Our World Island flavours: Discovering street food, Balinese style

Photo of Bonita Grima

Visitors to Bali tend to avoid both street food and the bustling city of Denpasar — but a locally based chef is aiming to change all that with his new street food tours.

Will Meyrick’s laughter is infectious and not unlike his passion for fresh, authentic South-East Asian cuisine — loud, honest and from the heart. 

Since moving from Sydney to Bali in 2004, the Scottish chef and restaurateur has opened a string of successful restaurants on the island. Award-winning flagship Sarong opened in Kerobokan in 2008, followed by ever-popular Mama San in 2011.

Among the hills and rice terraces of Ubud, Hujan Locale honours sustainable farm-to-plate cuisine in elegant surrounds while Tiger Palm offers a relaxed vibe that claims to embrace idyllic island life.

His latest, Som Chai opened in Seminyak late last year, showcasing Will’s skill for creating sublime dishes inspired by Thai street food, in a sophisticated and imaginative space (restaurant/cocktail bar/venue) that is nothing short of impressive.

As if not having enough on his plate, Will’s latest endeavour is a newly opened cooking retreat on the outskirts of Canggu. The transformed former home of the chef, his Javanese wife and their three children offers guests cooking classes using ingredients sourced fresh from its farm. 

In a way, this seems Will’s way of giving back to a country that has offered much to him and an opportunity to share his love of Indonesian food and way of life, in what he calls “cuisine culture”. 

Today though, we are getting back to where the love affair started: accompanying the “Street Food Chef” on one of his new street food tours of Denpasar and in morning peak hour, headed into the hectic heart of the capital, we laugh along as he shares his stories with us.

With his success and busy schedule, I ask him why the need to take on more with the tours.

“The saddest thing about Bali is that people come here and never really experience Bali,” Will says.

“They stay in the same areas, go to the same places in Kuta or Seminyak and never really venture out or try Indonesian cuisine. As Bali becomes more commercialised, the whole cultural experience is being lost ... but I think that’s what a lot of people are starting to want.

“And I want to give that experience and introduce people to what I see Indonesia as.”

And it’s Denpasar that Will believes demonstrates this best.

A city most visitors avoid because they think it too busy and dirty, is where we’ll experience true Indonesian culture and eat in the small, home-style restaurants and shops known as warungs, that many seem timid to try.

Our first stop is Babi Guling Candra. Popular with locals this warung has been around since the 70s and its signature dish is the Balinese specialty, babi guling or suckling pig. 

“You can tell a good babi guling by the crispiness of the skin,” Will says, as he picks up some crackling and snaps it in two. 

He then leads us out the back to see how the dish is prepared. It is like no kitchen I have ever seen. We pass a mountain of coconut husks, making our way into the semi-sheltered cooking area. It is dark, smoky and hot. All around us people are chopping, pounding, packing, boiling and roasting. I watch as a man turns a pig on a spit over glowing hot coals. I lift my camera and amused cooks stop to pose ... and why not? They are the stars of the street.

Next is Pasar Badung, Bali’s biggest traditional market. It is the main source of fresh produce for locals and businesses. 

“This 24-hour market is where we used to buy the vegetables in bulk when we had the one restaurant,” Will tells us. 

“Wholesalers arrive at 11pm and sell to retailers who set up their stalls from 3am. From 4pm the market turns into a meeting place and street food is sold from the front.”

As we weave our way through the aisles, senses go into overdrive; colours explode and  the mixed smell of incense, spice and sweat waft heavy on the sticky air. An old woman making canangs (Hindu ceremonial baskets) pauses to hand a flower as I pass. We make our way to a stall and pull up a bench as Will is greeted warmly by the woman who runs it. People know him well and he chats awhile before ordering a traditional salad made of seaweed and fish stock. It is fresh, light and crunchy. 

We move on to Tipat Tahu, a second-generation warung that specialises in a dish that originated in Java but was loved so much here that it is now throughout Bali. And this place does it best. Tipat (boiled rice in coconut leaves) and tahu (tofu) served in a sweet spicy peanut sauce with rice cake, chilli and sprouts, is real comfort food and there is an order in which it is eaten. 

“First crunch half of this green chilli to get some heat going,” Will instructs. “Now eat a spoonful of tofu with lots of sauce. The sweetness cuts out the chilli. Now the cracker.”

This is food that takes you on a journey. 

We walk along Jalan Gajah Mada, Denpasar’s old Chinese quarter and on to Jalan Sulawesi. “Arab Street” as it is known was built by the spice traders and is home to the city’s Yemeni community and here we find fruit sellers and shops selling textiles. 

“Look at the architecture around here ... you can also see the influence of the Dutch colonialists, such as these sheltered walkways,” Will points out.

There’s colour on these streets. As well as the street art we pass, we duck into Forever Lovin’ Jah, a shop owned by Pak Ali, a Rastafarian from Yemen. Our main course, nasi campur, is served at Warung Wardani. 

“This warung was so popular the woman who started it had to move it back from the street and eventually even into the courtyard of her home,” Will says.  The mixed rice and chicken satay, with greens, chilli and egg looks delicious and tastes it too, though I admit I am struggling to finish by this point.

A little walk however, allows me to squeeze in a cheeky tasting plate of beef satay sticks at Sate Plecing Arjuna. 

After we walk half a block to a bakery that cooks jaje laklak on clay pans. These sweet little green cakes, topped with shredded coconut and palm sugar are made from rice flour and get their colour from pandan leaves added to the dough. We get there and find it closed, which is probably a good thing because  I am full. 

That’s not to say Will’s tour didn’t leave us hungry... if anything it has given us an appetite for exploring more of the Balinese capital.

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