I left Bali with the spiced tang of its glorious food still in my nostrils. I still hanker occasionally for nasi bakar, the grilled rice package with piquant coconut, chicken and lime dipping soup; or roast pite, bright green beans bursting from the pod. I cook chilli eggs and try unsuccessfully to reproduce the chilli tempe with peanuts that burnt my lips in Legian.
Local food is cheap and delicious in Bali, and I took full advantage of my brother’s insider knowledge. Living on the island, he knows the best warungs with the cheapest and most authentic Balinese fare. He could also guide me to virtually any cuisine I might fancy – Bali has it all: sushi, steak, enchiladas, pizza, and a great many French knock-offs including chicken gordon blue. Western cooked breakfasts are ubiquitous and rather puzzling since why anyone feels the urge to consume piles of hot eggs, sausages and the like in the sizzling climate I cannot fathom. I much preferred a breakfast of fresh tropical fruits or banana-filled green pancake.
Despite my stock of tummy medicines I survived a month in Bali with barely a bowel twinge. Indeed, rather than contracting the infamous Bali belly, necessitating hours of toilet misery, I ended up with a severe case of rice-related constipation and barely needed to use a toilet at all. Rice, rice, rice, and more rice. After the first week I was a rice-stuffed tube and had to ease off the white matter for fear of becoming a pythonesque creature with irreversibly distended midriff.
From nasi campur, the Balinese equivalent of a smorgasbord, to beach stalls selling roasted corn and satay sticks, my stay was one continuous feast. I tried many classic Balinese dishes: beef rendang, jackfruit curry, gado gado, mie goreng (fried noodles), and kang-kung pelecing (water spinach with chilli). I drew the line at items involving liver and fish heads. My brother was eyeing babi guling as a potential birthday meal but signposts of spitted pigs were too much for my sensibilities. I couldn’t help imagining whole roasted piglets with little chillies in their mouths being carried about on silver platters.
My favourite warung served fragrant nasi uduk dengam ayam bakar (coconut rice with grilled chicken). This was wrapped in banana leaves alongside tempe, tahu (tofu), chilli and peanut sauce. My favourite dessert was pisang goreng (fried bananas) but the green breakfast pancake with its generous layer of chocolate vermicelli ran a close second. And always a tusuk gigi (toothpick) to finish.
My Indonesian vocabulary improved marvellously from reading so many menus and by the time I left I could order items in what I felt to be good approximation of the local language. The Balinese who took my orders hadn’t a clue what I was trying to say but were enthusiastically amused when they realised I was speaking their native tongue.
The most spectacular feast I had the good fortune to attend was in a Balinese family home. The walled off compound enclosed beautiful gardens and the meal was served on low tables with floor seating in the patioed eating area. Vegetarian dishes included a delicious green bean and coconut stirfry. The specialty dish was bebek betutu – smoked duck. I was comforted by the thought of the frisky freerange quackers we’d seen flocking the paddy fields. The happiest bebek in the world.
I drank fruit juice after fruit juice to slake my thirst in the heat and to dilute the rice in my intestines. Dragonfruit, strawberry, guava, watermelon. Fresh young coconut juice from the husk, with lime and gula (sugar). I procrastinated on trying avocado juice until my last day – it sounded revolting. To my surprise it was sweet and fresh. Probably a lot of ice helped and a dash of gula.
Since eating out was so easy, a visit to the supermarket was purely an exercise in curiosity. I was rewarded with sightings of rabbit-faced bread rolls, cheese brownies, and a wall of Tim Tams.
The most unforgettable menu item? – screamblle egg. This is something I can reproduce in my Hobart kitchen with skill and accompanying sound effects. I can even give you a tusuk gigi to finish.