During my last visit to Bali I ate vitello tonnato at an Italian restaurant. I ate house-made charcuterie at a 30-seater following in the footsteps of Noma. I even went to an Argentine grill. It's perfectly easy to visit Bali and not catch so much as a whiff of the local cuisine. Which is a shame, considering that the food - rich with spice, bold flavours and complexity - is some of the finest the archipelago has to offer.
For visitors, finding Balinese food that's done well isn't always easy. The heavily Westernised southern parts of the island have swapped most of their local eateries for beach bars and fast-food chains and, while there are a few restaurants bringing traditional flavours into a fine-dining context, for true authenticity you need to venture beyond the popular tourist and expat haunts and into the warungs.
Put simply, a warung is a traditional shopfront offering everything from daily amenities such as soap and cigarettes to phone and fax services and headache remedies. Mostly, though, they serve food - they're like family-run canteens with no more than a few tables and chairs that traditionally operate out of the back of someone's home kitchen. Some have menus, some specialise in a single dish. Whatever the case, you'll be lucky to come across English-speaking staff, so keeping to the warung's signature is a good idea.
One of the joys of warung eating is the sight of the platters of food laid out before you in a window display. The downside to this, of course, is the absence of refrigeration, so you'll want to get there early - just before midday - for the fresh stuff.
Bali is brimming with warungs specialising in cuisines from all reaches of Indonesia - from the spicy Padang food of West Sumatra to the sweet, palm sugar-rich eats of central Java. Speaking as a Bali native who has eaten at the island's traditional eateries for most of my years, it's the local stuff that's really special.
Bali is Indonesia's last remaining Hindu island and its cuisine is unique and laden with ceremonial significance. The spice pastes that form the base of most Balinese dishes - loaded with coriander seed, galangal, turmeric and candlenut - are echoes of India and Java, remnants of the Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit kingdom that ruled the island from the 13th century to the beginning of the 16th century.
Pork, chicken, duck and fish take centrestage, cooked over wood fires, grilled over coconut husks or slow-braised. Fruit and vegetables get the raw treatment, chopped with coconut in dishes such as lawar, or pan-tossed in coconut milk and stirred through broths and light curries. Rice is almost always the centre of the meal, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a Balinese person who doesn't fire up their plate with some form of sambal.
Finding warungs that serve such traditional specialties in their truest form usually means stepping off the tourist trail. So embrace your latent Indonesian language skills, order boldly and prepare to eat better than you've ever eaten in Bali before.
Liku Ayam Betutu
Betutu - chicken or duck wrapped in banana bark with a mix of coconut oil and spices, and smoked for a day in an earthenware pot - is one of the great dishes of Balinese cuisine. Because it's complex and time-consuming to prepare, you won't often find it at your average Indonesian restaurant, but a small garage-like warung on Jalan Nakula, just outside Kuta, offers one of the finest versions on the island. Liku Ayam Betutu serves pieces of its subtly smoky, spice-doused chicken with a side of steamed white rice, traditional coconut-braised snake beans, roasted peanuts and a generous helping of sambal matah, a fiery combination of raw lemongrass, red chilli, red onion, lime and torch ginger. It's quintessentially Balinese with its garlicky, gingery, turmeric-rich flavours, and it goes down swimmingly with a tall jug of sweet iced jasmine tea. Liku Ayam Betutu, Jalan Nakula 19, Badung, no phone.
Warung Mak Beng
This unassuming eatery, with its wooden communal tables and photos of celebrity patrons splayed across the walls, may sit on an otherwise tired strip in the seaside town of Sanur, but don't be disheartened by its surroundings. Come mid-morning, diners are spilling out onto the street for its nasi ikan. The "fish and rice" in this instance is snapper cutlet, deep-fried and served with rice and a bowl of fish-head soup with green papaya, hints of lemongrass and almost gelatinous chunks of cooked cucumber, fired up with a smoked sambal. The dish, which will cost you all of $3, is the only item on the menu. It's also one of the most popular plates in town, so you'll want to make sure you get in early to beat the midday rush. Warung Mak Beng, Jalan Hang Tuah 45, Sanur, +62 361 282 633.
This Denpasar eatery, smack-bang in the heart of the city, turns out some of the best nasi campur - a staple of rice with a mix of meat and vegetable accompaniments - on the island. While not strictly Balinese in its execution (the owners are of Chinese-Balinese descent), the nasi here is world class, featuring snake beans tossed through a mixture of coconut flesh and coconut cream, shredded wood-roasted chicken, deep-fried strips of tempeh and potato made sweet with kecap manis, and chunks of caramelised beef jerky known locally as deng deng. The other Indonesian classics on the menu are worth a try, too, among them a nourishing chicken and glass-noodle broth known as soto ayam, the classic salad gado-gado, and offal soup. As far as warungs go, Wardani sits on the fancier (and slightly more expensive) side of the spectrum with its pink-tiled walls, wide-screen television and (relatively) clean bathroom facilities, but the food here is the real deal and well worth braving Denpasar's traffic for. Warung Wardani, Jalan Yudistira 2, Denpasar, +62 361 224 398.
