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]

Dreaming of Bali – Learning to surf

There was only one wetsuit top remaining for my first surfing lesson, and it was pink. Not to mention I spent most of my first day on a surfboard coughing up murky brown saltwater from my lungs. Kelly Slater I was not. But despite the humiliations involved in learning to surf for the first time, there are rewards for the patient. For instance the moment you catch your first wave, you will be struck by a feeling of indescribable euphoria and bliss – particularly if you’re catching that wave in Bali, one of the world’s great surfing hotspots.

Hawaii and California might be more famous with American surfers, but mention the word Bali to anyone with a board and a suntan, and their eyes will widen like saucers, a smile spreading across their face. Bali, it seems, is one of the world’s greatest places to surf: a paradise of consistent waves, warm water and some of the world’s most legendary surf spots.

But trying to get the hang of surfing, particularly during a short visit to this intriguing island, can be difficult. Which surfing school should you choose? Where are the best places to surf? Will you be able to get up after just a single lesson? The process can feel downright intimidating.

Thankfully, we’re here to help. Keep reading below to find out how you can learn to ride the waves in Bali.Picking an Instructor
The most difficult task when you’re interested in learning to surf is finding the right person to learn from. A tremendous array of surfing schools, profiteering guesthouses and private instructors compete for your hard earned tourist dollar. Frankly, it can get confusing. But there a few key ways to ensure you get the best possible result.

No matter which company you end up choosing, ask the right surfing questions before you start. Will you have your own personal instructor or is it with a group? Do they get in the water with you to help you learn? These issues may seem trivial now, but with a sport like surfing that takes awhile to learn, it’s crucial you get lots of help when you start.

Brand-name surfing schools like Rip Curl and ProSurf may be the best-known names in Bali, but they’re not always the best option. As it turns out, the surfing classes are often more expensive, conducted in large groups and the teachers don’t always get in the water with you. Eventually, based on recommendations I found on Southeast Asian backpacker site Travelfish, I ended up going with OBB Surf Adventures, a smaller surf company that prides itself on offering one-on-one in-water instruction for all students.

Where to Go
If you’re taking a lesson, the school/instructor will likely pick the location with the most beginner friendly waves that day. Often this will mean the beaches near Kuta. On the day I went surfing, the waves were rather strong at Kuta, so we moved to the practically smooth bay at Jimbaran Beach. As it turned out, Jimbaran was a good place to learn – the small waves are forgiving to beginners and there’s less people (this also means fewer onlookers will have a chance to laugh at you).

As you begin to get the hang of it and try out more surf spots, many of Bali’s best breaks are found around the island’s South. Ulu Watu, the most famous surf spot in Bali, is a popular choice, though probably too advanced for beginners. For more info on current water conditions and tips, check out the waverider resources at Wanna Surf, and of course, ask around when you arrive.

What It’s Like
Minor humiliations aside, my very first surfing lesson was a resounding success. My choice of OBB Surf Adventures proved a good one – their in-water instruction method ensured I was standing up (and riding on) waves after only a single lesson. Whichever company you choose, I can’t recommend this method enough. After helping position me properly, board facing toward the beach, to catch a wave the instructor helped me get the timing right for when to stand and how to stay up.

After a few wave misfires, I rode my first mini swell all the way to the beach. It’s hard to describe the feeling of confidence, excitement and joy that this moment will bring. That said, learning to surf requires a lot patience and swallowing of pride. You will fall down a lot. Little Balinese children will giggle at your awkwardness. And at the end of the day, you will be incredibly sore, bruised and sunburned. But you will also have gained something else – a chance to learn and explore the fun of surfing in the laid-back paradise of Bali.

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

[Flickr photos courtesy Jeda Villa Bali, Bruno [BRA]]

[Special thanks to Gadling writer Mike Barish for use of the above video]

Dreaming of Bali – The sounds of Indonesia

Welcome back to Gadling’s newest series, Dreaming of Bali. Visiting the exotic Indonesian island of Bali is truly a feast for the senses. First time visitors and expats alike frequently remark on this island’s rich tapestry of exotic stimuli: the brilliant orange glow of a sunset as it slides gently into the sea; the wafting scent of kerosene and crushed chilis at a roadside food stall; the soft vibration of a gong as it’s struck in a temple. These are sensory experiences that bury themselves in your subconscious, sticking in your mind long after your return from a journey – they are ultimately the impressions that help to crystallize our understanding of our travels.

