Wednesday, December 1, 2010

XN's Opinion on Dining in Bali

It's a little embarrassing to see how
extremely popular KFC is in Bali.
What I want to tell you about dining in Bali is my advice alone: not everyone would agree with me completely. This is strictly my own experience and my own taste: my motto, now more than ever, is, "Heroes are bold with food." I read that somewhere and I don't recall where, but I'm living by it now.

The very first thing I want to impress you, the Reader, with is: avoid the restaurants. Don't go to a freakin' restaurant if you want the flavor of Bali. There is a high number of restaurants in every town and city, and they're meant for the tourists, even those that claim to have the authentic Balinese flavor and charm. No. Restaurant = Tourism.

Even a mild curiosity can disclose
some of the most fantastic dining to
be had, for very cheap.
Why do people go to restaurants? Many of them offer a wide variety of dishes. Nice Indonesian restaurants are present, as are strictly Korean or Japanese restaurants. There is no dearth of variety and fusion restaurants, and unquestionably some world-class chefs have set up lucrative businesses here. I'm not questioning any of that.

But let's talk money. When you can get a delicious meal for $1.50, why would you voluntarily shell out $40 for an imported sirloin steak? And $1.50 in the States is not equivalent to $1.50 in Bali, regardless of the exchange rates. It's more like five or six bucks, to them. When you tip, US$0.50 is much more significant, whereas back in Minneapolis it would be nothing short of insulting. Then again, no one tips here--it's not expected, which is very difficult for me and my friends to get used to. It feels churlish to indulge in this fantastic food in this amazing environment and not toss a couple bucks to the friendly and lovely waitstaff.

And people go to the restaurants for "comfort food." I will allow that's a very important psychological crutch: when you're stymied by the breakdown in communication and customs, when you're overwhelmed with people trying to sell you things or the sidelong glances you suspect you're receiving, and when you're tired of having to ask what every single item on a menu is, yes, sometimes it's valuable to sit down with what resembles a hamburger and a Coke. I wouldn't begrudge anyone their psychological shelter in seeking out a nice enchilada or a hot dog, really. I do not, however, accept that as a way of life for someone living or vacationing abroad.

This looks like a busy, unkempt little
kitchenette, but it produces some of
the tastiest, most authentic
Balinese food to be found in Sanur.
In my opinion, there is little reason to go anywhere but the warung. In a previous post I mischaracterized this as Indonesian for any kind of restaurant, but this is not the case. The warung is any small street-side seller of food, from the pushcarts to the open-faced one-room stalls that line every street, or the shacks that crop up intermittently in the mountains and rural regions. The food there is very inexpensive, and I've yet to find one that serves bad food--I won't say they don't exist, I'm only saying I haven't encountered them yet (my wife, at worst, had a bland nasi goreng, "fried rice," at a more upscale warung in a touristy section of Sanur).

In fact, it's come to the point where I tend to evaluate major purchases by units of meals. I've had delicious lunches from 80¢ to US$1.50, so if I'm at a bar and estimating whether I need another imported drink for seven bucks, that's about five lunches. Is one drink worth exchanging for a week of ayam bakar or soto campur? Maybe one, but never two. And anyway, too many drinks means waking up late, which means missing out on the palpably cool morning and maybe losing a complimentary breakfast, depending on where you're staying. Even the extreme-budget Hotel Yani provided a fantastic breakfast buffet each morning, and not a rinky-dink modest fruit selection with a slice of toast.

ayam bakar
"chicken" + "grilled"
soto campur
"soup" + "lots of meat/vegetables"
nasi goreng
"rice" + "fried"

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