Food / Indonesia / Travel

Feasting in Bali: The Monsoon Spices It Up

Lumpia, Chicken Sate, Mie Goring

Dining out is first and foremost about delicious food, but a truly memorable restaurant experience engages all five senses. Sometimes it’s a special occasion with plans and reservations; even better are the surprises that are happy chains of coincidences.

We had an exciting travelers’ surprise on a stormy afternoon in Ubud, Bali when a local chef and Mother Nature transformed a simple meal into pure razzle-dazzle.

Rice Paddy off Porch

The bustling Monkey Forest Road is Ubud’s main tourist thoroughfare, and whether you need a bed, meal, T-shirt, or tourist tchotchke, it’s the place to go. Scattered along its length are scads of small, family-owned restaurants overlooking verdant rice paddies. On our search for a late lunch, we did the usual walk-by-peek-in, menu perusal, and in the end, picked the place with the nicest view. What drew us to this particular place was a deep, shady porch which was literally inches from a vibrant green carpet of rice stretching to the nearby forest.

We love late lunches, because normally, the crowds have moved on, and the restaurant is deserted – which it was. So we picked a table, relaxed, ordered a couple of Bintangs, and casually studied the menu. Of course, we were jonesing for some Indonesian fare, and this cafe had exactly what we were questing

Most of the food in this part of the world is based on the carb-duo of rice and noodles. Usually, you get LOTS of starch, with smaller amounts of veggies, and even smaller amounts of pork, chicken, or seafood.

Some of the spices used are familiar to western palates, but the lion’s share are unique to Indonesian dishes and the food is complex and often full of intense flavor. One thing you learn quickly is when the menu says hot, it really means hot. So if your taste runs to mild, pay attention.

Lumpia

Balinese Lumpia. You can’t eat just one!

We started with lumpia, which are flaky-crust, deep-fried spring rolls with dipping sauce. They’re stuffed with a noodle and grated veggie filling, and could be a meal in themselves.

Chicken Sate

Indonesian Chicken Sate with Peanut Sauce, Coconut Green Beans, and Fragrant Rice.

The main courses were world-famous chicken sate with peanut sauce, and Indonesia’s national noodle dish mie goreng. The veg was thin green beans, with a to-die-for coconut sambal, a unique hot relish made with vegetables, peppers, coconut, and spices.

Mie Goreng

Balinese Mie Goreng, Coconut Sambal, and Shrimp Chips.

We were the only customers and the staff showed the perfect level of benign neglect, so we took our time savoring our food and drinks. About half way through the meal, we couldn’t help noticing the distinctive darkening on the horizon that signaled the typical afternoon thunderstorm that happens during monsoon season. We didn’t fret because our experience had been that these storms came and went quickly: the proverbial tempest in a teapot.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But as the darkness deepened, it became obvious that this wasn’t going to be just another quick shower. Lightning flashed, thunder rattled our bones, and the bank of steel-gray clouds changed day to night on our cozy porch. And suddenly, Mother Nature started her show – and it was, without a doubt, a tempest out of the teapot.

We knew it was serious when the waitress and cook came out of the kitchen and started collecting condiments and moving tables and chairs. Thank goodness the porch was deep, because even with what felt like hurricane-force wind gusts, and horizontal rain, we stayed dry.

We’ve lived on the coast in Florida, Georgia, and Oregon, and we’ve become avid storm-watchers; so violent thunderstorms aren’t new to us. But nothing could equal the intense deluge in Bali. It was a meal, a show, and a five-sense memory that we’ll never forget.

*****

Our blogging friend Bama over at What an Amazing World is a foodie extraordinaire when it comes to sampling and savoring the food of Bali. From Nasi Goreng (perfect for beginners) to the unique jukut ares, for the more adventurous. So for the perfect introduction to Balinese food, you’ll love his descriptions and mouthwatering photos in Tastes of the Island of Gods. Enjoy!

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

P.S. We had another surprising and pleasant restaurant experience that could only happen in Bali – at Starbucks, if you can believe it! We got lots of feedback on this post, so check it out.

