There’s no better way to experience a place than through it’s food. In Bali, local food is slow-roasted and coconut glazed meats like pork and duck accentuated by spice rubs in which a delicious combination of tamarind, lemongrass, ginger, coriander, galangal, and cumin make an appearance.
With flavor influences from across Java and Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, the food of Bali is both unique and typically Southeast Asian, and you’ll find a variety of scrumptious dishes and dining options, from local warungs, beach clubs, and street vendors to mid-range hot spots and high-end restaurants.
You’re likely to encounter some very marginal food, balanced out by some very incredible food. The island’s cultural hotspot, Ubud, has best food scene. You’ll be able to choose from everything from Indonesian to restaurants that cater to Australian and Western tastes (like Italian, pizza, and western-style BBQ).
But, we’re firm believers in eating local and experiencing a culture through it’s culinary traditions. So, here are the top must-try dishes to sample during your Bali trip, plus a bit on local drinks, cocktails, and tropical fruits.
What to Eat in Bali
If you’re going to try one thing in Bali, make it Babi Guling – it may even be worth planning your day around. Heralded by Anthony Bourdain as “maybe the best pork [he’s] ever tasted,” the Balinese suckling pig is one of the most famous and sough after dishes on the island.
Preparing Babi Guling is quite the affair that’s rooted in tradition and community, and because of this and the slow roasting for hours, many restaurants require you to order the dish 24 hours in advance, or warungs will only have it available at certain times of the day. Most often the pig is prepared at another location and then brought to the restaurant or warung to be served, so anywhere you can witness the act of preparing Babi Guling is pretty special. This is why planning this meal into your itinerary is important – you wouldn’t want to miss out on this dish!
First the skin is rubbed in tumeric and salt, then the cavity is filled with a mix of spices like tumeric, keffir, lemongrass, and chili, blood sausage, and bean stuffing, before the pig is sewn shut with bamboo skewers and placed on a rack over a fire to be slow roasted for hours.
The pig is basted with coconut throughout so that the skin is perfectly caramelized to a crisp, while the meat remains tender and flavorful.
Bebek Bututu is, while second to Babi Guling, an incredibly delicious Balinese dish. Slow smoked duck is rubbed in a tamarind spice mix and cooked until crispy perfection. It is often served with gado-gado, a compilation of beans, spinach, and bean sprouts in peanut sauce, along with white rice and various dipping sauces.
Pepes Ikan is the Balinese version of a fish cake, wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled. It’s more like a tamale than other Asian-style fish cakes, as the fish is mashed and spiced, conforming to the shape of the rolled leaf. Despite the fact that it no longer resembles fish, it tastes delightfully fresh and it’s texture is light and spongy. It’s served with a flavorful aioli that perfectly compliments the slightly charred fish.
Sate Ayam is similar to Asian-style satay. In this delicious Balinese version, mashed chicken or seafood is flavored with Indonesian spices and served on lemongrass or bamboo skewers, then grilled over hot coals. The fish is often served to your table on its own small ceramic grill over the still piping hot coals, adding a decorative flair and ensuring the meat is perfectly cooked. Served with sambal and a mild peanut sauce, Sate Ayam is the perfect starter to a meal. If you’re eating in Jimbaran Bay, definitely get the seafood Sate, as the meaty chunks of fish and shrimp is deliciously fresh.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous dish in Bali, Nasi Goreng is fried rice flavored with shrimp paste, palm sugar, and chiles, and served with fried egg on top. It’s a Balinese staple and comfort food, eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and available in virtually every restaurant and warung.
You can often choose between seafood, chicken, or pork with the rice, and it’s usually accompanied by shrimp crisps and a lettuce/tomato garnish. It’s great for a heavier breakfast or a quick lunch before the beach.
Mie Goreng, or Indonesian fried noodles, is another commonly found entree in Bali. It’s a flavorful and comforting dish made of thin yellow noodles sautéed in oil with vegetables, garlic, shallot, cabbage, and egg, prepared with your choice of with pork, seafood, or chicken. It’s occasionally spicy to varying degrees depending on where you order it. You’ll find Mie Goreng in everything from local warungs to beach-side eateries to high-end restaurants.
Nasi Campur, which translates to “mixed rice,” is a combination plate of steamed white rice served with various meats, boiled egg, and steamed vegetables. It’s always slightly different wherever you go, depending on the restaurant, which makes it fun and a bit of a surprise to order.
You’ll find vegetarian versions highlighting Bali’s delectable vegetable curries and tempe sides, versions with seafood satay and grilled tuna, and yet other versions with fried tofu. The combination is distinctly local, and often served with chili sauce or atop a banana leaf.
Ikan Goreng generally means “grilled seafood,” and is a more generic term for Indonesian-style fried fish and various seafood. The fish is usually marinated in the region’s common spice paste (bumbu) most often defined by a mix of garlic, chili, tumeric, galangal, and coriander, then deep fried or grilled. Again, this dish is highly localized, with varying marinades and flavors, and is usually served with white rice and a number of dipping sauces from sweet soy sauce to pickled cucumbers and shallots.
