Discover the foods you need to try in Bali. The tropical island is home to an array of Asian flavours, cookery courses, and some of Indonesia’s most inventive chefs.
Chinese, Indian and Malay cuisines underpin the food heritage of this tropical idyll, but it also has a unique Hindu culinary tradition that sets it apart from wider Indonesia. For a tiny island, Bali punches above its weight with its array of distinctive dishes.
Chefs here use everything from tropical fruit and sashimi grade fish, to a huge variety of native herbs and spices, including lemongrass, torch ginger, golden turmeric and lush pandan leaves.
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1. Ayam pelalah
Balinese cuisine relies on a rainbow crop of just-picked herbs and spices: this dish of shredded roast chicken is tossed with a paste of fresh turmeric root, chillies, shallots, and garlic, fried with lemongrass, daun salam (Balinese ‘bay’ leaves), shrimp paste, and kaffir lime leaves, seasoned with salt or sugar. As ever, a squeeze of ‘sexy’ lime, (the small juicy limau lime, also called jeruk limo/nasnaran mandarin, or key lime) adds a citrusy lift.
2. Nasi tepeng
Bali’s beautiful rice terraces produce myriad types, from black and red, to sticky and white, all simply called ‘nasi’ once cooked. From the south-central Gianyar rice-growing region, this breakfast dish of rice porridge (congee elsewhere in Asia) in chicken broth, is mixed with shredded chicken cooked with lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal, and chilli, served with such condiments as fresh coriander, kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) and fried shallots.
3. Nasi campur Bali
This staple is a whatever-you’ve-got-to-hand dish of boiled long grain rice served with various side dishes – sometimes ayam pelalah (above), string beans, bean sprouts, mixed boiled vegetables, shrimp, meat etc. Fry the rice with shredded Chinese cabbage, carrots, shrimp paste, sweet soy sauce, chilli, garlic, shallots and you’ve got the dish, often topped with a fried egg and served with slices of cucumber, spicy sambal, and bulbous, airy krupuk shrimp crackers.
4. Sambal matah
The raw, spicy shallot salsa is a Balinese-cuisine-defining staple condiment that comes in various forms, but riffs around fresh garlic, chilli, lime, torch ginger, shrimp paste, lemongrass, coconut oil, and shallots. A cooked version, bumbu, adds ingredients like candlenut, nutmeg, cumin, green cardamom, palm sugar, galangal, and tamarind puree, and is the base or marinade for many dishes.
5. Lilit satay
Bali’s version of this popular snack-on-a-stick sees the meat or fish finely diced, spiced, then coated or ‘wrapped’ around the skewer (lilit means wrap), rather than spiked, and cooked over charcoal. Marinated with coconut milk, lemongrass, and juicy lime, often combined with chillies, kaffir lime, galangal, turmeric, garlic, coriander and shallots, the satay itself (“sate” in Indonesian) is the perfect balance of moist, spicy and sweet-savoury – delicious standalone, or with spicy sambal, rather than peanut sauce.
6. Soto bakso
A classic melting-pot dish, this soup (soto) with meatballs (bakso) has Chinese, Dutch and local flavours. The beef broth, with such spices as cardamom, clove and ginger, is laden with dense bakso (minced beef with tapioca flour, eggs and shallots), and rice noodles, topped with fried shallots, fresh coriander, spring onions, chilli and lime. Beef can be substituted with other proteins.
7. Babi guling
Traditionally a ceremonial celebratory dish, this indulgent slow-cooked suckling or spit roast pig is now found in roadside restaurants. Cooked over an open fire, the pork is brined and rubbed with a smorgasbord of spices, like daun salam, turmeric, lemongrass, galangal, ginger, chillies, shallots, garlic, candlenuts, kaffir lime, cumin, coriander, cloves, and nutmeg. With sides of rice and salad, it’s served in huge piles of crispy crackling, white meat, and blood sausage – the latter a potential challenge for foreign stomachs to deal with.
There are numerous variations of this multi-vitamin-packed elixir: a traditional juice-tonic served daily, often comprising fresh turmeric root, ginger and just-soaked white rice, ground on a specially-dedicated ulekan (a local lava-stone pestle and mortar), with warm water, lime juice, and honey.
Shredded or ground meat (beef, chicken, duck, or pork), with sliced green vegetables – bean sprouts, string or “snake” beans – and grated young coconut sounds simple, but is an absolute powerhouse of fresh flavour, thanks to the bumbu base. Red lawar, coloured with pig’s blood is umami-savoury, while white lawar goes without, and often substitutes meat for jackfruit.
10. Tipat cantok
Peanuts are grown in Bali between rice crops to replenish the ground with nitrogen. This dish sees them freshly ground with chilli, garlic, sugar, salt and kaffir lime to top small cakes of jasmine or white rice, steamed in young coconut or banana leaves, plus cubes of fried tofu, and tempeh, and such vegetables as boiled bean sprouts, Thai aubergine, and cucumber.
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