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The world of Indonesian food

What to eat when you're in Bali

Indonesian food can be somewhat of a challenging thing to experience in Bali. Balinese people are very hospitable and generally want to make visitors feel at home. So they've become quite good at cooking every cuisine in the world. 
I've probably had my best Italian, French and Mexican food experiences in Bali. Given the enormous armies of locally trained chef and cooks that graduate from the 5-star hotels in Nusa Dua and open restaurants, it doesn't surprise me that the standards are quite high on the island. It's so easy to find exceptional food from almost every culture and nation in this world, and yet it is an interesting challenge to find authentic Indonesian food suitable to foreign palates here. 
Warung Nikmat has a large selection of Indonesian curries, fish/meat dishes, and sambals. 
Whenever visitors ask me about taking them to try authentic Indonesian food, I'm not quite sure how I should explain this. Here's my best attempt.
  • Restaurant culture is very new, and most Indonesians aren't comfortable eating at restaurants, they eat at warungs or from street-side vendors.
  • Warungs are very local, simple spaces. Warungs might or might not have menus. They're pretty basic on ambiance. This can be as simple as the front yard of a family's home. They serve home cooked food, the hygiene is questionable and some visitors are likely to get Bali belly from eating at these places.
  • Street vendors offer a universe of short-order foods. Grilled meats, fried rice, ice desserts, fruit salads, meat ball soups, freshly steamed rice cakes. The food is typically hot and fresh, but the hygiene is again questionable.
  • Indonesians eat at home. Mom cooks the day's food and leaves it in the kitchen. The family sort of serves themselves buffet style throughout the day. I understand that this is the way it's done in India as well. 
So if you want to eat authentic Indonesian food, you'll have to visit a warung, buy off a street vendor or eat at somebody's home. So let's dig into warungs first.  
Warungs are a uniquely Indonesian institution. Indonesians are fairly entrepreneurial and family oriented and thus the warung is born.  A warung begins with any space in a home that can be converted into a commercial operation, usually serving food or snacks.  You'll typically find them on the sides of major traffic arteries and sometimes even deep inside residential neighborhoods. In my housing complex, this lady has opened up her garage and made it into a warung. Warungs are universally family businesses and the lady you see behind the cash box is probably the owner. She went to the market in the early hours of the morning to buy the day's ingredients. She cooks and serves food. You get personalized service at a warung.
Nasi Campur is a popular and fast meal in Indonesia. You pick from a buffet with many items and choose meat & vegetable dishes. You can add sambal, a chili paste, upon request. 
Sate Lilit is a beautiful balinese dish made from minced chicken, root spices and chili. It's sweet, savory and a bit like chicken apple sausage. 
The food at warungs is hit or miss.  There's some warungs that do a certain thing so well that they're always packed. For example, one of our favorite warungs is on the road to Nusa Dua. They serve sate. I've eaten there 100s of times and yet I still don't know the name of the place. Talk about a lost opportunity for branding there.  They're a fairly run-down and dingy spot, a bit like a really tucked away BBQ joint.  They do Indonesian BBQ, that beautiful art of cooking meat on small sticks. Sate! 
Jimbaran seafood in Menega cafe. High quality, reasonably priced seafood. No haggling, just fair/honest seafood everyday. 
Another of our family's favorite warungs is in Kuta. It's called Warung Nikmat. Literally "Pleasure Warung". I think the next President of Indonesia needs to make it a law that all Indonesian food should taste as good as the food here. Almost all of their items could be served at state dinners in Jakarta.  I'm not sure how they do it, but they've literally perfected every single Indonesian dish.  The oxtail soup is something of a magical elixir that is perfectly seasoned with a delicate gelatinous mouth-feel. Not a single bad item on the menu. 
There's warungs that are so famous, that they've transformed into restaurants. Ibu Oka has gotten the well deserved reputation for serving some of the finest Balinese roast pork on the island. We've had better at Balinese temple ceremonies, but she does it so well and so consistently. 
The classic Balinese dish of Babi guling, spit roasted suckling pig. Perfect with a freshly split coconut water right from the husk. This one is from Ibu Oka, she opened her little BBQ shack next to the Ubud palace years ago. Now there's five locations around Ubud. 
The food is guaranteed to be tasty and cheap.  Tasty because it's laced with MSG, palm oil, globs of sweet soy sauce and scads of hot chilis. Cheap because it's uncommon to spent more than three dollars for two people at a warung. 
Ayam betutu is a special roasted chicken, wrapped in spices and roasted in a banana leaf. Ibu Oki, across from the Hotel Santika in Nusa Dua. #legendary
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