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]

Should you eat at American chain restaurants when you travel?

For people traveling the world in search of culture, adventure and, in a philosophical sense, themselves, it’s probably discouraging to see so many signs of American consumerism all across the globe. Virtually anywhere you go, you’re bound to see American restaurant chains serving variations on the “classics.” Is that a bad thing? Should we be avoiding these establishments in favor of eating only in local restaurants? I’ve been giving this topic a lot of thought lately and don’t profess to have the answers to all of these questions. Like most travel conundrums, this one comes down to personal preference. So, how do I feel about American chains overseas? My travel experiences will make that pretty clear.Truth be told, I don’t eat much fast food when I’m home (road trips being the exception). It’s typically unhealthy, unsatisfying and unappealing. However, I’ve found that the quality overseas is significantly better than at the American locations. I ate at a Burger King in Israel and my burger was fresher, tastier and resembled the photograph on the menu more than anything I’d ever had at one of the chain’s domestic locations.

I also ate at a Denny’s in Auckland, NZ. It was 2am, I was intoxicated and needed to get my fix of greasy breakfast foods. Some things are universal, so whether I was at home in New York City, back in college or on the other side of the world in New Zealand, Denny’s seemed like a good idea after a few drinks. Was it my favorite meal of that trip? Of course not. Did it serve its purpose? My lack of a hangover the next morning would signify that it did.

On a recent trip to Indonesia, my girlfriend and I stopped into a Pizza Hut to pick up dinner for our friends. Not only did the menu contain items that no American Pizza Hut carried, the location itself was as lovely as many high-end restaurants in New York. Much like when I was in India, it was obvious that Pizza Hut was catering to the burgeoning middle class. A trip to Pizza Hut was part of a special evening. Why’d we choose an American chain when the streets were lined with warungs serving every type of Indonesian food you could imagine? The answer to that question explains every trip to an American chain I’ve ever made overseas.

We were curious. We wanted to see the Indonesian interpretation of pizza (there were chicken sticks in the crust!). I didn’t have the Maharajah Burger at the McDonald’s I saw in India, but I wish I did. Not because I expected it to be better than any saag paneer I might enjoy there, but because I wanted to see how McDonald’s handled not being able to serve beef in the predominantly Hindu nation.

This is not to say that every bite of American food I’ve had while traveling internationally was an act of investigation. Sometimes I just want a taste of home. The longer the trip, the more likely I am to eventually crave a burger, a slice of pizza or a bagel. If I can find those in a chain, so be it. Cravings are fun to satisfy.

Whether you like them or not, American chain restaurants are becoming ingrained in cultures around the world. While many people are seeking out “authentic” experiences, they are ignoring the fact that modernization and globalization are redefining the very sense of authenticity (not that any one person can ever explain what is or isn’t truly authentic in a place – it’s a word that should be removed from every travel writers lexicon). I love eating locally and experiencing the cuisines of the world. But I also love seeing how American culture is reinterpreted to fit into the social norms of other places.

I’ll continue to visit American chains overseas (though I passed on going to the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in Bali) purely out of curiosity and a thirst (pun alert) for familiar tastes. I understand why others eschew these businesses. I get that people want to fully immerse themselves in new places. For me, however, those chains are part of my immersion.

What about you? Do you eat in American chains overseas? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments.

Photo of the Day (03.20.10)

This photo by Flickr user jwannie is entitled “How to build a salad tower.” The bright oranges and yellows caught my eye when I fist saw the thumbnail and that’s why I clicked on the image. As for what a salad tower is and why it’s so comical, I defer to the accompanying blog post on frites & fries for a full explanation.

I recently received an e-mail forward from my dad about the Chinese Pizza Hut salad bar from a Chinese colleague. The Pizza Huts there typically offers a salad bar but you can only fill it once in a small salad bowl – I think the salad is a free with purchase type of deal. To get their money’s worth, some people use their fantastic engineering skills to build salad towers.

I support this ingenuity 100%. You get way more food for your money and it’s salad, so it’s healthy. Way better than those Domino’s Pasta Bread Bowls.

Have a photo of some food that used for an impromptu game of Jenga? Submit your images to Gadling’s Flickr group right now and we might use it for a future Photo of the Day.

The most beautiful Pizza Hut in the world

Is it a shame, or is it fantastic? Rather than tear down a former royal building in The Netherlands’ historic Den Haag (The Hague), it’s been turned into a Pizza Hut. What do you think about that, National Trust for Historic Preservation? Taco Bell at Hemingway’s house in Key West anyone?

Seriously, this Pizza Hut maintains the ornate, gorgeous, original mid-18th century ceiling of what used to be the Grand Salon, and is decorated with appropriately decadent chandeliers. There’s a lovely fireplace, classy dark wood fixtures, and well … I have no qualms calling it the most beautiful Pizza Hut in the world. I encourage you to try and find a lovelier one. Queen Wilhemlina’s treasury was once here, for Pete’s sake.

At the end of the day, though, it’s still Pizza Hut. Check out the photos below for a tour of this anachronistic, WTF wonder. If you weren’t thinking of heading to The Hague, which is just 45 minutes from Amsterdam, perhaps this will change your mind — and if you’re into the chandeliers, check out the ones in The Hague’s Escher Museum here on Luxist.


This trip was paid for by the Netherlands Board of Tourism, but the ideas and opinions expressed in the article above are 100% my own.