Bali, Tradition and Change. Witti’s Story

It was the sign on the little Warung that first caught my eye. The first item, Tipat Tahu Kantok, provided only one clue, Tahu (tofu), but the other elements remained a mystery. This was one Balinese dish I hadn’t come across before.

I asked the gentle man standing near the warung about the word Tipat and he pointed out some little palm leaf baskets hanging inside the Warung. Obviously, Tipat was some form of sticky rice steamed in these little baskets: the other elements of the dish were yet to be revealed. The other menu items looked tasty too. Plecing is a tomato chilli sauce and came with aforementioned Tipat, Sayur sounded like a vegetarian dish, Rujak, a spicy fruit salad, and some drinks. What a perfect little menu for a tiny Warung by the sea.

View from Warung Kak Esa

I returned the following day and met the delightful Witti, the cook and owner of this tiny new warung. We tried her tasty version of Tipat Tahu Cantok and began chatting.

Witti has witnessed great change in Sanur over 58 years, most for the better.

Witti has worked at the beach end of Segara Ayu, at the northern end of Sanur, since she was a girl. She regrets that she never went to school: in the 1960s, her parents didn’t consider school important and so she was taught to collect coconuts, make shell jewellery and so on. Of course Witti is literate and speaks three languages fluently as well as a smattering of other languages too. She learnt on the street and is a modern, well spoken Balinese woman, as sharp as a tac, happy and vibrant. Her own three children completed high school and now she proudly talks about her grandchildren and the soaring cost of education these days, a subject that all Indonesians worry about.

The beautiful Witti cooks up some tasty treats.

She remembers many aspects of life from the past quite vividly. She spoke of the day Mt Agung erupted. She was four years old at the time. That eruption was one of the largest and most devastating eruptions in Indonesia’s history, killing an estimated 1,100 – 1,500 people.

‘On February 18, 1963, local residents heard loud explosions and saw clouds rising from the crater of Mount Agung. On February 24, lava began flowing down the northern slope of the mountain, eventually traveling 7 km in the next 20 days. On March 17, the volcano erupted, sending debris 8 to 10 km into the air and generating massive pyroclastic flows. Cold lahars caused by heavy rainfall after the eruption killed an additional 200. A second eruption on May 16 led to pyroclastic flows that killed another 200 inhabitants. Minor eruptions and flows followed and lasted almost a year.’¹

Witti remembers crowding with others on the beach in the pitch darkness, as Mt Agung, looming on the horizon, spewed lava and fire into the air. She recalls the the rain of ash falling around her for days. As she spoke, I could see the terror of that childhood memory in her eyes.

Another sad memory involved the loss of many of her siblings. She was one of 12 children, but due to poor sanitation and lack of doctors and medicine, five of her siblings died at a young age. Still, she followed this with a smile- imagine having Wayan, Made, Nyoman and Ketut ( the four Balinese names used in order of birth) repeated three times over. We all laughed together: yes, things have changed for the better. We also met Los, her older brother, who works along Segara Ayu at a little booth next door to Witti, offering information and selling tickets for the large boat tours further north. I am keen to chat further with Los about the old days, to see if, as a teenager, he remembers the chaos and horror of the civil war period that followed the earthquake in the 1960s, though most Balinese don’t want to talk of those times.

Vibrant modern Balinese woman, Witti in her brand new warung.

After we finished our Tipat, a tasty and extremely filling vegetarian dish resembling, in some ways, a gado-gado, Witti brought out a little plate of crispy fried Jackfruit, an unusual sweet taste sensation. Sweet and crispy, the batter was as light as tempura but golden in colour. We promised to return for breakfast the next day to try her crispy fried sweet potato, pineapple and banana, washed down with Bali black coffee. On other occasions, we simply popped in for a cold beer and peanuts. Witti cooks peanuts and garlic together and serves them hot and fresh on a large saucer. One Bintang beer, some fresh nuts, a good sunset and a chat: life is sweet.

Jackfruit ( nangka ) fritters at Warung Kak Esa
These freshly fried nuts are cooked a little darker and will be used in the sauce

More about Tipat Cantok

A Balinese Tipat Tahu Cantok is a common traditional Balinese dish that can be found almost anywhere in Bali. It’s made of mixed steamed vegetables (water lily, long beans and bean sprout) which are mixed with steamed rice cake( tipat) and fried tofu mixed with peanut sauce.  The sauce is made from freshly fried whole un-skinned peanuts, garlic, white pepper, coriander, purple shallot, chili and fermented soy paste. Tipat Cantok can be found in local small Balinese warungs but is rarely found in big restaurants.

