Balinese Food: The Traditional Cuisine & Food Culture of Bali

By Eleanor Carrano

In an interview with Phi Beta Kappa member Vivienne Kruger, I was privileged to glimpse inside the fragrant, nuanced world of Balinese cuisine and food culture as brought to life in Kruger’s new book Balinese Food: The Traditional Cuisine & Food Culture of Bali (Tuttle Publishing, 2014). Kruger hails from New York City and is a social historian with an MA, M.Phil., and Ph.D. in American history from Columbia University. Her now twenty-year-old love affair with the island of Bali began accidentally (more providentially, from the faith-filled Balinese perspective), when she visited Jakarta on the island of Java during a 1993 vacation. Kruger participated in an overland tour of Java and then a spontaneous boat trip to neighboring Bali, where she was first struck by what she terms the iconic “Balinese smile.” Kruger has returned to Bali every year since 1993 and spent two years there from 2007 to 2008. Kruger has produced a monthly food column for the Bali Advertiser, the largest Balinese expat newspaper, and has shared her expertise as a television program research consultant and travel article writer.  


In the introduction to your book, you say that “We, as curious Westerners, can only gape in awe as we struggle to learn how to eat and make food offerings on the island of the gods.” The idea that everything–including cooking–can be an act of praise must truly elevate any cuisine. Do you think that the integration of food and religion is something Western culture has lost and can return to? Can you comment on the importance of this integration in general?  

KRUGER: We, as curious Westerners, can only gape in awe as we struggle to learn how to eat and make food offerings on the island of the gods. I have enjoyed an incredible, decades-long literary, spiritual, and cultural love affair with the gorgeous volcanic island where the gods live—and the people smile from their hearts and cook from their souls. Food and religion are synonymous on Bali—an island often referred to as the sacrosanct, pristine, morning of the world. To cook is to pray: nothing takes place in Bali without the involvement of the gods. The less complicated, less expensive village foods cooked by the wife for her family every day are largely made for secular purposes to feed the family (but tiny portions must still be offered to the gods first). When purchasing any food, the Balinese will first think about the gods. When the Balinese purchase small colorful, rice cake sweets (jaja), their first thought when shopping is, “What do I need for a ceremony?” Their second concern is what foods they love to eat, because they will be consuming it after the festivities (to avoid wasting the food, and food money, by choosing sweets they dislike). A tertiary, but important consideration: can we afford this type of thing?

The Balinese love meat, but pork, beef, and chicken are still very expensive food commodities on Bali, and are mainly reserved for special ritual occasions. The Balinese usually feast on pork during ceremonial festivities—it is truly the preferred “food of the gods.” The Balinese consume very little meat in everyday life, usually adding a few tiny morsels of chicken or fish to their basic dish of rice for ordinary meals. Well-born, first-caste, high status Brahman priests, called pedandas, are not allowed to eat meat at all (cow, bulls, or pork); they also cannot consume food from street sellers or in the market, drink alcohol, or taste consecrated food offerings destined for the gods. (The pedanda are also not allowed to eat the offerings once a temple ceremony finishes—the people always bring the offerings home to eat.) Once ordained, Bali’s high priests can only eat vegetarian food: vegetables (sayur), rice (nasi), and water. It is not possible to eat eggs, beef, pork, chicken, duck, or Masako (a popular chicken bouillon flavoring). No coffee, tea, or milk—only water.

You say that Balinese cooking is at its best when prepared for “life cycle rituals,” such as weddings and cremations. Tooth filings are another. Could you explain this custom and its significance?

KRUGER: The toothfiling ceremony (typically done at puberty or during adolescence) is one of the most central spiritual and religious obligations in Balinese Hindu life. The goal of the ritual toothfiling (potong gigi) ceremony is to eliminate, control, or reduce the Sad Ripu—the six deadly sins or negative vices (jealousy, anger, confusion, drunkenness, greed, and desire). This critical ceremony also renders the recipient calmer, more mature, and more emotionally composed. This is accomplished by filing down and flattening the six upper, animal-like teeth—the two canines and four incisors. The toothfiling ceremony is a potentially dangerous undertaking, sometimes resulting in the death of the participant.  Bad or jealous people can steal the tooth filings and use them to perform black magic against the individual. To prevent this, parents usually go to the priest and obtain a protective amulet for their child.

