There's a lot to experience in Bali from the beaches to the jungles to the beautiful Hindu traditions that locals practise every day. But another huge part of Balinese culture is the food. The main ingredients of Balinese cuisine are spices and herbs such as ginger, galangal, turmeric, lemongrass, limes, coriander seeds and – of course – chilli. A typical meal in Bali involves four or five dishes arranged around a bowl or mound of rice, and a side of sambal. The dishes often comprise a serving of pork or chicken, fish, tofu or tempeh (fermented soy-bean cake), egg, various vegetable dishes, and crunchy krupuk (rice crackers). As a predominantly Hindu population, cows are considered sacred, so you probably won’t see much beef on the menu.
Here's our guide to some classic Balinese dishes to try on your trip.
1. Nasi goreng
Nasi goreng, literally meaning "fried rice”, is one of the most popular Balinese dishes and you'll find it everywhere from street food joints to fancy hotels. The dish consists of rice fried with chunks of meat and vegetables, and a fried egg on top. A plate of nasi goreng is simple, tasty and satiating.
Indonesia is famous for its satay (sometimes spelt ‘sate’ on local menus) – tasty meat skewers (usually chicken) cooked over hot coals and slathered in a moreish peanut sauce. They make for a great snack or a main meal served with rice. The smell of the sweet peanut sauce alone is enough to make your mouth water.
3. Nasi campur
Nasi campur, or “mixed rice”, is a bit like an Indian thali. It comes with a decent-sized scoop of rice, several accompanying dishes with meat, fish or veggies, and yummy toppings such as peanuts, fried-shrimp krupuk (crackers) and sambal. It's usually served buffet style and you’ll find it all over the island (hot top: you'll usually find the best ones in warungs, local family-run eateries). You can even buy nasi campur wrapped in a banana leaf from street hawkers as a grab-and-go meal – definitely an upgrade on your standard servo sandwich!
If you like your chilli sauces hot, you’re in for a treat. Sambal – a fiery paste made of crushed chilli, shrimp paste, scallion, lime juice, and various spices – is one of the best things about Balinese cuisine. Most savoury dishes will come with a side of this spicy paste to mix in. If you’re going island hopping, be sure to try the local sambal in each village as they’ll usually have their own version. If you’re not great with spicy foods, let your wait staff know when ordering to dial down the heat or order tanpa sambal (sambal without chilli) which is equally delicious.
5. Gado gado
Gado gado is essentially an Indonesian-style salad, and after eating it you’ll never want your basic iceberg, tomato and cucumber salad again. It’s made with a range of cooked and/or raw vegetables – usually cabbage, green beans, bean sprouts, carrots and Asian greens – which is topped with fried tempeh, tofu, boiled eggs and a delicious satay sauce. Gado gado is the perfect dish to eat for lunch.
6. Babi guling
Babi guling is the Balinese version of a roast suckling pig. A whole pig is stuffed with a fragrant mix of chilli, turmeric, ginger, galangal, shallots, garlic, coriander seeds and aromatic leaves before being rotated over an open fire for several hours until the meat is juicy and the skin is crispy. Babi guling is usually served at weddings and celebrations, but you might also find it at street-side warungs that serve it as their signature dish.
7. Pepes ikan
Pepes ikan is a whole fish (typically snapper or mackerel) that is marinated in fragrant herbs and spices, steamed in a banana leaf and grilled over hot coals to give it a smoky flavour. It’s deliciously tender and is a great main to share with friends with a cold beer.
8. Mie goreng
Mie goreng is a stir-fried noodle dish made with thin noodles fried in lots of garlic, veggies and a meat of your choice. The noodles are then tossed in a sweet sticky sauce and topped with a fried egg. There’s no need to snack on two-minute packet noodles in Bali when mie goreng can be whipped up by a street food vendor in minutes.
9. Jajanan pasar
Jajan pasar are traditional market cakes and sweets. They are loads of varieties, but they usually take the form of a sweet sticky rice cake that is filled with steamed fruits or bean paste and topped with seeds or nuts. They are a great accompaniment to a mid-morning coffee or teh tarik.
10. Es campur
Es campur is a popular sweet treat in Indonesia that consists of shaved ice mixed with coconut milk. It's then garnished with a range of toppings such as grass jellies, tapioca pearls, basil seeds and fermented cassava. It’s the perfect dessert to enjoy on a hot Bali afternoon.
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