Sate Plecing Arjuna
This shoebox of a space, just down the road from Warung Wardani, attracts masses from far and wide for its pork, beef, and bone-marrow sate offerings. It's a tight, crowded room - no bigger than the size of three bus stops - with a few communal tables and smoke billowing from the bustling open kitchen, but the tenderness of the meat, the buttery richness of the marrow and the buzz of the accompanying chopped chilli plecing sauce make it all worthwhile. The meat comes with a bowl of beef broth served with your choice of bakso meatballs, shredded beef or offal, designed for dipping your sticks in and soaking up with your leftover rice. It's a tasty but hefty feed all up, so you'll have no qualms about digging into a bag of tangerines and snake fruit from the vendor outside to freshen up afterwards. Sate Plecing Arjuna, cnr Jalan Arjuna and Yudistira, Denpasar, no phone.
Lesehan Sari Baruna
Up the east coast of the island, en route to the seaside town of Candidasa, sits the roadside home of some serious seafood magic. Lesehan Sari Baruna is bigger than your average warung, housed in a spacious open-air structure filled with tables and chairs on one side and traditional woven-mat, or "lesehan", seating on the other. Food-wise it's all about the sate lilit: minced tuna grilled over coconut husks with grated coconut and caramelised palm sugar. It's accompanied by the spiced, minced tuna grilled in banana leaves known as pepes ikan, as well as sautéed green beans, steamed white rice and a bowl of clear parsley-infused broth with hand-rolled fish balls, or bakso, that are leagues ahead of the plasticky factory-produced things sold by your average street vendor. Condiments such as pan-fried peanuts and the obligatory Balinese seafood accompaniment, sambal matah, make for extra fire and crunch, and it's all yours, drink included, for about $2.50. Warung Lesehan Sari Baruna, Jalan Raya Pesinggahan, Goa Lawah, Klungkung, no phone.
Warung Ibu Eny
Finding real Balinese food in expat-central Seminyak can be a little like looking for a tourist without a Southern Cross tattoo in Kuta. For those who wish to steer clear of the Western-style cafés and restaurants, there's Ibu Eny, an oasis tucked away on the ever-gentrifying Petitenget strip. With its modest wooden furnishings and leafy, offering-scattered exterior, it's a stark yet refreshing contrast to its villa-laden surroundings. Order from the menu or dive straight into a plate of their signature nasi campur, which can feature anything from whole roasted chicken in a betutu-style sauce, to garlic and chilli-infused stir-fried water spinach, spicy parcels of pork steamed in banana leaves, deep-fried tempeh or braised tofu with tomato and garlic. Pick from the display or go the whole lot, with a fresh young coconut on the side for good measure. Warung Ibu Eny, Jalan Petitenget 97, Seminyak, +62 361 736 892.
Warung Nasi Lukluk
Lukluk is no place for the faint of heart. The canteen-like room has bright-green walls and is loud, hot, busy and probably not as hygienic as you'd like a dining establishment to be. But if you're a pork enthusiast you'd be mad not to try the nasi babi: spit-roasted suckling pig, toffee-like shards of crackling, as well as curls of crunchy deep-fried pork rinds, jerky-like pork stir-fried in sweet soy, a raw dish of chopped jackfruit with chilli and coconut known as lawar, and a fragrant pork broth to pour over your meat and rice. It's a lot of beast to stomach in one sitting, but it's a class above most of the watered-down offerings around town. Warung Nasi Lukluk, Jalan Raya Kapal, Denpasar, no phone.
Warung Makan Teges
An Ubud stalwart with red-and-white checked plastic table covers and confectionery-lined walls, Teges sets the standard for home-style Balinese cooking. Ask for the special mixed rice, or nasi spesial. It's a festival of coconut-infused green vegetables with gnarled pieces of deep-fried pork, a blood pudding-like sausage made from pork intestine, smoky spice-roasted chicken, a betutu-style smoked egg and a ladle of green papaya broth to tie it together. The real hero, though, is the sambal bongkot, a deep-fried torch ginger and chilli condiment that makes every bite sing that little bit louder. Warung Makan Teges, Jalan Raya Cok Rai Pudak, Banjar Teges, Peliatan, Ubud, +62 361 975 251.