Sequestered eight secret—and sacred—degrees south of the equator, Bali is the shining green jewel in the lush, verdant Indonesian archipelago. Bali is blessed with fertile rice fields, rich volcanic soil, lush coconuts and bananas, flourishing fruit trees, edible wild greens, plentiful fish, and a seductive natural supply of fragrant herbs and spices.
Born and bred in tropical equatorial abundance, Balinese food evolved into an energetic cuisine full of exotic aromas, flavors, textures, and ingredients. It also plays a pivotal role in Balinese religion, ritual, and society: the Balinese cook in order to eat, as well as to honor, please, welcome, and serve the gods. To understand Bali’s cuisine, we must appreciate the tripartite role of food as vital human sustenance, sacrificial offering to respect the gods, and essential ritual component of Bali-Hindu religious ceremonies.
Food is inextricably intertwined with faith: behind high, family compound walls and on bale banjar (neighborhood meeting hall pavilions), entire communities make sacred ceremonial quantities of yellow-colored rice, sweet rice cakes, meat-filled banana leaf offerings, and rows of skewered chicken saté offerings for the gods. In the Bali-Hindu religion, the making of ceremonial food and offerings is, in itself, an act of worshipping and honoring the gods.
Balinese food is singular among the leading cuisines of the world. Dedicated to the gods and fueled by an aromatic array of achingly fresh spices, this time-consuming, manual culinary art is inextricably bound to this one island’s religion, culture, and village life.
Large-scale rituals and ceremonies escalate into large-scale ceremonial feasts. Exquisitely embellished ritual foods—a sumptuous spread of Bali’s most spectacular dishes—are prepared for life cycle rituals (ground-touching ceremonies, weddings, toothfilings, and cremations), temple anniversaries, and important religious holidays like Galungan-Kuningan.
Food artistry reaches a crescendo in amazing, six-foot-tall, banten tegeh fruit offering towers borne on the heads of magnificently dressed local women. They carry the heavy, multi-layered, “fruit skyscrapers” throughout village streets in colorful, traffic-stopping, single file processions to their nearby temples.
Once it is blessed by the pemangku (village priest), the family then takes it home to eat. The Balinese create and eat purified, blessed food—a source of both spiritual and physical nourishment. Theirs is the elaborate food of the gods.
Vivienne Kruger is a social and cultural historian with an M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. in American history from Columbia University. She has enjoyed a twenty-year-long literary, spiritual, and cultural love affair with Bali. She served as a special research consultant for E Entertainment Television channel’s Wild On Bali program (1998-1999). She has written for Bali and Beyond Magazine and the Bali Advertiser. She lived in Bali for two amazing years.
Gado-Gado (Mixed Steamed Vegetables in Peanut Sauce)
Gado-gado (in Bahasa Indonesia) or jukut mesantok (in Balinese), is found all over Indonesia in many different versions–and varies from island to island. Gado-gado means “mixed,” or consisting of many elements: the dish characteristically consists of an assorted potpourri of very lightly steamed (or par-boiled) fresh vegetables served with a tangy peanut sauce. It is normally eaten lukewarm or cold.
The favorites are long green beans, cabbage, kangkung (water spinach), carrots, cauliflower, and bean sprouts. It will always be accompanied by hot, steamed white rice. The stunning, full presentation usually includes crispy fried tempe, tahu (tofu), slices of ketupat rice cake, a boiled potato, a boiled egg, sliced cucumber, fried shallots, and crunchy krupuk crackers. The Balinese rarely eat gado-gado at home, but it is lovingly ladled out (very inexpensively) at most small warungs in Bali or by street vendors (with aromatic, made-and-mixed-to-order peanut sauce, wrapped in a banana leaf to go)
Recipe courtesy of Ni Wayan Murni, Murni’s Warung, Campuhan-Ubud, Bali.
250g cabbage, sliced
250g carrots, sliced
250g green beans, halved
250g Chinese cabbage, sliced
250g bean sprouts
250g water spinach or spinach
5 boiled eggs, sliced or quartered
30 bite sized pieces of fried tofu (tahu, or bean curd)
30 bite sized pieces of fried tempe
20 slices cucumber
florets of cauliflower
krupuk (crunchy fried cassava, taro, or sweet potato crackers)
fried shallots, handful
sliced tomatoes, to garnish
i) Steam the cabbage, carrots, green beans, Chinese cabbage, water spinach (or spinach), and cauliflower lightly and set aside.
ii) Fry the tofu in a little oil.
iii) On a serving plate, layer the steamed vegetables with the tofu, bean sprouts, tempe and cucumber.
iv) Decorate with eggs and sliced tomatoes. Serve the fragrant peanut sauce on the side or in a separate bowl.
v) Sprinkle fried shallots on top and garnish with a circle of crackers.
Bumbu Kacang (Peanut Sauce)
Peanut sauce is one of Bali’s favorite condiments: varying in subtle, gradual degrees of spiciness and sweetness, it routinely accompanies gado-gado and satay stick presentations. The secret is to use the best quality peanuts. One-inch-long kacang tanah (earth beans) grow under the soil, and are used to make peanut sauce. The red-colored beans can also be fried or sautéed and eaten as a snack.
Recipe courtesy of Ni Wayan Murni, Murni’s Warung, Campuhan-Ubud, Bali.
400g raw, unsalted peanuts
50g tomatoes, chopped
4 garlic cloves
2 tsp taucho sauce (fermented bean sauce)
2 tsp fried shallots lime or lemon juicea squeeze (lime juice is better)
1 tsp salt (sea salt is best)
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp kecap asin (salty soy sauce)
1 tsp kecap manis (sweet soy sauce)
i) Fry the peanuts, a handful at a time, until brown.
i) Place all the ingredients in a blender and push the pulse button until smooth or, for even better taste, grind by hand with a traditional mortar and pestle. The quantities of salt, pepper and the two kecaps can be varied to suit individual taste.
Sambal Matah (A Raw Side-Dish)
Sambal matah is one of the signature foods of Bali. It is the island’s most frequently eaten, sparkling clean, delightfully fragrant sambal (sauce)—adding extra pleasure and taste to almost any meal. Easy to prepare and healthy, it is always eaten raw, and is always made completely fresh—right before serving. I always request it with every meal I eat on the island of the gods—from gado-gado to grilled mackerel or boat-fresh grilled tuna. Most dishes in Bali are served with a delicious round mound of nasi putih (traditional, Balinese white rice) and magnificent sambal matah on the side.
Recipe courtesy of Made Janur and Iloh, Janur
3-4 small red onions (shallots)—cut
into little, thin slices
1 small red chilli, thinly sliced
small pinch of Masako chicken stock
pinch of sea salt
3 to 4 tbsps of coconut oil
1 small (1 inch diameter) kaffir lime
i) Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl.
ii) Drizzle the fresh lime juice over the sambal matah and toss its bright green rind into the mixture as well. Combine everything together by hand and serve on a small plate.