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The Best of Bali’s Warungs

By: Bodrek Arsana

This article was originally published in Latitudes magazine, a renowned bi-monthly magazine focusing on Indonesian culture. The magazine hailing from the island of Bali previously existed in paper form and was especially known for its in-depth critical articles and beautiful photography. As a tribute to all contributors of this magazine, presents a selection of articles published in the years 2001-2004.

Surrounded by the foreign franchises and the fancy “fusion cuisine” cafés, the Balinese warung holds its own. These traditional restaurants don’t have wine lists, flower centerpieces or even printed menus, and diners eat at simple tables or sitting on the floor. But the customers aren’t complaining. They know that these are the places for serious food—no frills but a whole lot of flavor.
At the warung, social status is temporarily suspended. Construction workers sit next to the Jakarta elite and the Western tourists. The students come for affordable meals, the wealthy come for the nostalgic tastes of their past, and the foreigners come for an instant exotic adventure. Although they’ve yet to be recognized by the anthropologists and art critics, the warung owners of Bali may be doing more than anyone else on the island to preserve Balinese culture where it really counts.

Almost all Balinese cuisine relies on the standard Balinese spice mixture called basa gede or basa genap, meaning “complete spice.” Basa gede usually consists of ginger, galangale, turmeric, shallots, garlic, chili peppers, shrimp paste, candlenuts, salt and lime juice. Recipes differ from cook to cook and are rarely written down. “You just try and taste it to know whether it’s good enough or not,” explained one warung owner.
To help with the thousands of choices, we’ve put together our own personal recommendations for the best of Bali’s warungs.

1. Warung Nasi Campus Teges
[Banjar Teges, Peliatan village. Open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.]
At lunchtime, it’s easy to find this place. Just look for the dozens of cars parked patiently out front. With its strategic location on the Denpasar-Ubud road, its reasonable prices—Rp6,000 per portion—and its tasty traditional food, this modest warung has no problems attracting customers. The menu is short: nasi campur—“mixed rice”—consisting of white rice, a long bean lawar salad, a choice of chicken or pork cooked in base gede and a lemongrass sambal chili sauce.
From the outside, the Warung Nasi Campur Teges looks rather run down, but if you peek inside you’ll see groups of tie-wearing businessmen eagerly scooping up their food with their fingertips. Most of the customers are middle-class workers who come on their lunch breaks, along with a few handicraft-makers from the villages around Ubud. Thirty-two year old Desak Made Rupini, the owner of the warung, explains that a year ago she was forced to give over her whole house to the business. “Lots of customers were complaining that they couldn’t get seats,” she says.

2. Warung Ayam Betutu Men Tempeh, Gilimanuk
[Gilimanuk Bus Terminal, Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.]
This warung, located in the dusty fume-filled bustle of the Gilimanuk bus terminal on Bali’s northwest coast, will probably never make the tourist guidebooks. It’s far from Bali’s metropolitan centers, serving mainly travelers crossing on the ferry from Banyuwangi, East Java, and there’s only one thing on the menu. But that one thing is so good that it’s enough to make you forget the kilometers you just crossed to get there.

The warung serves patrons a bowl of white rice, a plate of fried peanuts sprinkled with a little salt and a whole chicken cooked with traditional betutu spices. Fifty-six-year-old Men Tempeh, the warung’s owner, describes the process of cooking the chicken. First it is steamed until half-cooked, then simmered in a glass of water mixed with spices: garlic, galangale, shallots, laos root, turmeric, ginger, bird chilis, shrimp paste and salt.
Men Tempeh opened her warung in 1980. Business was slow until 1985, when a group of well-known pop singers from the capital who were performing nearby paid a visit. Now, even though the food is not cheap by warung standards—Rp35,000 per chicken—business is always brisk. “Recently a government official ordered 50 chickens. He said they were for a government minister who had come from Jakarta,” Men Tempeh boasts.

Other warungs have tried to copy Men Tempeh’s success, but she’s not fazed by competition. “Everyone has their own luck. The customers are the ones who decide which chicken betutu from Gilimanuk is the delicious original,” she says.

3. Warung Siobak Ketut Utama
[Kampung Tinggi Market, Singaraja; open from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.]
The north Balinese city of Singaraja is known for its distinctive style of cooking, its food tending to be both hotter and sweeter than that served in the south. One famed specialty of the region is a spicy pork dish known as siobak, available in its ultimate form at the Warung Siobak owned by Ketut Utama at the Kampung Tinggi market in the city of Singaraja.
According to local residents, siobak is actually a Chinese creation. But over the years, as the area’s ethnic Chinese inhabitants intermarried with Balinese, Singaraja came to claim the food as its own. Now, virtually every Singaraja village boasts a siobak stand. Siobak is made from pork that is sliced, fried and then boiled. The meat is then slathered with a sauce made from tauco (fermented bean paste), chili peppers, sweet soy sauce, rice starch and pork broth. It is served up on white rice and topped with slivered chilis and minced cucumber.
Charging Rp6,500 per portion, the Warung Siobak Ketut Utama goes through an entire pig a day. “The money is all right,” says owner Ketut Utama. “But the most important thing is I can preserve the special eating culture of Singaraja.”

4. Warung Babi Guling Ibu Oka, Ubud
[Ubud bale banjar, to the west of the Ubud palace, Open 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.]
This warung is an Ubud institution. But more than that, it’s a refuge for hungry locals and adventurous tourists looking for a quick and cheap route to hog heaven. Located next to the bale banjar meeting hall in the midst of downtown Ubud, Warung Babi Guling Ibu Oka serves up savory roast suckling pig—the ne plus ultra of Balinese cuisine—to long lines of customers each day. As long as one can suspend cholesterol consciousness, the soft chunks of roasted meat and the crackling spice-lashed bits of skin—all for only Rp7,000 a serving—are a cultural experience to remember.