The Search For Sambal

19 July 2015

It may be a cliché in this food-obsessed era, but the best way to experience a destination's essence is by taking a bite out of it. I can't imagine I'm the only one.

While the dining options at Club Med Bali on my recent, albeit brief trip were more than enough to keep me satisfied over the course of a week, it just wasn't the same as getting out there into Bali's culinary heart.

The resort options were heavy on pizza and burgers, but light on the Indonesian options. Though they were delicious, there were only so many lightly spiced spinach and peanut crackers at the buffet I could eat to sate my culinary journey.

I was on a mission to find the 'real Bali' and planned to do just that through my stomach. Fortunately, I had befriended a group of women after my own heart.

 Daily offerings are placed at the entrance of homes and restaurants (image: Getty)

During some downtime, we keen eaters swapped the buffet for Bumbu Bali, an iconic, yet unassuming restaurant and cooking school located amongst massage salons and ramshackle convenience stores in downtown Nusa Dua, minutes from the resort.

Hidden behind traditional gated walls, the restaurant was built using the same design principles as a Balinese home compound – think open-air spaces and a kitchen peppered with flowering orchards and tranquil gardens. Its beauty and charm (and fare) was enough to be featured on Masterchef New Zealand.

We took a seat beneath a small pavilion and ordered the lunchtime nasi campur, or in non-foodie terms, one of everything. The set menu showcased the very best dishes from the Bumbu kitchen, including the ubiquitous satay sticks. It was as visually appealing as it was delicious; a veritable assortment of fragrant ayam pelalah (shredded chicken salad), ketipat cantok (warm vegetable salad with rice cakes) and the sweet and sticky be celeng base manis (pork in sweet soy sauce) presented in striking, mouth-watering fashion. A set of sambal (fiery, aromatic chilli sauces) served alongside the dishes was the perfect foil for drizzling over chopsticks laden with steamed rice and tender meat. Success!


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 "We'll have one of everything" (image: Anna Howard)

On our second culinary outing, we found ourselves in Ubud, famished after a bike ride through the Kintamani rice fields, and made a beeline for one of Bali's worst-kept food secrets, Bebek Bengil, or Dirty Duck Diner as it's also known.

Make no mistake, the name of this Ubud institution has little to do with hygiene standards, but the flock of ducks that descended into the restaurant grounds, their curiosity getting the better of them. The muddy footprints left all over the newly polished floors and tables were the inspiration behind the moniker.

 Gado gado means 'potpourri' or medley

Bebek Bengil is surrounded by a tranquil garden offset by cosy dining nooks in the midst of bustling Ubud and its souvenir stores and massage parlours. The menu is extensive with something for all palates, but I recommend bypassing the western options for one of their local dishes.

If you're organised, call 24-hours ahead for their signature smoked duck. On our fleeting visit, we devoured their delicious gado gado, a vegetable and tofu salad with a spicy peanut sauce and most popular dish, crispy fried duck. KFC eat your heart out.

With only a few hours to spare before the dreaded flight home, we organised a morning in glamorous Seminyak amidst its burgeoning boutiques and home ware stores. While the main purpose of the visit was to give our credit cards a workout, we came away with little more than an appetite.

 A selection of Chandi's finest dumplings

The super-chic beachside resorts like Motel Mexicola and Potato Head were calling, but our strict deadline and culinary criteria meant finding something with an Indonesian edge within walking distance. Enter Chandi.

They say not to judge a book by its cover, but the inviting, resort-style exterior of the restaurant with its dark timber furnishings and glossy marble was hard to resist. The bonus cooling reprieve of air-conditioning didn't hurt either. And when it came to the food, we were not disappointed.

Situated along the main strip of Jalan Laksmana Seminyak, Chandi served up a predominantly Indonesian menu, flecked with Pan-Asian influences. Its chef, Indonesian-born Agung Nugroho was one of the forces behind New York City's ultra-stylish Buddakan and Nobu 57. We were in capable hands.

With a round of Indochine dim sum, beef rendang roti wraps and a mojito or two, we toasted our time in Bali and a successful foodie (or is that gluttonous?) mission.


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Anna Howard

Give me street food over Michelin stars, cellar doors over wine bars and small towns and wide open spaces over big cities any day. Travel for me means ticking off the 'to eat and drink' list one regional flavour and wine bottle at a time.