Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Satay on the Island of the Gods-Bali

As the gamelan orchestra’s haunting chimes fade into the early evening dusk, it’s clear that the shaggy-haired, good-natured barong has once again failed to defeat Rangda, a long-nailed witch who has been threatening the kingdom. The audience pours out of the temple theater and into the street, to be snared by the tempting scent of satay sticks charring over a roadside grill.

Bali is unique in Indonesia for its Hindu culture, as most of the islands are Muslim, though like everywhere else in the country, there’s an unruly spirit world lurking under the surface of its organized religion. Out in the sunshine, terrific surf pounds the cliffs and brilliant beaches, villages celebrate life in seemingly daily festivities, and the highlands around Ubud – Bali’s artistic retreat – are piled with vibrantly green rice terraces.
But there’s a darker side to Bali too: good and evil gods are kept in balance by offerings of flowers and food in doorway shrines, worship at intricately carved stone temples, the frankly spooky barong dance, and the paying of respects to Bali’s religious pivot, the mighty and disturbingly active Gunung Agung volcano.
Balinese satay is different too. In popular opinion, these barbecued skewers of spiced meat have become Indonesia’s national dish. Classically simple and infinitely variable, satay is as much at home on high-end restaurant menus as it is being served up at simple warung (home-based) cafés, street carts, or village festivals. But unlike their Muslim countrymen, the Balinese adore eating pork – one of the island’s classic dishes is babi guling, roast suckling pig – and you’ll find pork satay served everywhere here.
Aside from the meat used, however, pork satay is unremarkably familiar: a few little cubes of marinated meat threaded onto a bamboo skewer, grilled, and served with a peanut-based sauce. Where Balinese satay really excels is satay lilit, made from seafood.

Shrimp and firm, white fish are mashed to a thick, moist paste with coconut milk and rich palm sugar; tangy tamarind pulp, chili peppers, minced turmeric, and ginger are blended in for flavor, with a touch of pungent terasi shrimp paste. The resulting doughy mixture is molded around the rib of a palm leaf (or, more prosaically, a thick wooden skewer), lightly oiled, and grilled over a glowing bed of charcoal made from coconut husks. Served with a dipping sauce of sambal matah – a chili pepper and lemongrass relish – all you need is some ketupat rice cakes and a vegetable dish such as plecing kangkung (water spinach dressed in a spicy lime juice sambal) to be in island heaven.

Satay is often served simply in Bali, with plain rice and a squeeze of lime

Best Places to Eat Satay

Bumbu Bali

Bumbu Bali is a slightly touristy place to dine, but the modern courtyard setting is delightful and the menu uncompromisingly Balinese, thanks to the efforts of renowned chef and restaurateur Heinz von Holzen, who has been living in Bali since 1990. Start with satay lilit or perhaps gedang mekuah, a soup of pumpkin-like green papaya. For the main course, choose steamed fresh vegetables and festive yellow rice alongside tum bebek (minced duck meat seasoned with spices and steamed in a banana leaf parcel), or a simpler stewed beef and coconut milk curry, or the lighter ikan bakar, a simple whole grilled fish. Finish with fresh tropical fruit, such as the delicately scented mangosteen, or a selection of Balinese cakes made from sago, rice flour, and coconut.
Jalan Pratama, Tanjung Benoa; open 11 AM–11 PM daily; +62 361 774502
Also in Bali
Kafe Batan Waru (+62 361 977 528; moderate) specializes in regional Indonesian fare and so is a great place to sample half a dozen varieties of satay, including another Balinese version, satay sapi, made with succulent pieces of pork, and a great chicken satay from the island of Madura.
Also in Indonesia
Jalan Penghibur, the street above Losari Beach in the capital of Sulawesi, is famous for its long string of night-time mobile food carts known as lima kaki (“five legs” – three on the cart and two on the person who pushes it). You can get excellent, very inexpensive seafood satay here, though the local version, satay makassar, is for the curious only; it is made from grilled offal and served without sauces or sambals.
Around the World
Singapore’s version of satay, served with the familiar sauce made from crushed peanuts, chili peppers, garlic, coconut milk, lime juice, and kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), was one of the first to be exported to the West via Chinese restaurants. Lau Pa Sat (; inexpensive), an airy 19th-century cast-iron building in Singapore that once served as a market, is now a food court with a score of counters offering all the old street-hawker favorites, including superb, freshly cooked satay sticks at very low prices. In London, Satay House (; moderate) is a buzzy restaurant that serves authentic Malaysian foods, including meat and vegetarian satay, and a huge range of delicious curries.
Indonesian Shrimp Paste
Fermented shrimp paste – terasi or belacan – forms the backbone of most soups, spice pastes, marinades, and sambals in Indonesian cooking.
Made by pounding tiny shrimp into a paste and then leaving the resulting mixture to mature in the sun in wicker trays, it’s sold in crumbly, reddish-brown blocks, usually in a tightly sealed tin, as its raw smell can only be described as “overpowering.” Strangely, terasi loses its aggressive marine aroma when cooked, and fortunately it is roasted over a flame before being added – sparingly – to a dish. Indonesian food is so heavily spiced that you’d expect even terasi’s flavor to vanish under the onslaught of chili pepper and pungent gingers, but it’s always there if you look for it, somehow mellowing, thickening, and binding together the overall flavor, making the dish unmistakably Indonesian.
Three Days in Bali
Bali is spectacularly beautiful, so wherever you go, you’ll be blessed with glorious sights. The island’s relaxed and rural artistic retreat – Ubud – is a good place to start.
DAY ONE : Visit Ubud to shop for crafts or browse the Neka Art Museum. After lunch, follow narrow paths across the paddy fields, or head to Tirta Empul, a 1,000-year-old Hindu water temple with eerie stone carvings. After dark, catch a barong dance performance.
DAY TWO : Rise very early to see dolphins at Lovina. Follow them into the water around Menjangan Island’s coral reefs, or hike easy trails through forested Bali Barat National Park to see monkeys, deer, and endangered Bali starlings. Returning to Ubud, stop at roadside viewpoints for views of the volcano Gunung Agung.
DAY THREE : Spend the day on the beach enjoying Kuta’s lively bar scene, relax at the quieter resort of Nusa Dua or catch world-beating surf at Uluwatu. Enjoy the sunset from clifftop Pura Luhur temple, then head to beachside Jimbaran for a seafood barbecue.

Young Balinese dancers in traditional costume at the annual Bali Arts Festival, which features dance, theater, and shadow puppetry

Getting to Islands of the Gods
Bali’s international airport (named the Ngurah Rai Airport, but commonly called Denpasar Airport) and its sea port are near the capital, Denpasar. The island is only 93 miles (150 km) wide; transport is by bus, taxi, or rental car.
Where to stay
Poppies Gang 2 (inexpensive) is a legendary street in Kuta with lots of clean, basic hostels.
Ubud’s Desa Sanctuary (moderate) features self-contained, traditional buildings with modern facilities in Bali’s cultural center.
Suluban Cliff Villa (expensive) pampers with superlative clifftop sea views from your bed.

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