The Indonesian island of Bali.
The majority of Bali’s population practise a uniquely local brand of Hindu that lends a peaceful hum to island life. This elegant culture is evident everywhere, from the metallic clang of the gamelan to the sweet curls of incense smoke that stomp through olfactories at every inhalation. The ubiquitous spiritual offerings, which tourists quickly become proficient at side-stepping, are intricately made and replaced everyday. These little baskets are filled with decorations, colourful petals and petite morsels, such as Jatz cracker-looking biscuits, for which the population of stray dogs seem thankful. Of course, there’s also the undeniable allure of beach clubs and Bintangs (the local beer, willingly advertised in singlet form by an average of every third person, Balinese and Australian alike), and the excellent habit of indulging in nasi goreng at every meal.
You’ll find wonderfully polished fine dining restaurants in Seminyak (try Sarong, Mamamsan and Sardine) and a toes-in-sand seafood dinner with shore-side corn sellers at Jimbaran Bay. But for real local eats, it pays to keep your eyes peeled for warungs (Indonesian eating houses) and street vendors with a largely Balinese clientele. One such place is Ibu Oka in Ubud. What they do here, and do incredibly well, is suckling pig. Sprig for the “especiale” at the lofty price of $4. This buys you a basket of porky goodness consisting of a generous slab of pork that’s so tender the meat fibres have given up trying to stay together, a corresponding piece of crackle, a nub of blood sausage and some other barely discernable pork bits fried to such perfection you hardly care where they come from. Still in Ubud, a booking at Bebek Bengil (aka Dirty Duck Diner) will see you sprawled across a day bed-cum-banquette overlooking a lush, emerald rice field. This bucolic scene is the backdrop for what everyone is here for, a slow-cooked duck infused with smoky flavour. Served with accompaniments, you’ll need at least two other appetites to accomplish the meal in its entirety.
If you’re willing to brave it, there are some fantastic snacks to be had from street vendors. Golden, fried rolls filled with bean sprouts or squares of tofu slicked with peanut sauce are delicious. But, be warned, nothing is wasted. A roll that accidentally tumbles onto the road is casually returned to the pile to be sold to the next customer. If you like your snacks with a touch of roulette danger, this is for you.
Not to be missed in Ubud is the local food market. Baskets overflow with tropical fruits, such as snake-skinned salak and durian with its pungent scent of sweet decay. It’s also a treasure trove of spices, still-swimming eels and dubious meats. Heading away from the rice fields and over to the shoreline at Bingin Beach, a seaside dinner is a spectacular experience. After scaling a cliff-clinging path more suited to goats than humans, you’ll come across a row of tables skewered into the sand. Before you sit, peruse the wares at each of the warungs. These wonderful places are barely more than lean-tos with a coal barbecue, a plastic picnic table and a polystyrene box full of seafood. Once you’ve chosen the shiniest-eyed fish, it’s weighed, scaled and tossed onto the barbecue. Dinner is barely upstaged by the neon pink of the setting sun.
Best food souvenirs
A mortar and pestle from the Ubud food markets is a great purchase. Made from volcanic rock and surprisingly light, it’s perfect for making base gede, the foundation spice paste in most Balinese meals. Also from the markets, a coconut grater will easily slip into a suitcase. And despite looking as though it belongs in an interrogator’s tool kit, it’s well worth the $2 investment.
How to get there?
Since the 70s when Australians first began to holiday in this nearby oasis, there’s been a well-worn flight path from most cities to Denpasar.