The Balinese want to give the gods (and their invited deified ancestors) the most spectacular show possible on such a festive occasion: to delight and honor the gods is to create better karma for the next life. Food is always an integral part of a ceremony in Bali. Family members and local helpers prepare time-consuming, special ceremonial dishes for the main meal at a toothfiling. They construct large towers of colored cakes, fruits, and rice snacks as offerings—in both the kitchen area and the courtyard of the family temple. Large quantities of pork and chicken satés are mass-assembled as common offerings, and small satés are fashioned for caru (sacrificial) offerings. The food is cooked by groups of men and women beginning in the early morning. This special ceremonial feast typically consists of rice, saur (a yellow side dish of fried grated coconut pulp mixed with palm sugar or spices like turmeric and beans, sprinkled on top of rice), and several types of lawar (traditionally cooked by the men, it is a combination of finely chopped meat, vegetables, egg, copious spices, and raw, uncooked blood). The ritual menu also features tum (ground spiced meat steamed in banana leaf purses), ares (banana tree trunk soup with meat), bebek betutu (slow-cooked duck braised with vegetables and scorching spices in a banana leaf), and babi guling (spit-roasted suckling pig). Saté lilit (a fine mixture of ground meat and spices wound around a thick bamboo stick or lemon grass stalk) is quickly cooked over glowing coconut husk coals. This Balinese speciality is generally only prepared for major ceremonial occasions.

You describe the Balinese as “three million peasants by day, three million artists by night” who “carve and etch and paint their food into…rich spiritual shapes and divine colors.” Can you describe what inspired you to use artistic imagery in describing the cooking of Bali?

KRUGER: Almost every person in Bali is an artist—Balinese farmers surrender their water buffaloes, rice fields, and herds of ducks at the end of the day to become painters, woodcarvers, sculptors, and stone carvers (elaborate lava stone statues for temples and royal compounds). The Balinese are supremely creative—this ability is handed down from generation to generation by both genetics and tradition. In Bali, art is also yet another way to express reverence for the deities. This same urge to create beauty to honor and please the gods (everything in Bali is done to honor the gods) is carried over into cooking. Ornate temple-bound foods are constructed to be consecrated by priests and then offered to the gods (who inhale the essence of the foods). A prime example of Balinese “food artistry” is the amazing, six-foot-tall banten tegeh fruit offering towers borne on the heads of elaborately dressed local women. They carry the heavy, fruit-layered “skyscrapers” throughout the village streets in colorful, traffic-stopping, single file processions to their nearby temples. All financial and social resources in Bali are diverted towards and invested in these continuous ceremonies which always entail food offerings. When a village becomes more prosperous through tourist dollars, the newfound wealth is used to stage ever-more elaborate offerings, processions, and intricate displays of holy food.

In your book, you cite Miguel Covarrubias, “the Mexican painter, traveler, and amateur anthropologist,” whose “seminal work, Island of Bali, was published in 1937” and “ignited the world’s love affair with Bali.” You say that “Covarrubias’ vivid impressions of a pre-modern, pre-tourist Bali included the first Western descriptions of traditional Balinese food and food culture.” From your own experience, how has Western perception of Bali changed since Covarrubias’ time? Has tourism and globalization in general increased appreciation for Balinese cooking, or has it continued cultural integrity?  

KRUGER: Covarrubias’s vivid impressions of a pre-modern, pre-tourist Bali included the first Western descriptions of traditional Balinese food and food culture. Very little has changed since then. Bali (and its signature foods) still remain cloaked and sheltered from the ravages of time, tourism, and publicity: most Western people (except for neighboring Australians) have never visited Bali and cannot even locate it on a map. Globalization has had little effect on the local popularity of Balinese food—the food of the gods remains a secret, extremely spicy, homegrown pleasure (or shall we say vice).  Balinese food is unique, idiosyncratic, and indigenous to this one sacred island—hidden eight precious degrees south of the equator.  Difficult and time-consuming to create, it still remains largely unknown to the outside world. The word “Bali” always conjures up an exotic tropical dream of both teeming nature and primordial innocence—like a still-life Tahitian painting by Paul Gauguin. Heavily touristed areas like Kuta have taken on the trappings of Western society on the surface, but back in the villages (the heart and soul of Bali), the Bali-Hindu religion, the gods, loyalty to village, and consumption of traditional foods are the bedrock of life. Time-pressed, working Balinese people in Denpasar may settle for a quick package of Indonesian ramen noodles and soup—but they would much rather have their beloved lawar, babi guling, or ketupat rice cakes.