Words are only one way to tell a story. Borrowing an idea from Gadling blogger Stephen Greenwood, I’ve tried to capture my impressions of Indonesia through the medium of sound. Embedded below are four “soundscapes” from my recent visit to Bali and the nearby island of Java. Click on play, close your eyes, and prepare to be transported far away to the islands of Indonesia:

Sitting on the beach at dusk, listening to waves crash on the beach – a symphony of frogs croak at the onset of dark:




A group of musicians practices their Gamelan performance at a temple in Ubud:



Walking inside Ubud’s morning produce market:






Most of Indonesia, with the exception of Bali, is muslim. Here’s the afternoon call to prayer in Yogyakarta, Indonesia:



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

[Flickr photos courtesy of ^riza^, didiz | rushdi and norhendraruslan]

Dreaming of Bali – In search of paradise

What is paradise? Is it a place we can visit? Somewhere with palm tree-lined beaches, frosty cocktails and simmering volcanoes? Or is it an idea? A vision in dreams that never quite materializes when we wake up? Bali, an intriguingly exotic island tucked into the Indonesian Archipelago in Southeast Asia, is just such a paradise. This elusive island is everything you’ve ever dreamed – a land of otherworldly temples, postcard-worthy sand and exotic colorful wildlife. But just when you start easing into the charms of this idyll, Bali shocks you back to life with its increasing modernity and ever-evolving culture. Dreams take unexpected turns, don’t they?

Everyone in Bali, it seems, is looking for their slice of paradise. The island last year welcomed a record 2.3 Million visitors and it shows. In Bali’s tourist capital of Kuta the signs are everywhere, manifesting themselves as gaudy Bubba Gump Shrimp restaurants and mushrooming surf shops on every corner. But that doesn’t mean this paradise is lost. Simply drift your way towards the island’s serene interior, a place dotted with terraced rice paddies and gently humming frogs. Or find yourself lost inside a labyrinth of street food vendors in the city of Denpasar, your nose perfumed with scents of spice, and smoke, and kerosene heat.

Paradise isn’t just a place. It’s a way of seeing the world, particularly when you’re dreaming of Bali. Keep reading below to learn how to begin your Bali exploration.Getting There
Getting to paradise isn’t supposed to be easy, is it? This is particularly true for Bali, an island that’s hidden itself way down “in the corner” of Southeast Asia. While there are no direct flights from the United States, airlines like Cathay Pacific (via Hong Kong), Korean Air (via Seoul), China Airlines (via Taipei) and Singapore Air all fly via connections to Denpasar (DPS), Bali’s main airport. Typical prices as of February 2011 start at about $1300 from the East Coast. It might be a long journey to get to Bali, but trust us, it’s well worth it!

Orientation
The vast majority of Bali’s tourism (and visitors) end up in the island’s South, centered around the coastal city of Kuta. While not all of Kuta is bad, most of the city is a mass of schlocky souvenir stands, gaudy restaurants and package tourists. Avoid it if you can. North of Kuta is its swanky cousin Seminyak, home to many of the island’s expats, upscale eateries and shopping.

Beyond Kuta and Seminyak is Ubud, a loose collection of villages, rice paddies and greenery centered on the oddly named Monkey Forest Road. Even further north the island is dominated by the massive Gunung Agung volcano, the geographical and spiritual heart of Balinese life. Beyond that is Bali’s largely undiscovered interior, full of interesting spots like Munduk and of course, Bali’s infinite stretches of coastline, populated by towns like Lovina. In the far Northwest is the wilderness of West Bali National Park.

Where to Stay
Accommodations in Bali range from the insanely luxurious (picture that last Travel + Leisure photo shoot) to modest surf shacks. Most visitors find themselves staying in the island’s south, simply because it has the biggest selection of high-quality accommodations.

The best option for those not rolling in dough but still looking to enjoy some of Bali’s legendary retreats is one the fantastic, plentiful and reasonably priced private villa options on sites like VRBO or Homeaway. For less than you think, you’ll be living it up in your own beautifully manicured tropical estate (here’s where we stayed) or condo.

Beyond the villa scene, there’s a huge range of accomodations on offer in Bali. In Ubud in the island’s relaxed interior, try the Alam Indah. Travelers near Kuta swear by the All Seasons Legian. Jimbaran tends to be the island’s most luxurious (and expensive) area, hosting upscale properties like the Four Seasons and Puri Bali.

What to Do
Whether you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path adventure or a nice beach where you can eat Lotus Blossoms, Bali has an activity for you. In addition to our tips below, check out these 10 suggestions for your Bali visit.

  • See the Kecak at Ulu WatuKecak, a form of Balinese musical theater retelling the myths of the Hindu religion, is re-enacted at sunset at the island’s Pura Luhur temple, perched dramatically on towering cliffs above the ocean. A truly awesome and interesting spectacle to see.
  • Learn to surf – Due to favorable ocean currents and a uniquely suitable coastline, Bali has emerged as one of the world’s great surfing meccas. Try a class at the surfing mecca of Kuta beach, or head to points further South for some legendary “breaks” at spots like Ulu Watu.
  • Head to the spa – tired and sore from that surfing lesson? Why not hit the spa? Bali is increasingly known as one of the world’s “spa capitals,” whether you’re looking for an insanely luxurious spa treatment or simple inexpensive massage on the beach, Bali has it all.
  • Inland adventures – Bali isn’t just about great beaches and spas. Travelers who venture into the island’s interior will find a wealth of challenging activities and beautiful views ranging from laid-back bike rides among the rice paddies in Ubud, to hikes up volcanoes at Gunung Agung to whitewater rafting.

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