Taking a Bite out of Bali, Indonesia

By Jules Torti | November 3, 2022

The signs were everywhere. Goreng this, goreng that. Food stalls with simple drawings of catfish and noodles lined the narrow streets ripe with the unforgettable punk of durian fruit. I finally asked our guide, “what does goreng mean?”

To fry. Fried. I was surprised at how deep-fried our Indonesian menu was. Nasi goreng (fried rice). Mie goreng (fried noodles). Calamari, chicken, eggplant, bananas. Bakawan jagung (or perkedel jagung) was a daily staple. The Indonesian corn fritters are pockmarked with corn kernels, kaffir lime and laced with chili and garlic and a fan favourite of locals. The fritters are also made with mashed potato, garlic and chives.

As we bopped island to island from Jakarta to Bali, our itinerary (and plates) shifted from Komodo dragons and dragonfruit (pitaya) to holy snakes (at the Tanah Lot temple) and snake fruit (salak). The blush and brilliant fuchsia of the dragonfruit was a bright beginning to our mornings, served frothy in a glass alongside French press coffee. A few days in I found myself thinking, “We need to get a blender.” The velvet quench of an avocado banana smoothie had me rethinking my predictable pumpernickel toast and chocolate soya milk go-to.

While snake fruit was less of a taste bud hit (according to the non-convinced faces of the group), the exotica of this avocado-sized fruit earned it an entry in Gastro Obscura for good reason. It’s astringent, crunchy and smooth as a garlic bulb. The skin is exactly like a snake and takes some effort to pry into (an aggressive pinch and pull at the tip is required). It’s the kind of thing you keep eating several bites of not out of pleasure but out of curiosity. Like, what does this taste like? The best comparison I could find in my palate data bank was oddly, edible whiskey. It may have been the ripeness of the fruit and an overriding fermentation taste. The universal take-away was that snake fruit was a “one and done” and why does it smell like a diaper?

However, my attitude towards the hard-boiled eggs simmered in turmeric, lemongrass, ginger and garlic was entirely different. I couldn’t get enough of them. Once an egg is boiled, it’s peeled and simmered in a fragrant broth of spices that turn the egg white butter yellow. The hard-boiled eggs above were braised in a mixture of tea leaves, aromatic spices, herbs, and soy sauce (much like a Chinese tea egg). Traditional telur pindang calls for teak leaves, guava leaves, shallot skins. Roadside corn receives a braising too– the day-glo yellow colour of corn husks are the result of a (tasteless) spice/dye bath.

If something wasn’t sunshine yellow, it was seafoam green and with a little research I learned that it’s thanks to pandan leaves. The pandan paste or extract (or powder) is responsible for the pale green hue and distinct flavour found in dadar gulung (the delicate, moist pancake rolls stuffed with brown sugar and coconut). Several of the Indonesian sweets we tried were tinted green–something I naively believed to be connected to avocados. I also foolishly believed that high tea was reserved guests dolled up in appropriate finery and well-versed in the etiquette of tea steeping, cutlery, crème fraîche and crust-less cucumber sandwiches.

On Flores Island, high tea was available poolside and a bikini and flip flops were suitable and welcome attire. Not keen on tea (as the air temp was hotter than a cup of tea)? You could order a Bintang lager instead. The high tea offerings at Plataran Komodo included quesadilla rolls, a spiced potato ‘stick’ (wedge), dadar gulung and a cloud-like banana muffin. Cheers to that. On the second afternoon, poolside high tea came in the form of crispy onion rings and dense squares of mud cake. How civilized!

Travel is designed around surprises and my lesson in Bircher muesli unfolded over breakfast with our Australian group member (and former vegetarian café owner), Dee, who schooled me on the history. Though not traditionally an Indonesian menu item, many of the eco stays and surf camps lean hard into the fresh fruits (pineapple, papaya and watermelon are a daily fix), smoothies, mango nectar, fiery ginger teas, tamarind juice and the likes of cinnamon-swizzled Bircher muesli. It’s been trending for 150 years thanks to Dr. Maximilian Bircher-Benner, a Swiss doctor who first swirled oats, grated apples, nuts, lemon, condensed milk and honey together. Like overnight oats, served in a parfait glass, the layered muesli is another Indonesian secret that I’ve promised to integrate into my daily routine. It’s like eating a yoga session.

Living in Ontario, fall is naturally synonymous with a slow shift into root vegetables. Being in Indonesia in October was a quick jump from autumn into the hyper local, impossibly fresh offerings from the sea and trees. Barramundi, king fish, grilled grouper, rock lobster, spicy prawns–I was hooked. The greens and crunchy things were endless too: pokcoy (bok choy’s cousin), sprouts, wilted pumpkin leaves, water spinach, fried basil leaves (another taste sensation that I’m adopting for our pizza production at home!), water apple, goreng cabbage…

My default setting is to search for unlikely food marriages (like red velvet bubble tea) and trying odd twists like black rice pudding with delicate pink tapioca pearls were right up my Sanur alley. The golden wild fern and feta spring rolls will long remain in my memory bank of best-ever eats. 

If you’re eager to shake-up your menu or expand your vegetarian horizons, Bali is a beautiful open-book lesson on rice presentation (wrapped in banana leaf rolls, cones and tight pyramids) and how to prepare tofu and tempeh in countless sweet and savoury ways. I always keep a running to do/to eat/to drink list–it’s my version of a five-year plan and I challenge you to do the same! 

For foodies and those who like to experiment in the kitchen, Wild Women Expeditions Beauty of Wild Bali adventure will add instant flavour to 2023. There are trips departing in May, June, September and October! 

A few more bites: If you think papaya tastes like cubed soap (because it does), squeeze lime on it. You’ll see–it somehow cuts the soap. Also, when in Bali, be on high alert for jalapeno margs and jackfruit martinis! 

For ideas on creating your own to ‘round the world to eat/to drink list, you can refer to the custom list and tasting notes in my memoir, Been There, Ate That: A Candy-Coated Childhood!

If you’d like to share your own tasting notes from a Wild Women trip, please email me at jules@wildwomenexpeditions.com –we can compare fermented shark and cuy stories!