Of all the Australian tourists who’ve travelled to Bali and been charmed by the tropical delights of the Indonesian island, how many have actually tasted traditional Balinese cuisine?
Balinese chef Juliana Mitry explains that – despite good intentions – few Australian travellers get to experience real Balinese food, off the popular tourist trails on the island. Balinese restaurants are also a rarity across Australia, even though we’ve been holidaying there in flocks since the 1970s and around 1.14 million Australians travelled to Bali in 2016.
“I couldn’t find any restaurants in New South Wales that serve traditional Balinese food,” says Mitry, who first came to Australia as a 17-year-old student. “I missed my culture and cuisine, so I decided to start my own Balinese restaurant during my maternity leave in 2014.”
Today, the four-year-old Balinese Spice Magic – situated in Wollongong around two hours south of Sydney – is a thriving dairy-free restaurant with a cultural mission.
“We are trying to showcase that Balinese food is not what you get in the touristy areas,” says Mitry, head chef and owner of Balinese Spice Magic.
“Balinese food is not just fried rice and fried noodles. They are the dishes that were newly introduced when the Chinese migrated to Bali in [the 1900s]."
So what is Balinese cuisine? “People often ask us if we similar to Vietnamese or Thai. I say ‘we are in-between’. We have the freshness of Vietnamese foods but we have curries like Thailand.”
Traditional Balinese dishes are usually stewed or steamed. Fresh, not dried, spices are only ever used. Pastes are never grinded too fine – you’re meant to taste the combination of ingredients and recognise individual spice flavours in the mix. Most importantly, Mitry says, in keeping with traditional ways, authentic Balinese food uses local produce sourced with a sense of community spirit.
This food philosophy is certainly reflected in Mitry’s menu. On a recent visit, we started with sate empol, a succulent spiced pork mince wrapped on a juicy sugar cane stick, served with a heat-charged “black dipping sauce”.
“We grow our own sugar cane from our garden at our home in Port Kembla and the pork comes from a community farm in Warrawong,” she explains.
“We like to have people from the community who are growing things for us.”
"Our main dish is a traditional Balinese beef rendang," which Mitry explains is different to the mainland variety. Many classical Balinese dishes are ceremonial and intended to nourish the soul as well as the body. Herein lies the cultural essence of Balinese beef rendang. Mitry explains that most Balinese do not eat beef but they do eat retired bulls for ceremonial purposes.
Created using her grandmother’s recipe, the Balinese Spice Magic version of the famous dish is made with locally grown turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, ginger, chillies and coriander. “The spices are complex and they are full of fresh organic locally grown ingredients and cooked for eight hours as a minimum.”
Both dishes are part of “combo magic nasi campur”– a ‘plate for one’ designed for restaurant first-timers. Offering a sample of nine Balinese dishes, it also includes soto ayam (chicken soup), be gerang dan kacang (fried anchovies with roasted peanuts) and be sisit wayah (shredded stir-fried chicken in spices). Vegans have the option of choosing the ‘vegan magic nasi campur’ with tahu basa barak (stir-fried tofu with chilli, garlic and coconut sugar), sambel matah (spicy coconut sambal) and soto wong (Balinese mushroom soup).
The dinner menu also features Balinese sweets including colourful pandan rolls (Balinese crepes with roasted coconut sugar filling), black sticky rice and pisang goreng (deep-fried banana), plus drinks including jamu kunyit, a blended turmeric, tamarind and honey drink, and Indonesian ice tea.
There’s only one word of caution to prospective diners – try not to fall too deeply in love with a dish’s flavour on the first try.
“Because of the way we source our produce, all of the spices look and taste different all the time,” Mitry says. “So we can’t guarantee that the meal will taste the same [every time you visit here].
“But everyone who regularly comes here loves that this is the way it is. If you grow something small in your backyard, you usually put a lot more love into it. That’s what makes Balinese food here taste really good – there’s a real spirit in it.”
Lunch Thursday and Friday 11am to 2.30pm; Dinners Tuesday to Thursday 5.30-9.30pm, Friday and Saturday 5.30-11pm.
130 Kiera Street Wollongong, NSW, 2500; 02 4227 1033.
Food images courtesy Balinese Spice Magic / Tess Godkin
This Balinese sambal is particularly good with seafood.
This is one of my family's favourite desserts and I think it is everyones favourite really! In Indonesia we use dark palm sugar to add the luscious sweet flavour to the rice, the sweetness is then balanced out with coconut cream drizzled over the top to serve.