Warung Kak Esa
Los’ dog, Chocolate, knows his way home after work.

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Agung

As a footnote to this post, Indonesians live with the fearful presence of volcanoes and earthquakes. With all that beauty and fertility comes disaster from time to time. Mt Agung continues to vent, there are still over 1,500 Balinese evacuees. Agung only tends to become news worthy in the Western press when it affects air traffic and the plight of the traveller. Meanwhile, we awake to the sad news of another earthquake, following one from 10 days ago, on the neighbouring island of Lombok. If you are looking for a reliable place to chip in a few dollars or euros for food and emergency supplies, follow the link below. If you have ever spent time in Lombok, or its Gili islands, you will appreciate how important this help is. Big or small, donations make a difference.

Update: Thousands (22,000) local residents of Lombok residents are homeless and without aid. If 1000 readers of this blog donated $10, $10,000 would be raised to provide immediate relief by those volunteers on the ground. If you can’t donate, please share the following link to your social media networks.

https://fundrazr.com/LombokEarthquake?ref=ab_3A65lLLlvoX3A65lLLlvoX

Balinese Cuisine at the Warung.

Food, glorious food, glorious Balinese food. It’s one of the reasons I keep returning to this beautiful island. Good Balinese food is seductive yet quite subtle. Two famous Balinese sambals, sambal matah and sambal merah, add depth to a simple grilled fish or chicken, while the combination of white pepper and coriander seeds, turmeric and galangal, purple shallot, lemongrass, palm sugar, chilli, and terasi ( fish paste) are pounded together to make a rich tasting bumbu, or Balinese spice paste, the basis for a simple curry.

Warung in the Sindhu Night Market

There are many tiers of eating establishments, or rumah makan, in Bali: you can pay a fortune at an upmarket international hotel, continuing to eat the cuisine from your home country, or watered down versions of local cuisine in a Western style restaurant, or you can try a more authentic and economical meal at a simple warung. A warung is a small family owned eating place, often located on the street or beach. Some may look a little ramshackle and temporary, often with small benches and plastic stools, and will usually be patronised by locals.  Other modern warungs have sprung up in the beach suburbs around Sanur, but some bare no relationship to the real thing.

Many warungs are made from wooden, bamboo or thatched materials, perhaps with tin walls. In the past, the Warung tenda, a portable warung that looked like a tent, was more common, with roofing and walls made from Chinese blue and white plastic tarps. Other interesting warungs include kitchen carts on wheels, colourful bright blue Bakso stalls, motorbikes with gas cookers, and night market warungs set up with little tables and chairs. Warungs also tend to specialise in one or two dishes which are often based on a secret family recipe.

Morning bubur cart travels around the back suburban streets of Sanur, sounding a morning bell. Rice porridge comes with tasty toppings like ground peanuts.

I’ll admit It takes a brave heart to venture into the tasty world of the  street warung: you need to assess the cleanliness of these eateries and often that’s quite hard. Word of mouth, and popularity with locals- these are good indicators. Also check out the washing up facilities and water used. Good warungs are clean as hundreds of locals eat here every day. You may need to know a few food words, and simple phrases if you have special dietary preferences as often there’s no menu or price. Tanpa daging ( without meat) or tidak daging ( not meat) will suffice if you don’t eat meat. As food is often cooked to order, a warung cook is happy to adjust a recipe for you, leaving out ingredients that you don’t like.

Not all warungs are cheap: a few located around the Sanur beaches have become famous, rating highly on TA and frequented more by tourists than locals. One popular grilled fish restaurant, Amphibia, operates flat-out from midday till late. They work from a small tin shed, and grill the fish and seafood on a charcoal BBQ set up on raised platforms outside. Bench seating is nearby. You order your fish, lobster, prawns, octopus, squid and clams by weight, then they are barbecued and served with rice and vegetable urab and sambal. These boys never stop. They buy the fish early in the morning at Jimbaran, then store it under ice in large tanks: during lulls in business, you can watch them tenderising and peeling octopus, cleaning prawns and fish, running hoses around the place and stoking the BBQ with charcoal. A share plate of snapper, prawn, shrimp, a few calamari rings and razor clams is AU$20. Sit on a little stool on the beach and share the platter, washed down with a Bintang beer.

