Every year, more than 5 million tourists come to Bali. But only a sliver of that number visit the capital Denpasar because they have an impression of it being a smelly, dirty place. But for me, Denpasar is the heart of Bali – a secret hiding in plain sight just waiting to be explored. Later this year I'm launching walk-and-talk food and history tours of the city. But for now, here are my top five places to visit in Denpasar.
Pasar Badung - Central Market
This is where chefs at all the big hotels in Bali come to get their fresh ingredients. For me, it's really important to come here regularly even if I'm not buying anything as I'll see something that's in season or a batch of something a farmer grew by mistake that can give me inspiration for new dishes. Today, I found some fresh kale that'll go nicely with some salted pork stir-fried with garlic, chilli and yellow beans. And if I see something interesting in the food stalls, I'll also stop and eat. Today, I'm trying a seaweed salad made with fish stock. The old lady making it has grated some galangal and coconut, added lemon, salt, fried chilli, fried garlic and shallots. It is a bit of an acquired taste but from a chef's point of view it's really interesting because I can adapt it by putting some seaweed in a pomelo salad.
Chicken dish at Warung Wardani in Denpasar Bali. Photo: Ian Neubauer
In Thailand, really good food is actually sold on the street. But in Indonesia, the best street food is sold in "warungs" – extensions of the family home where meals are cooked by housewives and sold on the porch or living room. This place, Warung Wardani, has got to be the best chicken restaurant in Bali. It started off as a normal warung but has become so successful over the years the restaurant has taken over the entire home, including a large courtyard around the back where the family who live relax in the evenings. Look, there's their TV! The menu is pretty simple. There are three different sets of "nasi champur" – mixed rice – to choose from. Prices start from 35,000 rupiah ($3.50) for the basics, which includes a set with chicken satay, greens, chilli and rice, and climbs all the way up to 50,000 ($5) for a set with sides like curried eggs, prawns and shredded chicken.
Tipat Tahu Gerenceng
"Tipat tahu" is a typical dish that originated on the island of Java, but the Balinese have created a version of their own. It's basically a sweet peanut sauce dish with tofu, fermented fish paste, chilli, bean sprouts, a fried egg and rice crackers for texture; there's a lot happening in this dish. Tipat tahu is sold at roadside stalls all over Bali, it's basically everyone's favourite dessert. We do a version of it at Hujan Locale, my restaurant in Ubud. We don't change it in any way, we just source the best quality ingredients available. This place – Tipat Tahu Gerenceng on Jalan Dr Sutomo – Dr Sutomo Street – is the most famous tipat tahu joint in Bali. It's been here for about 70 years and it's where all the Balinese celebrities and top Balinese chefs, like William Wongso, come to eat.
The best cafe in Bali isn't in Kuta or Seminyak. It's Kopi Bali on Gajah Mada Street, one of the main thoroughfares of Denpasar where the old Chinatown used to be. Kopi Bali has traded from this same spot since 1935. They roast and blend their own coffee beans and the baristas, they don't work in a hurry, but make such an incredibly creamy cup of coffee it'll knock your thongs off. When I moved to Bali in 2003, all the cafe and restaurants in tourist areas used to buy imported Italian blends, which are generally made from beans sourced from Kenya or Brazil. But in the last five to seven years, the Indonesians, who've always made a great cup of coffee – the Dutch started planting coffee beans here more than 500 years ago – have become really good at marketing it, too. Today, all the top restaurants in Bali, mine included, use local coffee beans, and most of us buy it here.
Arab Street in Denpasar, Bali. Photo: Ian Neubauer
Jalan Sulawesi - Arab Street
Part of the experience I want to create on my tours of Denpasar is for visitors to meet real Balinese people from different walks of life and hear their stories. Because for me that's what travel is all about – meeting people who are different from us and understanding their journeys. Jalan Sulawesi, or Arab Street, is the perfect place for that because it was built by Yemenite spice traders, rubber traders and merchants who came here to carve out their own little part of the island a century ago. The Yemenite community today handles a lot of the textile sales in Bali, which is why you see so many shops selling saris, hijabs and wedding dresses on Jalan Sulawesi, much like in the Arab quarter in Singapore. Jalan Sulawesi is also the only place in Bali where you'll see the kind of sheltered walkways built by the Dutch colonialists that protect shoppers from the rain and sun that you can see all over Singapore. And while this isn't a foodie area, because it's Asia there's always some street food being sold. I can see a woman selling tipat tahu in an alleyway over there, on old guy selling fresh honeycomb on the footpath, probably collected fresh this morning from his own beehives, and those guys are selling dragonfruit and mangos. Let's go eat some!
Stir-fried salted pork from Som Chai in Bali.
SOM CHAI: Review
Among the tsunami of expatriate chefs who've moved to Bali to surf the island's tourism boom, one name stands out, Will Meyrick.
From Sarong, an Indian restaurant that evokes the grandeur of a maharaja's palace; to Hujan Locale, Meyrick's ode to Indonesian cuisine; to the popular Mama San, an a la mode interpretation of Asian street food; the Scotsman – via Sydney – is Bali's expatriate king of fine dining. Now Meyrick has opened a new Thai joint in his island home, Som Chai – which translates into "worthy man" in Thai.
Set on the fringes of Seminyak, Bali's answer to Bondi Beach, Som Chai's golden double doors lead to a cocktail bar which morphs into a sizzling Bangkok-style nightclub after dark.
But you're here for the salads, stir-fries and curries on offer in the airport-hanger size dining room. The bite-size "ma hors" – caramelised duck and crab mince served on vacuum-packed pineapple – are topped with a tiny cross-section of Thai chilli sourced from Meyrick's hobby farm. Fans of Jimmy Licks, Meyrick's former mainstay in Sydney, will recognise Som Chai's betel leaf wraps, which on this occasion are filled with coffee-wood smoked mackerel and shrimp.
Pad Thai omelette, Phuket-style steamed fish, mango with sticky rice and other Thai staples are all accounted for on the menu. But it's bespoke recipes like a red curry of snails with fern tips, smoked duck and watermelon salad, and minced rabbit stir-fry – that make Som Chai worth checking out when you are next in Bali.
86 Raya Kerobokan Street, Kerobokan, Bali, somchaiindonesia.com, +6287888661945