Ordering Ikan Goreng “Jimbaran-style” refers to the quintessential Bali dining experience in Jimbaran Bay. A tourist favorite, guests can dine at any number of restaurants lined up along the beach in Jimbaran Bay, which offer tables right on the sand. Watch the incredible sunsets while looking out over the ocean, then enjoy a candlelit grilled seafood dinner – often a massive spread of appetizers, soup starters, your fill of Ikan Goreng (including fish, crab, lobster, and shrimp), and drinks.
Ayam Bakar is a generic term referring to Indonesian grilled chicken. In literal translation, Ayam Bakar is “roasted chicken,” and is a usually prepared over a charcoal grill after being marinated in bumbu spice mixture (like many other dishes in Bali). What makes Ayam Bakar so tantalizing is it’s smoky, crispy, sweet carmalized and spice-rubbed skin, which is achieved by brushing a rich mixture of sweet soy sauce and coconut oil over the chicken throughout the cooking process.
Ayam Bakar varied regionally across Bali and Indonesia – some versions are extra sweet, while others are have added chili for a spicier flavor and more reddish color. The dish is usually served with sambal, a chili paste with ground with spices, and white rice and garnish.
While Ayam Bakar refers to roasted chicken, Ayam Goreng is it’s deep fried friend. The scrumptious chicken is marinated in lemongrass, garlic and tumeric to keep it’s flesh delectably moist, then deep fried in coconut oil for the skin to achieve crisp perfection. It’s usually served with rice, stir fried vegetables, or on its own with a garnish.
Unlike American or other fried chicken dishes, the chicken is not battered, but rather marinated and rubbed in spices. There are many variants in the spice combinations, and families across Bali experiment with the mixtures or use passed-down recipes in their home kitchens.
Drinks and Cocktails in Bali
There’s nothing better than pairing one of the above dishes with an icy beverage, or ordering one up poolside or on the beach. Here are a few common local drinks and cocktails to try.
Bintang, the local Pilsner beer, is sold and consumed literally everywhere in Bali. It’s light and smooth (similar to the flavor of a Heineken), and is incredibly refreshing when sitting poolside, after a dip in the sea, or while relaxing in the evening. Plus, it’s cheap – a Bintang will generally cost you around 15,000 – 30,000 rupiah ($1.10 – $2.20 USD/ $1.50 – $3.00 AUD) at beach-side shacks or local restaurants. At some of the more high-end restaurants or larger resorts, the price might be much higher, though – potentially as high as 90,000 Indonesian rupiah ($6 USD / $9 AUD).
Fresh young coconuts
What’s a better alternative to boring old bottled water than a freshly plucked coconut hacked open with a machete? Nothing, the answer is nothing. If you’re as beach-inclined as we are, you can find vendors hawking the day’s picking from a cooler right on the sand, but you’ll also find coconuts on the menu in many restaurants.
Coconut water is deliciously sweet and refreshing for when you’re out and about in Bali’s heat, so it’s always a great idea for staying hydrated – so important when traveling! The only downside is it’s harder than other tropical locales to find chilled coconuts, which dampens the enjoyment a bit on a piping hot day, but you’ll still be refreshed and look effortlessly cool toting your straw-poked coconut around under your beach umbrella.
Arak is a Balinese moonshine derived from the flowers and fruits of the palm tree and distilled locally. It’s a traditional liquor consumed across Bali, with a slightly smoky flavor and a strong punch – arak can be as much as 70% alcohol. You’ll find many cocktails (like the daiquiri below) crafted with arak instead of other spirits at resorts and bars. It’s often drank in traditional religious ceremonies by locals.
However, arak is a bit controversial, and should be consumed carefully – only drink arak at a reputable establishment. Because arak is largely unregulated, it’s often distilled in unlicensed backyard stills and then sold in street side stalls. Unscrupulous sellers or even unknowing distillers can add methanol to the liquor during the distilling process, with lethal results.
Nonetheless, a strawberry arak daquiri was in order (below).
Tropical Fruits of Bali
One of the best parts of tropical islands are their array of exotic and unusual fruits, so be adventurous and try something new!
Salak, or Snake Fruit
Salak is the fruit from a type of palm tree native to Java and Sumatra. It’s about the size of large fig or small avocado, with a distinct teardrop shape and pointy tip. What’s most distinctive, though, is it’s brown, scaly skin – which literally looks and feels like snake skin, hence commonly being referred to as “Snake Fruit.” Once peeled, the fruit is yellowish-white with the texture of an apple, and is both sweet and slightly sour.
Passionfruit is round and yellow or orange colored, and is the berry of the passion flower vine. While it’s outside is hard and smooth, it’s inside is full of hundreds of seeds packed within gel-like flesh. It can be a bit off-putting if you’ve never cracked open one before, but the entire juicy interior is edible, with a unique and very sweet taste.
Coconuts are, of course, widely available in Bali – whether in markets, sold as beverages at restaurants, or hanging from the palm trees. A super versatile fruit, they’re used in most dishes in Balinese cooking.
The Mangosteen tree is a slow-growing tropical evergreen, with small, round, purple fruits. When ripe, the mangosteen fruit has a thin edible skin and juicy, sweet, and tangy flesh. While naturally grown in Southeast Asia, it’s sometimes a rare find in other countries, and is often described as having an intoxicating flavor.
What’s the best Balinese dish you’ve ever tasted? Tell us in the comments