As a westerner traveling through Asia, I have been taught to regard eating here with a great deal of fear. Not because of the food itself, but because of what could potentially be lurking in that food. We are reminded not to drink the water, eat raw vegetables, to be careful with meats, and to cross our fingers that we don’t contract salmonella, dengue, or typhoid fever while traveling in this part of the world. Fortunately, I have been breaking all of these rules. Though I’ve been very careful with water (some things you simply don’t mess with), I’ve been eating meals every day that would be entirely off-limits from a typical American perspective. The restaurants here, and local “warungs,” break every food safety regulation I’ve ever come in contact with. During my second week on the island, we in fact had to fight off monkeys that came directly to our table to steal our food. We watched as the waitresses and cooks grabbed their slingshots and pelted the animals nonchalantly, as they undoubtedly do every day. I imagined the feces lodged between the primates’ toes as they stood on our breakfast table and devoured our toast. Do monkeys have fleas? Were they offloading them onto my napkins? I gladly sacrificed the meal.
This encounter didn’t stop me from continuing to dine in these locales, however. I’m happy to say that this was my only encounter with monkeys on the table, but many critters waltz around the dining rooms here, including roosters, geckos, and flies. My favorite dining option, and perhaps the most typical fare, is Nasi Padang. It’s essentially a buffet-style meal accompanied by rice that is cheap and delicious. I believe it originated in Sumatra, but has become a Balinese staple (“Nasi” means rice. One of the few words I learned. “Goreng” means fried. Hence “Nasi Goreng” = Fried Rice. Woohoo!!). Essentially, one is served a fresh ball of steaming hot red or sticky rice, and offered a full buffet of sides to pile on top. Cassava greens, eggplant, egg, tempe, fried chicken, and curried beef are common. The price is determined by how many sides the diner chooses, but rarely exceeds 30,000 Rupiah, or $2.00. It’s oily, filling, and immensely flavorful. The thing about Padang that freaks those of us from the States out, however, is the fact that everything is prepared in the morning, and sits out, in a glass display case, exposed to the 80+ degree weather and a good number of flies for the rest of the day. As someone who has earned her Food Handler’s License twice, and understands that cooked foods should not drop below room temperature for longer than two hours, this is terrifying. But, as I brushed four flies off of my plate at my first Padang place, listening to the geckos coo on the walls of the little flourescent-lit restaurant, I took a deep breath and let go as I took my first bite, accepting that I would probably just be sick for the next 24 hours. I popped a couple of charcoal pills in what I assumed was a futile effort, and accepted my destiny to contract dysentery.
I was however, perfectly fine. I felt great that day, and after every subsequent meal. Indonesia did not disagree with my stomach. I learned to trust that though appearances could be a little nerve-wracking, the food here was good. My favorite soon became another fried dish…. Pisang Goreng. Fried Bananas. I’m not sure if I need to describe this much more than that. Battered, fried bananas served with palm sugar syrup and coconut cream for dipping. They’re exquisite. How can you possibly go wrong? Well… I was told that some of the street vendors put plastic straws in their oil to add an extra crunch to the batter, so the bananas don’t get soggy when they sit out, but that’s only a rumor…. right? Needless to say, I chose to eat pisang goreng at hippy-dippie cafes after hearing that one. I got a massage one night (for ten bucks), and after was served amazing herbal tea and two slices of pisang goreng. Life could not possibly have been more blissful in that moment.
The food here perfectly sums up my experience of Bali in general. It offers an odd juxtaposition of exquisite beauty and flavor, with a slightly grotesque quality. Fresh ingredients are prepared perfectly, but sit out for hours with flies buzzing round. Snacks are served on the backs of motorbikes. Dessert has a bit of plastic added to improve the crunch. Durian fruits line vendor stalls and make the kitchen smell like dirty feet, but taste deceptively normal. One never really knows what to expect when ordering, or eating, and I love it that way. I felt that every meal had the potential to be an adventure, just as every day was ripe with possibilities. The colors, smells, and flavors feel more vivid, the cicadas, crickets and frogs echo and sing louder than I have ever heard in my life, and the skies brag with their beautiful sunrises. This is a truly mysterious and strange place, and it is savory.