Food & Drink

On Bali, a Local Food Movement is Embracing Traditional Island Flavors

Native produce and time-worn techniques are finally taking center stage. 
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Martin Westlake

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In 2019, Bali welcomed six million visitors. In 2021, just 45 travelers came. Having lost their livelihood in the tourism industry, many Balinese returned to their hometowns, where they came to realize the value of the island's rich cultural and geographical landscape and how these gifts must be preserved going forward. One was the chef and priest Jero Mangku Dalem Suci Gede Yudiawan. Once a busy restaurant owner with three spots on the heavily touristed side of Bali, Yudiawan returned to the gentler pace of his home village, Les, on Bali's tranquil northeast, after the pandemic began. “I was a robot,” he says. “Now I feel human.”

Les is a seaside community with quiet temples and waterfalls cascading through slices of emerald-green jungle. It feels worlds away from the excess that has made Bali synonymous with overtourism. The area is steeped in traditions such as salt making and the harvesting of lontar palm nectar—practices, says Yudiawan, that he and the community have sought to embrace more fully.

Yudiawan launched a small restaurant, Dapur Bali Mula, where he serves dishes that celebrate the bounty of his ancestral land—just-caught squid tossed with spices, barracuda satay, and mackerel cooked over wood fire in young bamboo. Yudiawan also distills his own arak, or palm wine, and produces artisanal sea salt and a type of palm-sugar syrup known as juruh. Spending more time in Les has allowed him to promote the offerings of other small producers from the region too, like the fishing community and coconut vendors.

Yudiawan's work is playing a pivotal role in raising the profile of true Balinese food and traditional kitchens, which prior to the pandemic were mostly overlooked for flavors and ingredients from afar. Dapur Bali Mula has attracted many eyes in recent months, including those of Will Goldfarb, the 2021 World's Best Pastry Chef, who took his entire team there for lunch, “just to show them what another way of building a community-supported network of artists and artisans can be like,” he says.

Harvesting rosella flowers in the garden at Room4Dessert in Ubud

Martin Westlake

Local grains, protein, and produce at Dapur Bali Mula, chef Jero Yudiawan’s restaurant in the village of Les

Martin Westlake

Goldfarb moved to Bali 13 years ago, after cooking at Spain's El Bulli and restaurants in Paris and his hometown of New York. His Ubud sweets paradise, Room4Dessert, which has a devoted following in Indonesia and around the globe, was one of the few restaurants of its caliber to remain active during the pandemic. But with fewer guests to feed, Goldfarb turned his focus to preparing meals for orphanages, hospitals, and senior centers in need. He also launched a line of artisanal products to support Indonesian ingredients and producers, and he started a 2,000-square-foot traditional plant garden in a plot behind the restaurant. As Bali opens back up to tourism, Goldfarb remains committed to these initiatives and more. “What we want to do is build our model of work, coming back around to the things we know are valuable,” he says. “Simple as that.”

For Tim Fijal, being on a quiet island meant getting closer to the rice cycle. Before COVID, he was the founder-director of a program at Bali's Green School called Kul Kul Connection, which aims to find ways of making the school “relevant to the local community and vice versa.” In mid-2020, he founded Astungkara Way—a regenerative enterprise that hosts multiday trail walks across the island and supports farmers. Astungkara Way offers the kinds of conscious experiences Fijal feels Bali needs to retain its agricultural sovereignty—a principle threatened by modernization, overdevelopment, and the excesses of tourism. Fijal thinks of the treks as pilgrimages. “I see it as a calling for humankind,” he says. “We need to slow down and take notice. Walking helps us do this.” They go through the rice-farming district Abiansemal and continue north, through villages, bamboo forests, and jungles laden with wild endemic edible plants. Each stop offers an opportunity for connection, from foraging and cooking to exploring traditional crafts. These experiences are designed to connect walkers with the landscape, its custodians, and their innate wisdom. “It gives a window into the world beyond the thin veneer that Bali often presents,” Fijal says. “It's transformative, to interact with people who are so connected with nature and the source of their food.”

The beauty of Bali's wider culinary universe lies in its diversity. Earlier this year, Seminyak locals and childhood friends Made Dhanu and Nikolas Artha opened Fed—a brick-and-mortar version of the boutique dining events they hosted before and between lockdowns. There are echoes of Melbourne (the city where they lived before the pandemic) in the youthful, design-driven energy of the place. It's powered, however, by a totally local team with a deep commitment to culture and a drive to work with native produce in their very own way. “We use whatever we have available on the island,” says Dhanu. This might translate to croquettes made from smoked jackfruit, fresh pomelo sprinkled over lemon cream, or poached snake fruits served in a crumble.

Fed was created by the community, for the community. It sprouted as a platform for expression and has blossomed into a beacon of optimism for the next generation. In many ways, it symbolizes Bali's perseverance over two exceptionally challenging years. “Hopefully,” says Dhanu, “we can influence other young Balinese to do whatever they're good at. This is their time to shine.”

Paon, Real Balinese Cooking (Hardie Grant Books, $40) by Wayan Kresna Yasa and Tjok Maya Kerthyasa is out now.

This article appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.