no gluten.)
Wajik (Sweet Sticky Rice)
Wajik is a simple treat - sticky rice cooked in a syrup of palm sugar, coconut milk, and pandan leaves - but it is beloved and available all across Indonesia. We’ve talked about the importance of rice in Balinese culture, and sticky rice (ketan) is just one of several rice varieties used in the cuisine. Wajik means “diamond”, and refers to the shape of the dessert; the syrupy rice is pressed into a pan, cooled, and then cut into diamond shapes. Wajik is a common celebratory food, prepared for family occasions and temple offerings. It falls into the category of kue, which are bite-sized snacks or desserts. (No gluten, vegan.)
Beer is simply the best pairing for all the floral, pungent, and herbaceous notes inherent to this food. Although most of Indonesia practices Islam, the Indonesian beer industry is actually one of the oldest in South East Asia and is especially common on the island of Bali. In the 1920s Heineken (under the auspices of Dutch colonial rule) created one of the region’s first domestic breweries. After independence, Heineken was nationalized as Bintang Beer and it still remains the most common beer in the archipelago. Although we can’t find Bintang here in Michigan, you can use any Asian lager such as Kirin Ichiban, Tsingtao, Sapporo, Asahi, etc.
Bali is the “Island of the Gods” - one of 17,508 islands in the archipelago of Indonesia, situated just north of Australia in the South Pacific Ocean. It was first united with several other islands as the Kingdom of Kahuripan in 1019 CE, though it was inhabited long before that (around 2000 BCE). A long succession of kingdoms and ruling royal houses preceded the colonial era, and the island developed a rich and sophisticated language, religion, and culture during this time. By the time the Portuguese first arrived in 1512, Indonesia was already important in the global spice trade. The Molucca Islands to the northeast were the original Spice Islands (though there are many other “spice islands” along the spice trading routes); the native nutmeg, mace, and cloves that grew there brought the mercenary attention of Portugal, Spain, Britain, and the Netherlands. We’ve said it before, and we’ll undoubtedly say it again: the spice trade was the primary driving force of the global economy for hundreds of years; everyone wanted Indonesia’s spices. Wars for control of the spice trade from and through Indonesia continued even while the Dutch forcefully retained control of the country for over 300 years, beginning with the establishment of the Dutch East India Company in 1602, and lasting until Indonesia declared independence in 1945. We wrote a little more extensively about the history of Indonesia for our Dinner in Yogyakarta. Bali was largely left out of the spice trade that defined much of Indonesian history, as its main crop was (and still is) rice; it was still part of the battles for dominion and colonization, but it was pursued less aggressively.
Bali’s mountainous hikes, black sand beaches, waterfalls, underwater sculpture gardens, caves, coral reefs, and temples have made it an increasingly popular tourist destination since the 1970s; when Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love was released (the memoir and then the movie), tourism exploded. Temples are everywhere in Bali - sea temples, cave temples, lake temples, big temples, tiny temples, etc. Some are elaborate (such as the famed and beautiful Pura Lempuyang Luhur, with its seven temples ascending Mount Lempuyang behind an elaborate stone gate dubbed the “gateway to heaven”), and some are modest (every home has its own). Hinduism first took root in Indonesia around 400 CE - long before the significant establishment of Buddhism (770 CE) or Islam (1500 CE). Bali is the only Hindu-majority province in Indonesia; while the population of Indonesia is overall 87% Muslim, the population of Bali is 87% Hindu. Balinese Hinduism is a blend of Indian Hinduism and local influences of animism, ancestor worship, and some aspects of Buddhism. Because Balinese Hinduism is a combination of traditions and religions, there are many different ceremonies, celebrations, rituals, temples, and gods (hence Bali’s nickname “Island of the Gods”). The Balinese people give thanks to the gods three times daily: ritual offerings (canang sari) of crackers, cigarettes, flowers, and rice are placed atop small baskets of banana or palm leaves, and left on the ground outside of homes, offices, shops, hotels, and beaches. The offerings are intended to thank the gods for blessings bestowed, ask the benevolent gods for assistance, and appease the evil demons, all in the name of establishing harmony and balance in daily life. Much of Balinese culture revolves around the balance of dualities - good and evil, dark and light, gods and demons.
Balinese families often live together in small compounds, but eating is a relatively solitary activity in an otherwise very sociable and communal culture. The only time food is consumed communally is during festivals and celebrations, which are quite frequent. At home, food is prepared in large quantities in the morning, and family members simply eat when they are hungry. Outside the home, restaurants are plentiful, but the best places to eat are the warung - family run eateries and roadside stalls that prepare and serve local dishes (the same food that is prepared for the family). Balinese food is not inherently spicy, but there is always a dish of sambal on the table so that diners can adjust spiciness to their liking. Sambal is a chili paste made, at its most basic, with chili peppers, vinegar (or lime), and salt; there are countless varieties, and many families have their own recipes. The food is defined by lots of vegetable dishes; smaller amounts of meat, fish, and fowl; and the cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, and cloves that made the islands so desirable to spice traders. Rice is of the utmost importance, and food eaten without rice is simply a snack. Rice is seen as a gift of life from the gods, and Balinese rice farmers set up shrines in their rice fields to Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice.
While the food of Bali is egalitarian, in the sense that there is no “palace cuisine” as there is in many other Southeast Asian cuisines, there are two distinct categories of food - festival food and everyday food. Festival food is cooked with an eye toward pleasing the gods, as all festivals and celebrations have an offertory component. Given that festivals and celebrations occur with great frequency, though, these are not rare dishes - simply not everyday fare.
When you are finished with your meal, Indonesian etiquette calls for you to leave a small portion of food on your plate as an offering of thanks to the gods, and to let your host know that you have had enough to eat. We won’t hold you to it, though, as this meal is too delicious to leave any behind!
Featured Recipe: Sambal Matah
Serves 4 as a side
Adapted from Coconut & Sambal
6 small Asian shallots, peeled and thinly sliced (or ~85 g of normal shallots)
20 g ginger, peeled and julienned
1 garlic clove / 4 g, thinly sliced
2 fresno chilies / 35 g, finely chopped
2 lemongrass stalks, thinly sliced (33 g after removing the tough outer layers)
2.5 g lime zest (1 lime)
2 tbsp lime juice (1 lime)
2 kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced (fresh leaves only, if not available just omit)
10 g palm sugar
½ tsp sea salt
1 tsp sunflower oil
Place the sliced shallots in a bowl and sprinkle with a generous pinch of salt. Set aside for at least 15 minutes. This will take the raw edge off of them.
Mix together the ginger, garlic, chilies, lemongrass, lime zest and juice and kaffir lime leaves. Add the shallots and season the sambal with sugar, salt and additional lime juice to taste. Drizzle with oil and serve.
Recipes Inspired By:
Lara Lee’s amazing tribute to her Indonesian heritage, Coconut and Sambal is a fantastic resource for Indonesian cuisine, especially Javanese, Balinese, and Timorese.
Marvellina’s grew up in Indonesia and now lives in Minnesota, check out her incredible Indonesian food blog!
Marion Grasby’s website and videos are great for all sorts of East-Asian cuisine
This timeline gives an excellent overview of Indonesian history and major events.
Information on the 1965-66 attempted coup of the military government, and the tragic massacre that followed.
More information and wonderful photographs of the Balinese Hindu ritual offerings to the gods and demons, from modest daily offerings to elaborate ceremonial creations.
Photos of some of Bali’s more famous Hindu temples.
This video shows the inside of a typical family compound in Bali.
Balinese Food: The Traditional Cuisine and Food Culture of Bali by Vivienne Kruger.