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  • Susan Low

Postcard from Bali

Memory has a way of airbrushing the past, casting everything in a soft-focus glow and drawing a veil across the negative bits. Knowing this, my much-anticipated trip to Bali, last visited more than 20 years ago, was tinged with trepidation. Would it be as I remembered it? Had the passing time made everything seem more lush and vivid? Would the place have changed beyond recognition? Would I wish I hadn’t come?


I was last in Bali in 2003, just five months after the bombings of October 2002 in the tourist honeypot of Kuta, in which 202 people lost their lives. At the time, our Balinese hosts were still coming to terms with the tragedy, made worse by the crash in the numbers of tourists on which the island’s economy depends. Our travels to Ubud and Munduk, in the centre and the north of the island, were peacefully quiet; on several occasions, shopkeepers, taxi drivers and food-stall holders told us, rather disarmingly, that they were happy we’d come.


This time around, we stayed in the tourist nerve-centre of Seminyak, whose heart thrums with traffic noise and blares with Western music, its night-time streets thronged with the young and party-hungry trailing from bar to nightclub. On one traffic-choked journey, our Balinese-born driver, wise beyond his 42 years, said, “What you choose to look for is what you see”. He was right. Once I’d made a mental adjustment, I reconnected with the essence of the island I’d fallen for two decades ago – through the food, of course.



When I visit a new city, I like to make a beeline to a food market for an immersion session in the local produce. The food market on Jalan Raya Taman did the trick: fluorescent-hued dragon fruit, snakeskin fruit, bananas, mangosteens and rambutans piled up among sheaves of pandan leaves and lemongrass. We feasted on tropical-fruit breakfasts all week.


Other stalls stock verdant mounds of cassava leaves, snake beans and fresh herbs, and small warungs serve the likes of sate kambing (mutton sate), soto ayam (chicken noodle soup) and es campur – a Technicolor, multilayered concoction of shaved ice with a rainbow of fruit jellies, fresh fruit, tapioca pearls and evaporated milk.


Before I left London, I sought the advice of chef and food writer Petty Pandean-Elliott, who was born in Manado in the north of Sulawesi and now lives near Cambridge. Petty’s cookbook, The Indonesian Table (Phaidon), is a superb introduction to Indonesian cooking – and her restaurant recommendations were all spot-on (thank you, Petty).


In the centre of Seminyak, Waroeng Bernadette serves refined versions of many of Indonesia’s best-known dishes from right across the archipelago: Javanese bakso in broth (meatball soup) and opor ayam (coconut chicken curry); perfectly spiced, tender beef rendang, cooked for 12 hours; and Indonesian classics such as gado-gado (vegetable salad with peanut dressing), nasi goreng (fried rice) and chicken sate. You’re unlikely to find a better version of beef rendang than the one served at Bernadette’s.

Dessert brought a sweet surprise: tape cake. The day before, a market-stall seller had given us a taste of tape singkong (also known by other names throughout Indonesia). It’s fermented cassava, which I’d not come across before. A bit of internet research informed me that it’s made by inoculating cooked cassava with a culture that includes Aspergillus oryzae, Saccahromyces cerevisiae and other microorganisms, then wrapping it all up in banana leaves and leaving it to ferment for 4-5 days. The result is soft and gently sweet, with the texture of ripe banana. And it makes a great cake.


A few days later in Ubud, tape singkong turned up in a luscious dessert; the soft pile of fermented cassava came topped with crunchy toasted coconut and palm sugar, with a scoop of coconut ice cream (see pic above).


Also in Seminyak, John Hardy is a jewellery ‘boutique’, workshop and gallery run by a transplanted Canadian jeweller of the same name. It also has a rather good bar and restaurant. Jamu Bar serves creative cocktails made with local botanicals (ideal for sundowners) and, in the downstairs restaurant, chef Tomy Saputra, who comes from a small island off the coast of northern Sumatra, presides over a kitchen serving excellent pan-Indonesian dishes at The Long Table (serving a set menu) and The Kitchen (à la carte).

My set-menu dinner included palm sugar and chilli-marinated beef ribs cooked over a smoky wood fire; rumpu rampeh, a vegetable dish made with young papaya, banana blossom and papaya leaves; and pepes – this version made with minced sardines mixed with fermented oyster mushrooms, baby fern leaves and tofu, all wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked over fire.


Preceding all that came a kaleidoscopic collection of sambals (these spicy relishes became something of an obsession on this trip), served with crunchy krupuk crackers and dried fish skin, which gave an extra umami boost.



In the two decades since my last visit, Ubud has earned a reputation as a centre for excellent food – which comes as a welcome contrast to the endless array of shops selling tourist tat and ‘healing’ crystals. The South China Morning Post trumpets the diversity and quality of the town’s edible offerings, and five restaurants in Ubud figure among The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.


And I had just one day. Damn.


Fortunately, I’d booked a lunchtime table at Nusantara, the diffusion-range eatery from the chefs who run the ground-breaking Locavore, famed for its ‘hyper-local’ produce and boundary-pushing cuisine. It was the right decision. Nusantara means archipelago in Bahasa Indonesia, and the menu is an ode to the cooking of this vast country, the dishes made with top produce and true to local roots and flavours. It’s brilliant.

A bubbling dish of baby squid and clams cooked with chillies, tomato and palm sugar with shrimp paste with lime leaves, all cooked in a clay pot, is one of the best dishes I’ve ever feasted on. Other dishes we tried: young jackfruit with shallots and galangal; Balinese rice flavoured with salam leaves and grilled in banana leaves; mud crab with moringa leaves and green mango; and a selection of palate-electrifying sambals – and that tape singkong dessert…


One thing I do know: I’m not going to leave another two decades before I get back to Bali – and I’m already planning what I’m going to eat when I do return.



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