Dreaming of Bali – A guide to Indonesian food

Pizza lovers, did you know Indonesians adore Pizza Hut? True, your typical Indonesian pie probably has more crispy fish pieces, shrimp and corn on it than you’re used to back home. And you probably won’t find avocado milkshakes as an option at the soda fountain back in Grand Rapids. But the Indonesians in Bali are lovers of pizza much like you and I, dear reader, and unashamedly so.

At this point, more experienced travelers are probably scratching their heads. Who travels to Indonesia and writes about American fast food?? But the truth be known, this odd love for all things pizza illustrates a surprising fact: Indonesians are cultural chameleons when it comes to eating. This immense island nation is a place criss-crossed by trade winds of diverse culinary origin, bringing together influences and ingredients from places as far-flung as China, The Netherlands, India and even Mexico.

Whether you’re just visiting Bali or making a larger exploration of the Indonesian archipelago, expect to be surprised by Indonesia’s spicy, exotic, and altogether unexpected blend of delicious eats. A taste of the tropics, and a taste of home at the same time. Ready to dig in? Keep reading below to begin your exploration of Indonesian (and Balinese) cuisine.The World’s Pantry
It was the world-famous islands of Maluku that first put Indonesian cuisine on the world map. Back in the 1500′s, this string of remote islands was the only place in the world European traders could find the elusive spice Nutmeg. It didn’t take long for the rumors of these fertile tropical islands to spread; soon the English and the Dutch were demanding their piece of the lucrative trade, adding coffee and tea plantations to the mix.

The Europeans were soon mingling with the Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern traders who already knew Indonesia well, introducing a bewildering array of new foods. Peanuts and chili peppers came from the Americas, leading to Indonesia’s ubiquitous sauces: the mouth tingling Sambal and the spicy peanut sauce used to top grilled skewers called sate.

These new ingredients were mixed with more familiar Indonesian staples like rice, a grain you’ll see growing in paddy fields everywhere, and coconuts, another tropical staple that finds its way into the country’s flavorful curries. Add in the country’s ever-present and wonderfully fresh seafood, some wildly exotic fruits like Durian and rambutan, and you begin to get a sense of the diverse ingredients available to the typical Indonesian chef.

Local Specialties
Upon this palette of flavorful and exotic ingredients, all sorts of fantastic Indonesian specialties are possible. What’s worth a try during your visit to Bali? Make sure to keep an eye out for uniquely Balinese specialty Babi Guling, a spit roast pig stuffed with spices and roasted in coconut water. Many travelers will swear Ibu Oka in Ubud is the place to try. We have to agree…the crispy pork skin, roasted for hours over hot coals, is sublime. Bebek, the local Indonesian duck, roasted in banana leaves stuffed with spices (Bebek Betutu) is another favorite.

Balinese cuisine also tends to be a microcosm of larger food trends in Indonesia. Nasi (rice) is practically the Indonesian national dish. You’ll find Nasi Campur (mixed rice, meat and vegetables) and Nasi Goreng (fried rice with meat & vegetables) on menus everywhere. And there are the desserts – weird as it may sound you’ll never go wrong with an Es Apokat avocado smoothie, doused with a liberal helping of chocolate sauce. And if you’re looking for a totally unique dessert experience, track down some Es Campur. It’s a sweet soup made of coconut, condensed milk, ice and a mix of chewy jellies. Bizarre, but quite wonderful.

Padang: A Taste of Everything
No matter what food you find to your liking in Indonesia, you’re sure to be overwhelmed by the delicious options at some point. That’s when Padang food comes in handy. Although Padang cuisine originated on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, it’s become a universal favorite – nearly every city in Indonesia has a Padang restaurant, including in Bali. Look for the dishes of food stacked in the window and spicy scent wafting from inside, and you’ll know you’ve arrived.

Don’t know what to order? Not to worry… just walk up to the dishes and start pointing at whatever looks delicious. The server will add a healthy spoonful to your plate. You’re likely to end up with specialties like Rendang, a buffalo coconut curry, or some leafy green kangkung (water spinach) and a few pieces of ayam goreng (fried chicken).

The flavors are mix of just about everything your tastebuds could want: spicy, milky, bitter and savory. The textures – crispy, creamy and chewy. It’s like an Indonesian Old Country Buffet – execept with just a tad more spice, much fresher ingredients and some of the best home-cooked food you’ve had in life. In fact Padang cuisine is a lot like Indonesian and Balinese food itself – a wildly diverse mixture of flavors, textures and cultures, coming together into something that tastes like much more than the sum of its parts.

Dreaming of your own visit to Bali? Read more about Gadling’s “visit to paradise” HERE.

[Flickr photos by burgermac and closari]