A Taste of Bali
For traditional culture and magical cuisine, this exotic island can’t be beat.
His name, according to Balinese legend, was Kbo Iwo. He was a fierce giant as tall as a mountain, and the only thing greater than his size and power was his appetite for food. In return for helping the early Balinese people build temples and stairways, villages and rice paddies, he demanded vast quantities of the rice, fruits and prepared dishes for which the Balinese people are famous.
Lore has it that Kbo Iwo was buried alive while sleeping off a big meal. For the visitor to Bali’s “Land of the Gods,” though, it’s far more likely that a spectacular meal will be followed by a harmless nap under a Banyan tree or dozing on a surf-side chaise lounge.
There is a certain exotic romance to the island of Bali that lures visitors from around the globe and if the island is fairly small in size, it’s super-sized in activities, sights, cuisine and a culture that has developed over many thousands of years. You can, with determination, traverse the entire coastline by car in a day.
With a population of nearly four million, Bali is only one of the nearly 17,000 islands that make up Indonesia and, unlike the majority of Muslim Indonesia, is predominantly Hindu in religion and practice. Visitors can, at every turn, see offerings of gratitude and prayer at residences, places of business and certainly at the country’s nearly 20,000 temples or pura. Flowers are commonly found as part of an offering, often accompanied by some rice, bamboo shoots or salt that is sprinkled with holy water before each meal.
The Balinese people also show their gratitude and offer prayers through traditional dance, through large public musical performances—almost always featuring the haunting sound of the traditional Indonesian gamelan—and the famous shadow puppet theaters that can pop up suddenly on street corners, in parks and at quite large and elaborate performance venues.
If poor Kbo Iwo was obsessed with eating, so are many of the island’s visitors who find themselves enchanted with the eclectic mix of foods and dishes that Bali has to offer. The lush, terraced rice fields visible from much of the island provide the main staple for the Balinese diet but rice or sticky rice is simply the predominant grain for the region. Simple street carts located on thoroughfares and adjacent to temples offer quick, inexpensive sticky rice balls and rolls that might include fish, vegetables or meat and many beach towns offer freshly grilled seafood and shellfish off of hibachi-style grills located right on the sand.
For a more gourmet experience, many of the island’s hotels and restaurants focus on Balinese cuisine and local produce while simultaneously offering a more haute cuisine approach in preparation and presentation.
Located in the artist colony of Ubud, the Four Seasons Sayan offers not only exquisite cuisine but a Balinese cooking curriculum for guests interested in learning more about local fare and produce. Those guests with an interest in traditional Balinese cuisine can join the resort’s chef for an early morning foray to the local markets where food and spices are chosen by the guest before returning to the resort’s Ayung Terrace restaurant for a hands-on class in preparing a meal.
Better yet, guests already entranced with some of the menu samplings from Ayung Terrace—think Asian-Scented Tuna Tartare with Papaya, Pomello, Tobiko and Ginger Soy Dressing or an Asian Chowder with Prawns, Fish, Mussels and Coconut Cream—can, with the guidance of the chef during the market tour, identify and purchase key ingredients to see how fresh, local bounty translates into mouth-watering finished dishes.
Guests of the luxurious resort simply wanting the cuisine without the chopping and preparation chores can look forward to dinner in the restaurant’s main dining room, on the terrace or, with advance reservations, in the private wine cellar. Two separate menus—one fusion and one quite traditional—can be accompanied by a selection from one of the island’s most comprehensive wine lists. The restaurant also offers a prix fixe wine dinner that includes a creative blending of cuisines and wines, from Australia, France and the United States. A recent four-course menu offering featured a 2004 Sauvignon Blanc from Santa Ema Reservado, a Ardeche 2005 Chardonnay, an Australian Wynn’s Coonawara Estate Chardonnay and a dessert course that married a Hardys 2004 Noble Botrytis Riesling from Padthaway with a Warm Walnut Chocolate Molten.
Not to be outdone, two other Western or European-owned hotel companies, Bulgari and St. Regis, also offer appealing dining opportunities at two diverse locations.
Located on the tip of the Jimbaran peninsula and perched on cliffs with dramatic ocean views, the Bulgari Resort Bali offers an ambiance that successfully mixes traditional architecture and culture—such as a traditional Hindu temple located at the highest point of the resort—with carefully chosen contemporary touches in fabric, art and materials. The resort’s Sangkar restaurant focuses on a contemporary mix of Asian and Indonesian dishes while the resort’s other restaurant, Il Ristorante, presents the contrast of traditional Italian cuisine in a formal setting. Both restaurants offer an excellent selection of wines from their cellars.
Nestled in the exclusive beach resort enclave known as Nusa Dua, the St. Regis Bali Resort is a suite-and-villa property that, complete with butlers, gives travelers luxury on the beach as well as an upscale restaurant that offers locally influenced but European-inspired menus to their guests along with an impressive caviar menu. Guests who enjoy working their food into their beauty routines are in luck here, too; the resort’s spa offers a number of treatments that work rice, nuts and therapeutic spices such as turmeric into their formulations.
Visitors to Bali wanting a similar luxurious quality to their stay but preferring a more Indonesian feel to their accommodations may want to consider either of Como Hotel’s two properties on the island. With accommodations that range from upscale single rooms to suites
with private pools, Uma Ubud offers more traditional fare in its gourmet restaurant Kemiri. Under the direction of Australian chef Chris Miller, guests can start with a traditional soup of spring chicken dumpling, lemongrass and coriander before moving to wok-fried prawns, grilled lobster, grouper in curry or a Chinese roast pigeon.
A second fine Como property, Shambhala Estates at Begawan Giri focuses its culinary talents on not only local foods and cuisine but on well-being and nutrition; an onsite nutritionist and Ayurvedic doctor work side-by-side with the resident chef to prepare local foods for special nutritional needs and the resort’s two restaurants specialize in locally harvested produce and fish. Glow, the resort’s open-air and open-kitchen restaurant, offers lighter options while Kudus, the more intimate and formal restaurant, is located in a 150-year old Javanese structure. Both restaurants offer a lovely if modest wine list.
With more than ten thousand festivals held on the island each year, there’s virtually no chance of visiting Bali at a time when there’s not a celebration underway and choices of where and when to stay may be best structured around individual passions for surfing versus shopping, hiking versus hot springs-hopping. The advice of a seasoned travel advisor or tour company can be a serious advantage when making those choices and the advice of a Bali-based expat American, like Jack Daniels of Bali Discovery Tours priceless. The company offers a variety of tour and accommodation options based on preferences and price and for those with more time—and more adventure on their minds—extension trips to nearby Java and Lomboc.
And, according to Daniels, there’s never been a greater time to visit Bali. Although most of the world’s major tourist spots are reporting double-digit losses in tourist visits as a result of the global economic crunch, April 2009 tourist arrivals to Bali were the highest in recorded history. In fact, he continues, they were almost twenty-two percent higher than the same period in 2008.
“Global recession be damned!” enthuses Daniels. “Bali arrivals are growing.”