Indonesia’s flavors and ingredients finally have their share of the limelight on the archipelago’s favorite holiday island, where a crop of sophisticated restaurants are elevating local cooking and sourcing to a delicious new level.
Whether tasting satay on Madura, hunting for kulat pelawan mushrooms on Bangka, or learning spearfishing from Bajo sea gypsies in Sulawesi, Lisa Virgiano leads an enviable existence. But she’s dead serious when it comes to what she calls her life’s mission: promoting the richness and diversity of her home country’s cuisine.
In 2009, the Jakarta-born culinary expert was behind a clandestine foodie event called Underground Secret Dining; since then, she has worked with the World Wildlife Fund on food sustainability and has twice represented Indonesia at the Salone del Gusto food festival in Turin. Now, as the brand director at Kaum, a progressive Indonesian restaurant with branches in Hong Kong, Bali, and (come May) Jakarta, the 37-year-old is busier than ever. When she isn’t trawling Indonesian islands in search of recipes for Kaum, she’s following the Slow Food mantra by tracking down sustainable, small-scale suppliers of native ingredients, some of which have become increasingly hard to find.
The Kaum outlet in Bali, which opened at the Potato Head Beach Club in Seminyak last October, is striking enough with its concrete Toraja-style wall panels, 40-seat communal table, and Indian Ocean views. But it’s the food that makes this one of the most exciting new dining rooms in town. Virgiano, who describes the menu as “nostalgia food our grandmothers used to cook,” says the focus is on authentic village fare made with only a few adjustments, and the big, bold flavors that Kaum serves up “family style” remain instantly recognizable. There’s a bobor daun kelor kelapa muda—a light coconut-milk dish with snake gourd and moringa leaves, served in a coconut shell—and an aromatic chicken soup (soto ayam kulat pelawan) loaded with the aforementioned mushrooms, which are only found on the islands of Bangka and Belitung, off the east coast of Sumatra. A pomelo sorbet soups up the humble rujak, Indonesia’s ubiquitous tangy fruit salad, but doesn’t dilute the blend of sour, sweet, and umami that makes the back-alley version so addictive.
Kaum is just one of a raft of notable new restaurants in Bali that are dragging Indonesian cooking—so often relegated to the hotel buffet or street-side warung—into the limelight, driving a long-overdue revival of interest in one of Asia’s most varied and underrated cuisines. Another newcomer is Manisan, which occupies a joglo-style pavilion overlooking a rice field at the Alaya Resort in Ubud. With a menu conceived by Indonesian food legend William Wongso and an interior design by the late, great Australian-born landscape architect and Balinist Made Wijaya (this was his last project), there’s plenty to admire here. The menu crisscrosses the archipelago, largely faithfully, with pan-Indonesian staples like satay, fried rice, ikan bakar (grilled fish), and sambal, the chili-led condiment without which no Indonesian meal would be complete. More impressive is the selection of lesser-known dishes, like binte biluhuta Gorontalo—a light, spicy-sour soup from northern Sulawesi with sweetcorn, shrimp, and young coconut—and udang tangkap, an Acehnese recipe that combines jumbo prawns with crispy pandan and curry leaves.
Of course, casual Balinese restaurants and resort menus have featured Indonesian dishes for as long as anyone can remember. But the cuisine’s elevation to the realm of finer dining is a relatively new thing for the island. It began, one could argue, in 2013, when Kieran Morland, Jasper Manifold, and Melissa McCabe, who had worked together at Seminyak’s scene-defining Ku De Ta beach club, opened Merah Putih on nearby Jalan Petitenget, drawing on dishes from around the archipelago. In the towering cathedral of a space, where full-grown palms soar alongside sculptural pillars, half of the menu is traditional—yet beautifully plated—treatments of specialties like Acehnese fish curry or a fragrant oxtail soup (sop buntut). The other half is more interpretative. A Bedugul smoked-pumpkin salad is a vegetarian translation of Bali’s ceremonial smoked poultry dish, betutu, complete with the accompanying coconut-bean salad and spice paste, while caramelized rendang sauce (a staple of Padang cuisine) anchors a pretty banana-leaf packet of mushroom and quail egg. “The food here is what I thought I’d want to eat if I came on holiday to Bali,” Morland says. “Good quality ingredients with the big warung flavors you know from street food.”
