So I’m trying out this new restaurant (new for me anyway) and browsing the menu. And getting this sinking feeling that I’m in the wrong place again. Oh, the decor is pleasant enough, and it has all the Bali attributes of al fresco dining and raucous groups of tourists. The sweet, incessant song of motorbikes provides an interesting counterpoint to the music coming from the just-too-loud speakers and the aromatic tang of open drains combines with tropical plant perfume and the spicy scents wafting from the kitchen. It smells like … Bali. I quite like it, actually.
No, the feeling of borderline disappointment comes from the offerings on the menu itself. It’s ten pages long and has bucket-loads of choice. Except that only half of one page is headed Indonesian. I can see that some visitors, maybe many of them, want comfort food that reminds them of home. But we’re in Bali folks - surely part of the experience is to sample the rich variety of food, not just from here, but from all over the archipelago? My menu is bursting with choice – I can order pizzas, hamburgers, fish and chips, steak, weiner schnitzel, bratwurst – even Cordon Bleu chicken (although my menu says “Chiken Gordon Blue”). There are probably twenty types of pasta too. But the local offerings are a little … sparse.
I look at my choice of local food. There is nasi goreng, mie goreng, cap cay and nasi campur. No Balinese fish in sambal sauce, no Bali-style chilli prawns and no duck (dammit, I love my bebek!). It feels a little tokenistic. Maybe restauranteurs believe that tourist palates are not up to the task of handling local fare, and maybe they are right. But the downside is that maybe the customers themselves begin to assume that Indonesian food only consists of these items? So, in deference to my arteries, I stay away from Western fare and order the nasi goreng, but still feel a vague sense of disappointment.
You ask, why did I stay? Why didn’t I peruse the menu, smile at the staff, say “next time …” and find somewhere else with more choice? Sheer laziness. And the Bintang was already open, and eminently drinkable, and it was late … why am I even telling you this? You already know all of the masterly rationalisations we all use to avoid doing the things we should do. Suffice to say I stayed, and resolved to be more selective next time. And the following night, I was. It nearly killed me.
Let me set the scene for that next memorable day. A light and uncharacteristically early breakfast followed by a full day on the computer. No lunch, no snacks, no exercise. I am a sad nerd. Early evening stroll to get a massage. One drink at a bar, then off to find a restaurant with some real Indo food. No luck – besides it was getting late and even my body (which I rarely listen to) was starting to nag me for sustenance. Then I remembered - a little warung near my place sells only two things – Bakso and Mie Ayam. That’s it, I thought – authentic local food! Rather foolishly, I bought their entire range – both dishes. It’s basically Indonesian fast food and comes in little plastic bags that you take home. The vendor pointed at the bags and said: “Pedas!” – code for “Be very careful, bule, you haven’t had hot and spicy until you’ve tried this”. I should have listened.
By this stage I was starving. The Mie Ayam – noodles with chicken in a spicy broth was hot alright, but nothing that a quick chomp on a cucumber and a hysterical jump into the pool couldn’t fix. After a few mouthfuls, it was time to try the Bakso. Now Bakso looks pretty harmless – there are a few meatballs of unidentifiable origin floating in a dark broth with little white seeds and green bits. It made the Mie Ayam feel like ice cream by comparison. To say the broth was hot would be the understatement of the century. I suspect they make it from a mixture of napalm, chillies, home-grated wasabe, nitroglycerin and plutonium. The first few mouthful were excruciatingly pedas – the sweating, the uncontrollable hiccups and the burning lips all attested to that.
But then, macho fool that I am, I took another spoonful, this time with as many seeds and green bits that would fit. I mean, one has to test one’s limits. Instantly, my lips practically fell off, my throat snapped shut in the middle of a giant hiccup – and wouldn’t open again for well over 30 seconds. That is a long time without oxygen, particularly just after you have breathed out. It was scary. I’m telling you, this auto-erotic asphyxiation business is a total myth. I have never felt less sexy in my life.
So today I’m sitting in another restaurant that has a limited, watered-down version of Indonesian food. No Bakso. And you know what? I am so relieved.