Starbucks with Cananag Sari

 Photo Credit:
6. Šarūnas Burdulis via Wikimedia Commons

55 thoughts on “Feasting in Bali: The Monsoon Spices It Up

  1. I love storm watching and the description leaves me intrigued. Growing up on the Canadian prairies there was no shortage of thunderous light shows.
    Love the description of the relaxed late lunch, well maybe not the hurricane winds so much.
    I agree Bama has some wonderful posts about food. Now I’m off for a snack or possibly to Starbucks. 🙂

    • Thanks Sue. Terri and I became serious storm watchers when we lived in Florida. Summers at the beach had all the ingredients for ferocious thunderstorms: juicy air and high temps. Then, mix in the afternoon seabreeze and the storms could get bad in a hurry. I’m sure in Alberta, given the flatness, you were able to see the storms at great distances – which is also cool. ~James

    • We love Indonesian food as well Peggy. We were introduced to it on trips to the Netherlands, and were happy to finally make it to Indonesia. We spent a month traveling through Java, and I don’t remember a bad meal. But I must admit, that after a month of noodles for breakfast, we were ready for some muesli. ~James

    • Yvonne, rain was an almost daily affair while we were in Bali, but with a bit of planning, and good luck in timing, it was no big deal. Our hotel room had a marvelous porch with comfy chairs for storm watching, which livened up a few happy hours as well. ~James

    • Alison, unfortunately, we don’t remember the name of this cafe, but it was hard to go wrong with any of them that we visited. The thing about Indonesian food is that the ingredients are simple, but it’s the spices that make the dish. ~James

  2. Sounds like the perfect lunch experience. Now I am hungry. I love Indonesian food. Everyone eats lunch late here in Spain so to avoid the rush, we go for an early lunch. I visited the Starbucks post too. Love it!! Sometimes you just need something to remind you of home.

    • Darlene, we’ve spent a fair amount of time in Spain, and I must admit, that I can never get adjusted to the late mealtimes, particularly at night. We laugh about one of our early trips when we’d take an afternoon nap, and hang around the hotel until late, and then go out to dinner and still be the first (and only) people in the restaurant. And I’m sure the staff were saying: “The Americans have shown up.” ~James

      • That has happened to us as well. Now that there are more other Europeans living here, we are finding more and more places open for dinner at a more reasonable time. I just can’t eat at 9 or 10 0clock at night and then have a restful sleep.

  3. Ahhh.. lumpia, one of my fave foods on this island. Loved reading your descriptions of the goodies that have become regular fare. When are you coming back so we can feast together?!

    • Thanks Amit. I take it from your comment that in the past lumpia was considered a treat. I can believe that they would be a pain to prepare at home, and so maybe would be reserved for special occasions. Is this the case? As for our return, not sure but anytime we get to that part of the world, Bali is always on the list. ~James

      • Actually, it’s pretty standard fare in many places, some fancier versions than others. There’s a local character (lives on the outskirts I think) who, for years, has walked the streets of Ubud, belting out “Lumpiaaaaaaaaa” as if calling out to all those who are huddled together behind high walls of family compounds to come out and get some!

    • Tess, we’ve watched countless severe thunderstorms and weathered a couple of Category 1 hurricanes, and while it’s all exciting, we have a healthy respect for violent weather. The key is to plan and don’t do anything dumb. In the meantime, find a dry spot and hang on. ~James

  4. I’m glad you tried some local dishes when you were in Bali. The lumpia most Indonesians are familiar with is actually from Semarang in Java. It has bamboo shoot, egg, and shrimp filling. So you have that to try the next time you travel to this side of the world (and of course, there are a multitude of other less-known dishes to sample). Thanks for mentioning my post on Balinese cuisines, James & Terri.

    • Bama, as you know from your travels, the key to getting good food is mostly knowing what to order – particularly with food as complexly spiced as Indonesian food. Blogs like your’s are a big help in knowing what’s what and the dishes that are best to try. ~James

    • Lexie, it’s funny you use the word “doozy.” I used this in one of my posts and one of our readers from the UK asked me to define it. And yes, this storm was indeed a doozy. There were a couple of points when tables and chairs were moving around that we were wondering if perhaps we should start getting concerned. ~James

      • Fun to hear the English words that are not used in all English-speaking places! I do borrow some good ones from the UK and elsewhere on occasion and am happy to lend them “doozy,” which is a real “goody”!

    • Dannii, this was a wonderful restaurant and meal, and in fact, we went back a couple of more times while we were there. We’re adventurous, but why mess with a good thing? ~James

    • Jo, there are good Indonesian restaurants in London I’m sure, but Amsterdam has the best and biggest variety. In fact, thanks to the ex-colony status, most cities in the Netherlands will have a good Indonesian restaurant. So next time on the continent, check it out. ~James

    • Gilda, we took a cooking class while in Bali, and that really helped when we went to restaurants. The class was very fabulous, and in addition to cooking, the instructor took us to the market to buy ingredients. You haven’t lived until you’ve made coconut sambal with a mortar and pestle (One of the ingredients was ferns!) ~James

  5. These dishes look so delicious! Indonesia is a part of the world I have yet to discover but looks very intriguing. My husband would be in absolute heaven watching that storm roll in as he is like a kid in candy store when it comes to storm watching!