Hot work. Cooking at Amphibia. Sindhu Beach, Bali

Another Warung favoured by Westerners is Jackfish, a family run business right on the beach just past Semawang. Nyoman, the brains behind this warung, trained as a mechanical engineer but after working off shore for years, decided to open a fish themed Warung. His mother waits on tables and makes the Urab ( mild tasting Balinese salad made from bean shoots, green beans and coconut ). His father sorts cutlery and napkins and helps with the accounts. Nyoman does the grilling, waiting on tables and everything else. The family come from five generations of fishermen, and now source their daily deliveries from local sources. They often cater for large parties so check before hand as Jackfish closes when they do large groups. When I’m staying in the Semawang end of Sanur, I eat at Jackfish everyday, it’s that good.

Grilled snapper, rice, urab, and two sambals. IDR 60,000/AU $6. Jackfish is located right on the sand at the southern end of Sanur.
Energetic Nyoman of Jackfish, Semawang Beach, Sanur, Bali

When in the mood for snacks, I head for warungs specialising in deep-fried foods, called  Gorengun. At these little carts you’ll find feep fried springrolls, deep-fried tofu or Tahu Isi ( Tofu stuffed with bean shoots) and battered gado-gado and other things with tofu, as well as an array of sweets such as Onde-Onde. A bag of 8 snacks will cost around AU$1 and will come with a few green chillies and chilli sauce.

Tasty deep-fried vegetarian snacks from a Gorengan cart at the Sindhu Nightmarket, where a $1 goes a long way.

The Warung situated right in front of the Bunjar Pantai Semawang, has great ocean views and is well sheltered from the wind. They do the best spring rolls in the district. Three large vegetable lumpia ( AU$1.50) make a tasty lunchtime snack. Try with a mug of hot lemon tea ( AU.65c) a fresh juice ( AU$1.50)  or cut straight to the chase with a chilled Bintang to wash them down.

Satu Bintang besar, dua gelas, Terima Kasih.

Guide to Balinese Cuisine here

Warung Santai. Bali on a Plate

There are really good ones, meaty ones, vegetarian ones and ones that have sat around a little too long. I’m talking about that Balinese classic combination dish, Nasi Campur ( pronounced champur). The dish consists of a central serve of rice, which is then surrounded by small scoops of other delicious morsels, along with two spicy sambals. To me, it’s Bali on a plate.

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nasi campur

Some of the side dishes are spiced with basa genep, a paste unique to Bali. They may include long beans cooked with strips of tempe, curried tofu, grilled tuna, cucumber, stir fried spinach, lawar, tempe in chilli, beef cubes, chicken, sate lilit, pepes ikan, and more.

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Nasi campur. Rice, fried tofu, beans and tempe curry, lawar, sweet tempe with nuts and kaffir lime, corn cake, Bali sambal on the side.

Two new warungs have popped up in the last two years in Sanur. Run by young staff, both are doing a roaring trade in day time nasi campur, catering to travellers who are keen to eat well on a budget, with their modern take on Balinese traditional classics. Warung Santai is now rivalling the very popular Warung Kecil. Both are tiny, though at Warung Kecil- kecil means small- with its tiny communal tables and benches, it is often too crowded at lunch time.

corner table at Warung Santai
Corner table at Warung Santai

Warung Santai also offers a few western dishes as well as juices and coffee and does a separate Balinese dinner menu after 5.30 pm. They stock raw organic cacao and nut brownies from Ubud, as well as a few Western cakes.

Hard to choose your nasi campur sides.
Hard to choose your nasi campur sides.

We stuck to nasi campur and iced lemon tea, which comes in a tall glass with lots of ice and a side serve of palm sugar syrup. Our meal with drink came to around AU $4. This is not just cheap food, it is delicious, clean and filling and ideal for those missing their vegetables.

The Campur menu
The Nasi Campur menu at Warung Santai. The numbers have had their thousands removed, a growing trend in Balinese restaurants. 23 or 23,000 rupiah comes to about AU $2.30.
Look for this sign along Jalan Tandaken, Sanur
Look for this sign along Jalan Tandaken, Sanur

Warung Santai, 9 Jalan Tandaken, Sanur, Bali

Warung Kecil, Jalan Duyung No.1, Sanur, Bali

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Nasi campur and iced lemon tea.
  • A warung is small family-owned business, often a modest small restaurant. A warung is an essential part of daily life in Indonesia. In Bali, a warung will serve authentic Balinese food, usually at lower prices. Warungs used to look more funky and were often thatched huts along the road. These days, they are small modern shops that rely on fast turnover.