Bali’s tropical cuisine

Almost everything consumed in Bali is grown locally.

BBQ Indonesian style, grilling chicken satay along a main road in Ubud (photo credit: VIVIENNE KRUGER)
BBQ Indonesian style, grilling chicken satay along a main road in Ubud
(photo credit: VIVIENNE KRUGER)
On her first trip to Bali, Dr. Vivienne Kruger, the author of Balinese Food, fell in love with the exotic “island of the gods.”
“Everything in Bali is absolutely fresh,” said Kruger in her talk for the Culinary Historians of Southern California. On this tropical island the women, who cook the family meals, make “full use of the array of spices, fruits, grains, fish and vegetables that nature has given to work with.”
In the villages, a woman goes to the market at five in the morning and purchases everything needed to cook for that day, including the spices. There is no refrigeration in most Balinese compounds.
“They actually don’t want refrigeration,” said Kruger. They like to follow their ancient culinary culture in which everything is cooked fresh and nothing is kept for the next day; any leftovers are given to the family pigs or dogs.
We gasped when we glanced at a recipe that Kruger gave us after her lecture, which called for fresh dragonflies. Fortunately, many Balinese dishes can be made with flavorings that are common in our markets.
If you like Thai or Indian food, you will most likely enjoy Indonesian cooking, which has some of the characteristics of both – food flavored with coconut milk and with plenty of spices and aromatic flavorings such as ginger and garlic.
At Simpang Asia in Los Angeles, we love the Indonesian dishes such as nasi kuning – yellow rice cooked with coconut milk, lemon grass and turmeric, which is shaped into a cone and served with curried vegetables and chicken satays.
(See recipe.) The Balinese don’t learn to cook from recipes. “None of the complex ancient recipes for daily food or for extraordinary festival cuisine are copied down,” wrote Kruger.
“...Like so many other traditions in Bali, cooking techniques and eating habits are passed down verbally by elders to their children and grandchildren who help in the kitchen.... From childhood Balinese know how to slice, chop, mix and grind out recipes with great skill. They observe, learn and master the fine collaborative art of creating monumental spice pastes and sambal sauces, the twin culinary symbols of traditional Balinese cuisine....The hand is the standard measurement device.”
According to Kruger, the most important kitchen tool is the mortar and pestle, which is common to all Southeast Asian countries. They are used to crush, grind and combine dry spices and aromatic seasonings, which “are transformed into the fragrant spice and herb pastes so essential for Balinese cooking.” For example, to make the Balinese fried rice that we sampled after Kruger’s talk, chilies, shallots and garlic are pounded to a paste, then sautéed; next, cooked rice, cabbage and sesame oil are added.
Balinese are largely vegetarian, said Kruger, and their food is healthful. In a typical meal, rice is accompanied by wild leaves cooked with many spices. Tofu or tempeh (fermented soybean cakes) and tiny pieces of anchovy or sardines from the nearby waters are also served. Balinese might eat chicken once a month, and red meat only rarely. The only fat used is coconut oil. Coconuts grow everywhere and make the food taste delicious. In addition, said Kruger, Balinese are physically active and have low stress levels.
Kruger described another style of Balinese cuisine, which is cooked by men. They prepare “magnificent food offerings for the gods” that are “true masterpieces.”
Some can be gigantic constructions that stay for a week in the temple. Women are not allowed to cook this religious ceremonial food.
Almost everything consumed in Bali is grown locally. “Balinese coffee is gorgeous,” said Kruger enthusiastically. “It’s one of the most fragrant coffees in the world. The men drink about five cups of coffee a day – black and very sweet. But,” she said, “if you want to have it, you have to come to Bali.”
At a Balinese meal, “several dishes are... eaten together with a mound of steamed rice,” wrote Janet De Neefe, author of Fragrant Rice: My Continuing Love Affair with Bali. “...At least four dishes are prepared, along with a spicy sambal, and the rice holds center stage.”