Shortly after Merah Putih’s debut, the team behind the longstanding beachfront restaurant La Lucciola opened Bambu, also on Petitenget. It’s a modernist Balinese palace where airy outdoor pavilions rest amid tranquil ponds, brilliant koi flicker around geometric stepping-stones, and regal-seeming Balinese fellows in ceremonial gear greet you at an entrance complete with an aling-aling screen to ward off passing demons. Here, archipelago favorites are run through an almost Mediterranean lens. Naniura, a raw, spiced lake-fish dish that originates with the Batak people who live around Sumatra’s Lake Toba, becomes a gorgeous tuna ceviche studded with flowers and spices. Ayam pelalah, a ceremonial recipe involving shredded chicken, is beautified with a tomato-heavy sambal and rests amid brilliant strips of long bean.
Known for his flair with Southeast Asian street food, Scottish chef Will Meyrick turned his attention exclusively to the flavors of his adoptive home, Indonesia, with the 2015 launch of Hujan Locale in Ubud. On the airy second floor of the casual, contemporary-colonial space, Indonesian favorites go through Meyrick’s exuberant, internationalist filter. Here, woku, the glorious citrus-lemon-basil spice paste that defines North Sulawesi’s Minahasa cooking, gets the laksa treatment: the tangy sauce is smoothed with coconut milk and enhanced with black ash noodles. And a take on Meyrick’s betel-leaf tuna tartare—a headliner at one of his other Bali restaurants, Sarong—gives the Vietnamese package a thoroughly Balinese filling courtesy of bags of torch ginger, the key ingredient in the island’s signature sambal bongkot.
With thousands of islands, hundreds of languages, and certainly hundreds, probably thousands of separate culinary traditions, the Indonesian archipelago is a culinary gift that keeps on giving. But besides the fashion for Indonesian dishes, a new and equally exciting development is underway—a rediscovery of the archipelago’s almost unimaginable wealth of ingredients. At Mozaic, with its magical garden setting in Ubud, Michelin-trained chef Chris Salans has merged Indonesian flavors with modern French techniques since the turn of the century. Today, Locavore, another 2013 opening, is leading the charge.
At a time when most finer dining establishments in Bali majored on imported ingredients—Tasmanian salmon, wagyu beef, French foie gras—Locavore’s chef-owners Ray Adriansyah and Eelke Plasmeijer used exclusively local ingredients to prepare modernist, international cuisine, adopting the global trend for ultra-local dining and leaving other chefs playing catch-up. Over the years, however, the focus on local ingredients has led to the development of an increasingly Indonesian style, which saw Locavore, now widely regarded as Indonesia’s best restaurant, jump 27 places on this year’s list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. A signature steak tartare features Balinese beef—prepared with additional fat for smoothness—while a dish named “Into the Sawah” is a symphony of 64-degree duck egg, snail, and frog porridge, with flowers and fern tips foraged, like the frogs and snails, from the paddy where the ducks feast. A handful of dishes pay more literal tribute to archipelago classics: catfish, smoked and fried, comes with a sweet-sour pineapple foam that’s a nod to pindang ikan Palembang, the tangy Sumatran fish soup. “It happened organically,” explains Plasmeijer. “Me, Ray, and Adi [Karmayasa, another partner] didn’t sit down and plan it out, it just made perfect sense. It’s easier to be creative if you get new ingredients and have to figure out what to do with them. That, in itself, is a creative process.”