Mass tourism has not threatened, diminished, or altered Balinese cuisine—but nor has it increased the international awareness of Balinese food. The food of the gods thrives on Bali, but it rarely appears on tourist or foreign menus.  What is eaten in the villages today, is what was consumed in the villages five hundred years ago. Balinese food is always found in Balinese compounds, villages, and temples—and the Balinese people prefer to eat this over anything else. The men (very often ritual food specialists) still prepare the lavish, meat-based food offerings for ceremonies, while the women create the beautiful, artistic, intricately woven coconut leaf offerings which decorate this sacred place. The average Balinese woman will normally spend a third or more of her waking life preparing offerings at home—almost all of which contain or entail food. Canang sari are the small, square, pale yellow coconut leaf trays placed on car dashboards, on top of tall offerings, and on guardian statues. They must include all the proper elements: betel pepper leaf, areca palm nut, and lime paste (these three betel chew ingredients symbolize the Hindu trinity—Lords Brahma, Wisnu, and Siwa), golden banana slices, sugar cane, small cakes, tiny amounts of cooked food, glutinous white and black rice, shredded pandanus leaves, coins, and five differently colored flowers to represent the gods. The little baskets and trays must be created and plaited every single day, and also placed around ritually significant areas within the family compound.

Above: High priests dispense Bali’s favorite and most important drink–holy water–to ceremony participants.

You describe the megibung ritual as a “tool of religious ritual and a communal gathering,” originating in the 18th century in the Karangasem kingdom of East Bali, where it was also used to ascertain the number of troops in the King’s army at the time. Coming together in feast has served a multitude of social functions across time and culture. Do you think Western culture, and American culture in particular, has lost track of the purposefulness of preparing and eating food in community? 

KRUGER: American culture (and the nuclear family as a social unit), has moved away from the custom of communally preparing and eating food with friends, relatives, and neighbors. Feast-like social rituals persist at Thanksgiving and Christmas when families gather together over the dinner table. People still attend significant rituals like weddings, graduations, baby showers, and funerals—but these occasions do not offer opportunities to cook and feast together as a community (largely replaced by commercial professional catering). Some members of modern American society belong to churches which provide a sense of common purpose, religious feeling, and devotion to the divine—but this normally does not entail the preparation and consumption of food as a routine, prayerful congregation activity.  

Your Ph.D. from Columbia University is in American history. From your study of American society, do you think that our nation’s long history of immigration from a multitude of countries with rich traditional food cultures will preserve an appreciation for purposeful cooking and eating in this nation? 

KRUGER: Americans still enjoy the food legacy of sustained immigration from almost every country and culture in the world. America has evolved, however, into a fast-paced, commercial, business-oriented culture with little time for purposeful, creative home cooking and eating. We instead appreciate our rich smorgasbord of take-out ethnic choices on the run—from Japanese sushi to Mexican tortillas to Chinese Peking duck. In Manhattan in New York City, there is a long line of restaurant delivery boys every single evening around 7:00 P.M. in apartment building lobbies—waiting to be buzzed upstairs by the doorman. They are delivering Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Italian, and Mexican food. I was the only person in my building to ever cook dinner at home! 

As you say, Balinese cuisine is “steeped in religious ritual and devout Bali-Hindu belief.” What do you find to be the most beautiful or enlightening aspect of this belief system, and how does this aspect find expression in Balinese cooking? 