    • Tell your husband that we’re glad to find another storm-watching kindred spirit Lynn. We had a condo at the beach in St. Augustine, FL, and luckily, it had a front porch and a screened porch in the rear. That was cool for storm watching because we could move around to stay dry depending on the direction of the storm. It also helped with the two Cat 1 hurricanes we weathered while living there. ~James

  6. What a wonderful accidental discovery!! How fortuitous that you stumbled on this place and then were able to taste such delights, watch a tumultuous thunderstorm, and stay dry on top of it all. It sounds like a case of serendipity. 🙂

    • It was total serendipity Cathy, and what a memorable meal. The locals, of course, took all this stuff in stride, but for travelers like us it was high theatre. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to live year after year with monsoon rains. I guess it’s all just preparation and the right mental attitude, but it would take some adjustments for me. ~James

  7. Since I’ve never been to Bali, I didn’t have any idea what the food would look like. Thanks for good photos that show delectable dishes that are downright pretty! Sorry about the storm, but what a great memory. And we, too, love eating a late lunch when the wait staff seems to be focused just on us!

    • Rusha, Ubud is a tourist center, so most things are kept nice for the tourists. But it doesn’t take much walking around town to see that appearance is important to the locals as well. The colorful decorations on shrines and offerings are all over, and of course it doesn’t hurt that the profusion of plants makes everything incredibly green and attractive. ~James

  8. James, for some reason, I find it very difficult (read…impossible) to take good photos of food. But you, and Bama, do it VERY well. Was the water/storm shot in Ubud…or at the beach?

    • Thanks BF. I think that most photographers have a photo category that’s a challenge. For me, it’s sunrise and sunsets. And when I take food shots, I’m just happy if they turn out one step up from the menu at Chinese restaurant in the mall. Re: the photo, we don’t have much info as we got it off wikicommons (see credit at end). Because of the restaurant location and the darkness of the sky, our storm photos didn’t turn out well. Good ol’ Wikicommons. ~James

  9. Ah Shrimp chips – Krupuk! Love them! I ate well in Indonesia and always wondered why there are not more/any Indonesian inspired restaurants in America. The food is simple but so tasty!!

    • I’ve wondered the same thing myself Martha. With Americans’ fascination with Japanese, Chinese, and Korean food, its surprising that Indonesian has never really gotten a foodhold. For me personally, I’d take Indonesian any day over Japanese. My mouth is watering just thinking about nice Rijsttafel and a cold Heineken in an Amsterdam restaurant. ~James

  10. This looks amazing Terri and James! I have heard that Indonesian food is some of the best in the world as there is so much variety. Someday I hope to try it in person! So where are you off to next?

    • NIcole, Indonesian food is one of our favorites, and Bali is a good place to experiment. When we visited we took a cooking class which was very cool, and it included a trip to the market to buy ingredients. We’ve never been big on cooking classes, but this one was super fun. On next trips: with Terri recovering from knee surgery, we’re hangin’ close to home. We’ve talked about Portugal and a few other spots in southern Europe, but it all depends on her recovery, so we waiting to see what happens. ~James

      • Thanks James. I have to get to Bali someday. I would do a cooking class as I love to learn how to make different ethnic dishes. Hope Terre’s knee recovers soon! 🙂 Nicole

  11. Looks delicious, although Sarah with her peanut allergy can’t indulge in Satay.

    I was half expecting to see some wonderful Babi Galung, our favourite dish from in and around Ubud 😉

  12. Ahhhh the food in Ubud! I dream of it. Often. We eat so well and so healthily when we are there. And yes, the settings that go along with the food. All senses cone into play.

    I am a huge fan of rainstorms and thunder. While living in Viet Nam we experienced first hand a typhoon which brought the roof down in one section of the house we were renting. Okay that was a bit intense.

    Fellow nomads,
    Peta and Ben
    Currently in Hong Kong en route to Sri Lanka

    • Thanks for the comment Peta and for dropping by the blog. We lived (twice) at the beach in St. Augustine, Florida, and weathered a couple of hurricanes, so like you and Ben, we know what it’s like to experience violent weather as opposed to watching it on TV. But the other side of that storm coin are the wonderfully watchable thunderstorms. I don’t know what your storm experience was in Bali, but this storm was whopper. Have a great time in Sri Lanka. We spent a couple of weeks there and really enjoyed it. ~James

  13. I have a healthy respect for Mother Nature and the temper tantrums she sometimes throws. I think I’d have been a bit nervous seeing that sky!
    However it sounds like you had all the elements of a great meal. I’m really quite hungry right now and the lumpia and coconut green beans have caught my eye 🙂

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