Long frequented by Western holiday makers and more recently immortalized by Influencers for a “liketime,” Bali can feel to some like an Eat, Pray, Love cliché. Food-obsessed serial Bali traveller MICHELLE MATTHEWS rebukes that notion. She insists authentic Balinese traditions are live and well; that culture-craving travellers need only look at their dinner plate to find it.
I never think of Bali as purely a holiday destination. It’s far more interesting than that. It’s an island of many offerings, most conspicuously the canang sari, cocktail napkin-sized boxes of symbolic flowers presented to the gods.
Throughout the two decades I’ve been eating my way through Bali as a food and travel writer, change has been as reliable as the tides. Yet, as parts of the island increasingly cater to tourists, the Balinese remain rooted by the Tri Hita Karana philosophy: the pursuit of well-being through harmony with the gods, nature and all people. I can’t separate their philosophy from my food-driven love of the island. It’s the pillar of all that is grown, harvested and shared; it’s the warmth for which the Balinese people are renowned.
Indonesia is made up of some 14,752 islands (official counts vary), sprinkled throughout a handful of surrounding seas and book-ended by the Pacific and Indian oceans. In a vast archipelagic state where obscure islands abound, one can taste the spices and terroir of the entire multicultural island chain – and I would argue, the entire world – here in Bali. Perennially popular with jetsetters and backpackers, and now the digital nomad crowd, Bali receives a global cross-pollination of flavours. As such, it has become something of a tropical test kitchen for the world. Some food trends land fully formed, like The Avocado Factory’s all-avo menu, while others are home-grown. Are you ready for smashed eggplant on toast?
ARRIVING AT NGURAH RAI International Airport, it always gives me a kick to pass the wall of batik-shirt drivers touting for business. Instead, I’m met by Nengah’s familiar and beaming face. He’s been my trusted driver of choice for over a decade and it always feels like a reunion of friends. Nengah whisks (well, crawls – Bali’s traffic is notorious) us out of the clogged south near Kuta. We drive east along roads surrounded by blindingly green rice paddies and punctuated by roadside food stalls called warungs.
In a little over two hours, we arrive at Bali Asli restaurant, located in the foothills of Mount Agung. A highlight of any trip to Bali is glancing skyward upon Mount Agung’s apex, sitting unexpectedly high above the clouds. Bali Asli allows travellers to admire the volcano in widescreen, which is an upgrade from the news reports of this sporadically active volcano.
Bali AsliBali Asli
I’m delivered a menu inscribed on a lontar, a traditional pre-paper, concertinaed palm-leaf document, concealed in an elaborately carved wooden box. It describes each dish served in the re-creation of a Megibung feast, a post-battle celebration specific to the area. At Bali Asli, the food is not only Balinese, but native to the Karangasem Regency. Australian chef and Balinese food advocate Penelope Williams explains every dish is prepared using traditional methods and equipment. Ingredients are either plucked from their kitchen garden, grown locally or purchased daily from the market.
Back in the car, with a full belly and senses awakened, I ingredient-spot among the passing greenery. Notably, I spot Moringa, a slender, delicate leaf tree recognized as a tourist superfood is an ages old cure-all for the Balinese. En route to Ubud, we pass countless temples and dozens of villages, each with a trade signified by its vendors: Mas with its wood carvers and Celuk for silver jewellers.
Tonight, Capella Ubud beckons. It’s a Dutch Colonial-style campsite of 22 tents that transcends the concept of glamping with no compromise to convenience or luxury. Post-dinner marshmallow toasting is optional but recommended by this traveller.
The next morning, a messenger crosses the wobbly suspension bridge to my tent, bringing word that Nengah has arrived to take me to the village of Sayan. It’s just a 10-kilometre drive but lies across several jungle-covered ridges, each dropping steeply into spectacular river valleys.
In Sayan, I head to Bambu Indah, a soaring, sculptural bamboo fantasy retreat, for its nasi campur, or mixed rice. It’s a straightforward dish that delights me the most. Theirs is a feast of banana leaf vessels filled with delicious morsels of house-grown ingredients and flavours: tempe, sate, urab and spicy sambals. A pre-prandial stroll through the grounds revealed an integrated kitchen garden growing among the guest huts.