To make Indonesia’s celebrated mini-kebabs, known as satays, “you’ll see the vendors in the markets busily fanning and twirling satays over glowing coconut husks,” wrote De Neefe, who runs two restaurants and a cooking school in Bali. “Tossed with a fiery sweet peanut sauce and wrapped in banana leaves or brown paper, they become a hearty take-away snack or meal.” De Neefe’s peanut sauce is flavored with chili peppers, garlic, tomato, palm sugar, sweet soy sauce and fried shallots. Peanut sauce also accompanies gado-gado, a dish made of cooked vegetables, hard-boiled eggs and tofu. (See recipes.) Water spinach, a favorite of De Neefe’s children, is a popular vegetable in Bali.
It is cooked and mixed with spicy tomato-chili sambal, fried shallots, kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) and shredded kaffir lime leaves. This kind of dish could be made with Western spinach, too.
Kruger described Bali’s cooking as an integral part of the religious customs of the Balinese, who are Hindu, unlike the people in the other islands of Indonesia, who are Muslims. She considers Balinese food “among the leading cuisines of the world.”
“The women cook... food with great care, at a low cooking heat, with attention to detail and inner joy... they cook only to please and honor their gods.” 
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning book Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.
“Nasi kuning is a very special sacred food,” wrote Vivienne Kruger. “...It is prepared for many different ceremonies and is always fashioned in a beautiful, highly decorated conical shape to resemble Bali’s most holy mountain, Gunung Agung.” This delicious rice is cooked in coconut milk with turmeric and lemongrass, and is garnished with tomato and cucumber slices, red chilies and omelet pieces.
This recipe is based on the yellow rice in Cooking the Indonesian Way, by Kari Cornell and Merry Anwar.
■ 4 Tbsp. vegetable oil ■ 2 cloves garlic, minced ■ 2 onions, chopped fine ■ 1 Tbsp. turmeric ■ 2½ cups (about 450 gr. or 1 lb.) jasmine rice ■ 3 cups water ■ 1 400-gr. (14-oz.) can coconut milk, regular or reduced-fat ■ 2 stalks lemongrass ■ ½ to 1 tsp. salt In a stew pan, heat oil over medium heat. Add garlic, onions and turmeric and stir-fry for 3 minutes, until onions are soft but not brown.
Add rice and stir to coat. Add water, coconut milk, lemongrass and salt.
Bring to a boil, stirring often. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until rice has absorbed all the liquid. Remove from heat and cover pan with a dish towel. Let stand for 15 minutes.
Remove lemongrass stalks. To serve, mound rice in a cone shape on a serving platter.
“Gado-gado,” wrote Kruger, “is found all over Indonesia in many different versions that vary from island to island.... The dish contains an assorted potpourri of lightly steamed fresh vegetables served with a tangy peanut sauce. It is normally eaten lukewarm or cold, with white rice.” Her recipe also includes 30 bite-size pieces of fried tempeh (a fermented soy cake).
Serves 4 to 6 ■ 250 gr. (about ½ lb.) cabbage, sliced ■ 250 gr. (about ½ lb.) carrots, sliced ■ 250 gr. (about ½ lb.) green beans, halved ■ 250 gr. (about ½ lb.) Chinese cabbage, sliced ■ 250 gr. (about ½ lb.) spinach ■ 1 or 2 handfuls of cauliflower florets ■ Vegetable oil for frying ■ 20 to 30 bite-sized pieces firm tofu, patted dry ■ 250 gr. (about ½ lb.) bean sprouts ■ 20 slices cucumber ■ 4 to 6 boiled eggs, sliced or quartered ■ Tomato slices (for garnish) ■ 1 or 2 fried shallots (see note below) ■ Peanut sauce (see recipe below) Lightly steam or boil each kind of vegetable separately until tender-crisp – the cabbage, carrots, cauliflower and green beans about 6 minutes, and the Chinese cabbage and spinach about 3 minutes; set aside.