At May’s Ubud Food Festival, Locavore will host a Slow Food lunch, showcasing endangered ingredients from across the archipelago; in June, Plasmeijer and his team will launch the latest addition to their family, a pan-Indonesian casual dining concept called Nusantara. They are even working on an encyclopedia of Indonesian ingredients. And that’s a development that’s long overdue. Indonesia’s rainbow landscapes, which run from volcanic peaks to fragile atolls, from tangled rain forest to cool plateaus, yield a crazy diversity of comestibles. Consider The Restaurant at The Legian hotel in Seminyak. Here, chef Luke MacLeod works with ingredients from the mango-fed Balinese porker known as bangkal hitam to the vinegary nectar of the melipona bee. In eastern Bali, Penelope Williams of the Bali Asli restaurant and culinary school works with local farmers, fishers, and foragers to supply ultra-local elements for her table—not to mention her celebrated cooking classes. And they are far from alone.
Last year, the Merah Putih crew opened Sangsaka, an intimate, dimly lit space where Morland showcases Indonesian finds and loosely Indonesian flavors in a wildly inventive menu that changes roughly every week. “In a 25-seater restaurant, you can be much more reactive to your suppliers and to what’s good each morning,” the chef says. “That’s something you just can’t do when you’re serving 250 people.” You might find reinterpretations here—Balinese smoked duck betutu reimagined with a hefty dose of torch ginger, or Madurese coconut satay reinvented as rare wagyu with fern tips and seasonal greens. Or you might savor a delicate pearl scallop tartare with snapper, palm hearts, and lemongrass; or giant freshwater shrimp with wood ear mushrooms, mini dumplings, tangy tomato sambal, and tiny, jewel-like leaves, a tribute simply to what’s been good that week.
For pastry chefs and bartenders, Indonesia offers a playground of fruits, herbs, roots, and spices. Will Goldfarb, the pastry genius behind Room4Dessert, the funky post-industrial dessert bar so serendipitously transplanted from New York to Ubud, creates his own alcohols using local ingredients and centers his desserts on archipelagic flavors such as nutmeg, clove leaves, cocoa butter, turmeric, tamarind, and black rice. His Incidente Stradale melds coconut water, coconut-water vinegar, and the acid aromatics of one of Indonesia’s most beloved herbal tonics, jamu kunyit asam, into a welter of textures and flavors. Also on the menu? Housemade liqueurs, bitters, and vermouth made with all-local ingredients. Try the Purple Rain, which pairs rum infused with blue pea flowers with dragon fruit.
Raka Ambarawan cut his bartending teeth creating unique concoctions for Locavore, a restaurant that takes cocktail pairing to the next level with intense, surprising drinks. At the group’s new bar, Night Rooster, he exploits Indonesia’s wealth of spices to create vermouths that power an alternative to a Negroni and the deliciously bittersweet Ashes. And he explores its liquid heritage, too. His Loloh 2.0 combines elements of the archipelago’s favorite tonics, kunyit asam and beras kencur, with ginger, lime, rum, and cachaça: the name itself is a Balinese term for herbal medicines.
Yet there’s more than medicine to Indonesia’s liquid traditions. The archipelago has a long heritage of distillation, be that in simple bamboo-cum-burner setups in the jungle or the more sophisticated rigs that yielded the arak drunk by medieval Javanese kings. At the Akademi bar at Katamama hotel in Seminyak, just a short walk from Kaum, jars of this definitively Indonesian spirit line the space, infusing with new ingredients. Staff work on monthly case studies to explore flavors as diverse as velvet tamarind, alang-alang root, and ironwood bark, as well as rosella, nutmeg, coffee cherry, and cacao, which ultimately make their way onto Indonesia’s most Indonesian drinks list. “It’s a delight finding new flavors, and talking to the team about how their family or their ancestors have used them,” says ex-London, soon-to-be-Colombia mixologist Dre Masso, Akademi’s creator. “Indonesia has this rich heritage of tonics, and it’s great to be able to use these incredible ingredients in a sustainable fashion.”
And the sheer scope of the country’s culinary traditions, wealth of ingredients, fertile soils, and bountiful seas, means that, on Bali and beyond, for both bartenders and chefs, the journey is very much just beginning.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Bali’s New Bounty”).