Bambu Indah | Francesco Lastrucci
Indonesian food is terroir-specific; few restaurants can recreate regional specialities to a native chef’s satisfaction at different altitudes, let alone in another country. It’s the reason dining here is such a singular experience.
Relaxed sophistication triumphs in Bali as I transition from rustic-luxe at Bambu Indah to dinner of tempura tacos and kombucha cocktails at The Sayan House, a JapaneseLatin fusion restaurant. The narrow plant-covered driveway is easy to miss and offers no hint of what to expect. Once “inside,” the terraced, open-air restaurant gives way to views so spectacular my jaw drops. Satiated and with cocktails on my mind, I head for the heart of bustling Ubud.
Down south, in Kuta’s coastal resort and villa enclaves, cocktail hour is more about catching the evening sunset. Up in hilly, misty Ubud – without the solar distraction – proper cocktail bars thrive.
At The Night Rooster, I meet Raka Ambarawan, Bali’s pioneering mixologist whose concoctions transform Indonesia’s bountiful fruits, vegetables and spices: boni berries, fermented salak juice, spiced jackfruit marmalade. Raka is crafting one of his newest creations for me: the Northern Bramble. It stars the Buleleng grape, grown only in the north of the island, which he elaborately garnishes for an Instagram afterlife. Raka’s masterful blending of the jungle’s edible gifts ensure tart, sweet, salty and fruity flavours all peak in harmony.
The next morning, a new day brings a new appetite. Ubud has been a tasty primer but my ultimate destination is Pemuteran in northwest Bali. It’s a relatively unvisited part of the island that’s starting to gain attention.
Pura Ulun Danu Beratan | Aron Visuals
Driving from Ubud, the route passes through Bedugul, a mountain lake resort area. The roadside vendors transition from selling sea level coconuts and bananas to citrus fruits and strawberries. The fertile soil of dormant volcanoes and cooler climate of the higher altitude make for bountiful growing. The area supplies much of the produce required by dozens of local luxury resorts. Farming on Bali is still smallscale but thanks to a new law, supermarkets and restaurants must stock and source 60 per cent of their produce from the island while paying at least 20 per cent above the cost of production. The initiative seeks to align farmers’ incomes with the fortunes generated by the island’s booming tourism industry.
Compared to its mountainous interior, the roads of Bali's northern coast are joyously flat. As we speed west, I spot fields of a crop I can’t distinguish. The car pulls over so I can take a better look. I discover acres of table grapes, probably Raka’s same cocktail grapes, growing shoulder-high and held up by trees. This symbiotic arrangement dates to Roman times and is known as “married vines.” Bali’s agrarian backbone relies on such ancient knowledge which is maintained to great advantage today. Beyond those famous photogenic terraced rice paddies, a sophisticated subak (irrigation) system functions, ensuring water flows to coastal rice farmers, the order in place for more than a thousand years.
Puri Ganesha Homes by the BeachPuri Ganesha Homes by the Beach
I arrive at Puri Ganesha Homes by the Beach in Pemuteran to experience the cuisine as much as the hospitality of Diana von Cranach, the long-term Bali resident, pioneer of raw food cooking and champion of food as medicine. Years ago, I listened intently as she expounded the properties of edible leaves at the Ubud Food Festival. “We have so many healing leaves on our doorstep,” Diana enthused.
Here, where the seas are calm and the diving is notable, Diana sources local, herbal remedies and uses them for her plant-based Asian recipes. The time I spend with her contrasts Bali’s gastro trends with its deep, ancient food knowledge.
EVERY WEEK IT SEEMS A NEW destination is dubbed “the next Bali” and travellers are warned to rush there before the crowds arrive. In my opinion, nothing can stem Bali's popularity. The island has a knack for remaining fresh as new world flavours are adopted at breakneck speed, while traditional tastes and ingredients are rediscovered and reinvented by creative, highly skilled local and international chefs. Yes, Bali might be the flavour of the week, month, decade – but travellers need only look at their dinner plate to find Bali suffers no best-before date.