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Babi Guling, a delicacy in Bali. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

Eating Bali

Being an expat in Bangkok, I’ve been spoiled by the myriad of food choices and been a closet #bkkfatty for a long time (the Twitter hashtag to check out for scrumptious foods to be found on the street or in one of the thousands of restaurants Bangkok is almost famous for, and also a Twitter account with the same recommendations).

So when I spent some days in Bali, Indonesia, I had a hard time with restaurants. Don’t get me wrong; I am sure there are scores of great restaurants in Bali. Just not in Ubud.

My first meal in Ubud was lunch at the Laughing Monkey restaurant on Monkey Forest Road. I have to confess, I was only looking for a cup of hot Balinese coffee, that thick and strong coffee that a coffee lover must order on the island. But I was hungry too, so I ordered cap cay, a stir fried mixed vegetables with chicken dish that goes on top of plain steamed rice. The cap cay was passable, as I was hungry. But the cap cay is hardly a foodie’s adventure, if you know what I mean. So later that day, I ambled down the same road and found the Barbekyu, a restaurant that I have to confess attracted me with its interesting spelling.

And repelled me with its watery curry. People say, when traveling, eat the local food, right? So yeah, there I was being a good little traveler and ordering the Indonesian chicken curry. (How can you go wrong with the interesting spelling and curry?)

The Indonesian chicken curry at Barbekyu puts Ubud to shame. It’s watery curry has absolutely no oomph at all—no spice, and the best thing about the curry I ordered was the boiled eggs. At least they tasted like…real eggs.

So the following day, I resolved to eat only street food.

A Barong dancer at Bona Temple, Bali. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

My friend and I spent the afternoon in Bona, a village that was having a festival at the temple. We hung around the temple, played with the kids, took some photos of the legung and the barong dances. Across the temple at Bona was this food stall. All it sold was nasi campur which means “everything mixed with rice.” There were some sautéed pork and chicken in there, slow cooked in a heavenly sauce, with a hint of bay leaves and raw black pepper corns. The meat sauce was literally poured all over the rice and wrapped in paper, tied together with a rubber band. I borrowed a spoon from my hotel and ate the nasi campur from across the Bona temple, while the moon rose over Bali.

Needless to say, I was spoiled after that. No more Barbekyu restaurant and watery curry! Street food rules. Every day after a whole day of romping around the island taking pictures, my good friend Rai and I would visit a street stall and get some takeaway.

My favorites and recommendations:

1.     Bona temple street stall – see above.

2.     Merta Sari is a specialty restaurant near Kusumba, a fishing town. Fish satay barbecued over fragrant wood coal with sambal, a spice side dish made of chopped onion and chili, and chopped green beans sautéed in coconut shavings. All served with steamed rice. A warning though, for mouths unaccustomed to the Southeast Asian chili, which is a tiny chili packing a potent whipping, it’s better to use the sambal to dip your satay in instead of spooning it over rice like chili veterans do.

3.     At Gianyar, on Jalan Raya Teges, there is a night market that is mostly food stalls which opens around 4.30 or 5 pm. The best stall there is Ibu Oka, which only sells babi guling, the variation of nasi campur with pieces of roasted pork, including the crispy skin.

Babi Guling, a delicacy in Bali. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

4.     Lotus Lane is a restaurant on Ubud, and I went back to it because it was the only place I remembered from my trip two years ago. I had the cheese pizza. (One can only eat nasi campur so many times.)

Memory served me well, because Lotus Lane is the only restaurant on Ubud I’ve visited that can make both pizza and Indonesian local dishes well. And the ambiance is super, too. There is a long rectangular pond with lotus blossoms flanking the entire length of the restaurant, and they use dim lamps. The service is friendly, the friendliest and most genuinely happy service folks I met in Ubud. I was sitting near the back and heard the cooks singing in the kitchen. I went back for three meals.

5.     At the end of Monkey Forest Road, near a gas station, there is a hole in the wall place painted lime green. You can’t miss it. It’s a favorite local lunch

Merta Sari with the lime green walls. Photo by Agosti Ngurah Rai using the iPhone.

destination, and like the temple stall in Bona, it only serves one thing. So you come in, sit down at the picnic type tables, and out comes the best nasi campur ayam (everything and chicken mixed with rice) in all of Ubud. If you miss out on all the other places I mentioned above, this place is the one you can’t miss. They only open for lunch, and it’s always busy, so I would recommend going around 11 am to beat the regulars.

One more note: I did read Lonely Planet’s recommended restaurants and suggest you do too. I also went to eat at the Wayan Café. I think everyone knows the Wayan Café now after Elizabeth Gilbert mentioned it in “Eat Pray Love” the famous memoir everyone should read, which ends in Bali.

When I was new to Bali, I went to the Wayan Café and went “WOW!” The atmosphere is fantastic at Wayan Café. The tables are set in little corners surrounded by foliage, and sitting at a table, you always feel like you’re alone on a tropical paradise island like the hype describes. It’s a really great initiation if you’re new to Asian food places. AND they are so friendly.

This time, I am sad to say, my fourth time in Bali, Wayan Café no longer wowed me. Yes, the service is still pretty friendly and the atmosphere is still romantic and all that. But the nasi campur ayam is dry, Lord, is it dry. Like chewing on cardboard. I ate the sambal and two bites of rice and drained my blended mango juice, paid and left. And I made a note never to go back.

You see, once you eat like the Balinese do, your palate will never be a clueless tourist in Bali, ever again.

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