KRUGER: Religion is the number one topic of conversation throughout Bali. The Balinese are very conscious of their karma: coupled with reincarnation, it is the underpinning of their religious belief system. Most Balinese believe that their karma (the balance of positive and negative deeds) is good—this gives them tremendous personal confidence and peace of mind. When they ride on their motorbikes, they do not need to look to the left or to the right when they peel out of a narrow alleyway.  Since their souls are clean and their karma is good, they cannot have an accident. They are constantly aware of their actions—and the duty to do, speak, and think only good things.  Karma is their spiritual bank account as they go through life.  Preparing food offerings and staging elaborate ceremonies for the gods is also part of their karmic obligation. A great deal of the food cooked in Bali is brought to the temples as offerings—it will be blessed by the priest and then the family takes it home to eat.  The Balinese continually create and eat purified, blessed food—a source of spiritual as well as physical nourishment. Theirs is quite literally, the food of the gods.

From the vantage point of the village—the center of the Balinese universe—the Balinese can then extrapolate to the rest of the world.  The Balinese village is shelter from the storm. The entire village cooks ceremonial dishes together from birth until death—united by their belief in religious rituals and Bali-Hinduism. Everything that they do, they also do under the protection of the gods. Holy water is the most popular drink on Bali—this says everything!  I became very enamored of Balinese culture and ritual—and cherished the experience of sipping holy water dispensed by a village priest. You instantly feel safe and calm and blessed—empowered, happy, and protected. The Balinese constructed a ring of extremely significant, important temples around the perimeter of the island to protect Bali and the people of Bali. It works. Safe and secure, the Balinese live mindfully. They live—and cookfully and joyfully and in the moment. My good friend Kasena told me that he never worries—as long as he has rice to eat for tomorrow, he is happy. The number one expression in Bali is, “Enjoy your life!” They smile and laugh all the time from the heart (with their beautifully filed, straight teeth)—with both absolute ecstasy and compete innocence. Giggling with the Balinese is one of the greatest pleasures on earth.

What were some of the challenges of writing a book on Balinese cooking, beyond those you had already experienced writing newspaper food columns and travel articles on this subject? 

KRUGER: Food columns and articles are short (the biggest challenge is to keep them down to 1,000 words!), but they still require a great deal of research to ensure accuracy. Writing a book on Balinese food and cooking turned out to be a very different, real labor of love and commitment—and I enjoyed every exciting minute of it. I repeatedly engaged in first-hand, high-risk, “extreme eating” (worthy of a “Survivor” episode) to research the mysterious, inscrutable, sacred cuisine of Bali. I personally sampled such adventure nourishment as fiddlehead fern tips, nasi bungkus packets with the beach ladies, home-made village-grilled pindang, raw and heavenly sambal matah, rock hard taop nuts, yeast-infested and flecked tape and tempe, beachside grilled ears of corn (jagung bakar), rice ketupat (in Singapore), endless rows of saté ayam and saté lilit, black rice pudding, and countless colorful local fruits and palm sugar and coconut-based desserts (dadar guling, jaja laklak, ondeonde). I swallowed a slippery, rubbery ritual meat (or dare I say organ meat) object at a high-caste purification ceremony in Ubud in order not to offend the officiating priest! I sampled delicious sweet daluman (and was sick with a flu from this popular village drink for three days afterwards!).

The most difficult part of the incredible ten-year adventure was obtaining recipes from the Balinese—as they are very reluctant to stand out from the crowd (and their village) and do something as individualistic as participate in a book project. They come from an oral rather than a written culture, and are worried that they will accidentally give me the wrong information. They are also unfamiliar with the formal recipe format–they cook by instinct and heredity and family memory. It took many years to obtain my favorite recipes—and it was an incredible-victorylike a landslide—when a long-sought-after recipe suddenly fell into my lap from the most unlikely of places.

I also amassed approximately two thousand photos of the traditional foods of Bali—from the barnyard to the temple to the “final resting plate.” I crawled and slipped through wet, muddy rice fields photographing dragonflies and ducks, pursued live chicken delivery trucks down the side roads of Ubud, and invaded a dark, dank, Dickensian tofu factory in Seririt. I snapped saté stick offerings at a cremation ceremony on Kuta Beach, goat saté sellers in Lovina (trophy display leg, hoof, and skin waving in the breeze), and jukung fishermen bringing in the morning mackerel catch at the break of dawn in Nusa Lembongan. I loved playing photographer-spy—capturing some spectacular photos of this beautiful sactified island.

Eleanor Carrano is a junior at the University of Dallas majoring in Biology. The University of Dallas is home to the Eta of Texas Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.