The best of Balinese cuisine, by authors Tjok Maya Kerthyasa and I Wayan Kresna Yasa

Smoke, spice and solitude are all vital ingredients on this Indonesian island.

 Babi genyol, a dish from Badung.

Photograph by Martin Westlake
By Maya Kerthyasa and I Wayan Kresna Yasa
Published 17 Apr 2022, 15:00 BST, Updated 19 Apr 2022, 07:45 BST

Not all Balinese dishes are created equal. Some are reserved for offerings or rituals, others for special celebrations and the rest for everyday nourishment. Our food can be as modest as a plate of fresh pineapple with sea salt and chopped chillies, or as complex as minced duck massaged with grated coconut and spices, pressed around bamboo skewers, wrapped in banana leaves and grilled over coconut charcoals.

A classic Balinese paon (kitchen) is usually wall-less and simply outfitted with a low bamboo workbench, a large water tub and a jalikan (wood-fired stove). A cupboard stands in place of a fridge as Balinese food is designed to be eaten fresh and is rarely kept longer than a day. Baskets or containers made from coconut shells might hang from the rafters, keeping ingredients safe from ants.

Real Balinese food gets its depth and earthiness from the natural elements of the paon. The wood fire creates smoke that seeps into the cooking through porous clay pots, woks and woven bamboo steamers. Bamboo poles and coconut-shell ladles are used for stirring and scooping; and palm fronds and banana leaves serve as plates, covers and wrapping. Although contemporary kitchens play a role in modern life, true paons are still favoured among serious Balinese cooks.

Everyday eating is a solitary act rather than a big family affair. We go to the paon and organise a plate of food when it pleases us, normally enjoying it in silence away from others. Many of us will put together a small offering called a saiban — a pinch of everything we’re eating on a square of banana leaf — to the spirit helpers who we believe guide us.

There are a few regional customs that bring Balinese diners together; for megibung, a tradition from Karangasem in the island’s east, for example, small groups sit cross-legged around banana leaves piled high with rice, vegetables and condiments designed to be shared. But for the most part, dining is a personal practice that’s encouraged to be carried out mindfully, much like cooking itself.

This is an edited extract from Paon by Tjok Maya Kerthyasa and I Wayan Kresna Yasa, published by Hardie Grant, £26.

Three must-try dishes

1. Babi Genyol 
A dish from the regency of Badung, made from pork belly braised in the umami Balinese spice paste base genep. The tender meat is cut into cubes, fried and served with lawar (chicken and green bean) salad and steamed rice.

2. Pepes telengis
Telengis (pulp left over from the coconut oil-making process) is combined with spices, wrapped in banana leaves, grilled over coconut husks and sold as a creamy, savoury street food snack. 

3. Laklak biu
Laklak, sweet pancakes made from rice flour, come in many forms. In rural Tabanan, they’re large, thin and sweetened with slices of banana that caramelise within the batter as they cook over a clay and wood fire. Light and smoky, they’re often prepared on the spot at speciality food stalls. 

Published in the May 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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