Heat 2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil in a skillet, preferably nonstick. Add enough tofu pieces to make one layer, and fry until lightly browned. Remove from skillet and drain on paper towels.
Add more oil to pan as needed and fry rest of tofu in batches.
On a serving plate, layer or arrange the steamed vegetables with the tofu, raw bean sprouts and cucumber. Decorate with egg and tomato slices. Sprinkle with fried shallots. Serve peanut sauce separately.
Note: Fried shallots: Cut 1 or 2 shallots into thin slices and sprinkle with ½ tsp. salt. Heat ½ cup vegetable oil in a skillet. Add shallots and fry 5 to 7 minutes, stirring often, until they brown slightly. Remove with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
“My children love the chicken satay from the man... at the market,” wrote Janet De Neefe.
“Tiny chunks of meat are basted over hot smoky coconut coals.... A light peanut sauce is drizzled over the warm meat before it’s wrapped... to take home and eat with rice. It’s a special market treat.”
Makes 12 sticks ■ 12 satay sticks ■ 300 gr. (10 oz.) chicken breast, skin and fat removed ■ 3 cloves garlic, chopped ■ 3 Tbsp. oil ■ 2 Tbsp. fried shallots, plus more for garnish ■ 1 tsp. soy sauce ■ 3 tsp. kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) or equal parts soy sauce and brown sugar ■ 2 tsp. cracked black pepper ■ 3 kaffir lime leaves, shredded finely, or a pinch of grated lime or lemon zest ■ Peanut sauce (see recipe below) and cooked rice (for serving) ■ Fried shallots (for garnish) Soak satay sticks in water for 30 minutes to prevent charring during cooking.
Slice chicken into small cubes of about 2 x 2 cm. (¾ by ¾ in.). Mix garlic, oil, 2 tablespoons fried shallots, soy sauce, kecap manis, black pepper and shredded lime leaves in a bowl. Add about two thirds of mixture to chicken and mix, making sure meat is well coated with marinade. Leave for at least 10 minutes.
If leaving longer, cover with plastic film and refrigerate. Reserve remaining marinade separately to use for basting.
Thread 3 or 4 chicken chunks onto each stick. Barbecue or grill until golden brown, about 4 minutes on each side, basting from time to time with the marinade that was reserved for basting to prevent them from drying out.
Serve with peanut sauce and with rice. Garnish with fried shallots.
“Peanut sauce is one of Indonesia’s most popular condiments,” wrote De Neefe. “Varying in degrees of spiciness and sweetness, it is exceedingly simple to make and can be served with snacks or a main course.” For a shortcut, she recommends using roasted peanuts and skipping the step of frying.
Makes 1 bowl or about 4 to 6 servings ■ 1 cup oil (for frying peanuts) ■ 150 gr. (5 oz.) raw unsalted peanuts ■ 1 tsp. sea salt ■ 1 large red chili, trimmed and de-seeded ■ 2 bird’s-eye chilies (small, very hot chilies) ■ 4 cloves garlic ■ ¼ medium tomato ■ 1 Tbsp. palm sugar or brown sugar ■ 2 tsp. kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), or 1 tsp. soy sauce and 1 tsp. brown sugar ■ 2 kaffir lime leaves, finely shredded, or a pinch of grated lime or lemon zest ■ 2 Tbsp. fried shallots ■ ½ cup water Heat the oil in a wok over medium heat. Fry peanuts a handful at a time, until just golden brown. Remember: they keep cooking after they’ve been taken from wok. Do not discard the skins. Remove peanuts with a slotted spoon, place on paper towels and sprinkle with ½ teaspoon sea salt (to keep peanuts dry and crisp).
Place remaining ingredients, but not the peanuts, in food processor and blend to a paste. Add half the fried peanuts and blend until fairly smooth; then add remaining half. Add more water if necessary. For a sweeter, darker sauce, add more kecap manis. Check seasonings for balance of sweet, sour, salty and spicy.