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Eating in Bali: Warungs are the Thing

Given the relatively small size of the island of Bali, there’s an extraordinary variety of eating establishments here. And it seems that new places are popping up daily, if not weekly. This is a huge bonus for visitors, and even more importantly for expats: it means that you will never be bored when it comes to food offerings.

That said, if you want to participate in either Indonesian or Balinese culture, you must eat at warungs (translation: food stalls). Here’s the first one I tried:

A popular warung in Sanur

This place would appear to be safe for Westerners, as there was a line (of locals) each morning waiting their turn to order and eat before going off to work. Why safe? Because at warungs the food is cooked first thing in the morning and is then displayed on tables or shelves throughout the day, unrefrigerated. If there is a line of customers then you know that the food turnover is quick, so it shouldn’t “decay” in the sun.

Well-cooked meat or fish displayed in the tropical heat can last a while before going bad, but you may encounter some invisible bugs that have started to enjoy your food before you, and that the locals have happily adapted to. For a Westerner, however, it may cause Bali Belly (also known as the runs or diarrhea). If you are visiting Bali for just a week or two, eating at a warung may not be worth the risk. But if you want to eat like a local, or are staying for a month or longer, then here’s a few tips:

  • Eat a small portion in the morning at a warung. The food is freshest. If you are ok after a few hours try again tomorrow with a few more items.
  • Eat at a bulé-style (translation: foreigner) warung: Indonesian food more carefully prepared and usually refrigerated, but at double the price. This is a pretty safe way to go. Look for warung signs that are professionally made instead of handwritten signs, also avoiding signs that are only in the Indonesian language.
  • Find a warung with a wok and watch them cook your food for you, essentially killing off anything that has been lurking around. These are sometimes positioned as Chinese food warungs, but they are a fusion of Indonesian and Chinese and not truly Chinese dishes.
  • Try the vegetarian dish gado gado since vegetables are less risky than unrefrigerated meat or fish. Gado gado comes with a yummy peanut sauce and is served with rice. It’s also not a spicy dish and so its a pretty safe way to go.

Don’t worry about your lack of language skills as you can point to the food you want. The warung owner may not know the English word for “ayam” is chicken, etc so just get out google translate if worse comes to worse. When you are served the warung owner can show you what you owe on a calculator or on a piece of paper.

Obviously there are all sorts of Indonesian dishes offered at fancy bulé restaurants and the Indonesian chefs who work there are, most likely, exceedingly proud of their offerings. But the point here is that if you want to step outside your comfort zone and live a bit like a local, then give warungs a try.

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