AS RECOUNTED HERE, being a vegan in the USA was as easy as pie (as they say out here). Bali, however, turned out to be a different story.
The start of our stay was in Kuta, where Australians arrive en masse to get drunk and bake their brains on the beach. There seemed to be more places to eat in the streets of just one part of Kuta than in the whole of Auckland, but getting vegetarian or vegan food was something of a hassle. The language barrier made it tough to get the point across, particularly when I was trying to explain the finer intricacies of my dietary requirements.
Quite a few of the restaurant staff understood “vegetarian” but when I followed this up with “no egg” or “no fish sauce”, more often than not, I was rewarded with a blank stare. Nasi goreng (fried rice) or mee goreng (fried noodles) are ubiquitous as scooters, and the rest of Bali for that matter but I had to work a lot harder than I’d expected to get the vegan versions. Of course, occasionally, I’d request no egg only to get plenty of the yellow and white stuff mixed into my meal. And there’s no easy way to tell if there’s a dash or three of fish sauce mixed in as well. So to a large degree, you have to operate under a “hope for the best” mentality.
It didn’t take me long to figure out some of the words on product ingredient lists, so identifying milk and egg was easy. The problem is that almost everything has milk and egg in it – the bread, the sweets, heck even some of the soymilk had cow milk in it but at least I could steer clear of it. It was much easier for Sarah, my traveling companion, to get by because she’s a part-vegan (i.e. a vegetarian).
All in all, the restaurant food was pretty darn good. Sure, the fried stuff fried with fried stuff and covered in fried stuff isn’t the healthiest option ever but when you can eat out for two for less than US$3, it’s hard to complain. What did baffle us was the lack of vegetables. We’d expected Bali to be a jungle island with fruit literally falling off the trees and veggies growing across the footpath. After being presented with a few “vegetable” dishes that had two slivers of carrot, a few leaves of cabbage and a little roll of spring onion, We were wondering if the locals were just vegetable averse – things were better in Ubud, with more veggies on offer in the meals, more fruit in the streets, vegan ice cream and even kombucha for sale in a few stores.
Freshly blended juices were available everywhere in Bali. From street stands to restaurants, the locals are happy to drop whatever fruit you like into a blender with some ice and serve up a chilly, healthy beverage. You need to remember to say “no sugar and no milk”, or they’ll ladle in enough sugar to stun a Roman legion. Once we figured that out, we had fresh mango juice most everyday.
One thing they had heaps of in Bali was tofu and tempeh. Tofu is called tahu out here, and I ate a great deal of it, more than I should have given that I generally try to keep my soy intake to a minimum. But we discovered that some of the humblest little warungs served amazing take away food for not much money at all. A warung is the equivalent of a trattoria or small restaurant in Bali. The warung “packets” (rice and assorted delicious stuff, wrapped up to go in brown paper packets, and closed up with staples) usually had a lot of tofu and tempeh, slathered in hot red sauce.
At 30,000 rupiah ($3) for two packets, I’d get stuck into these meals at least twice a day, developing a fearsome addiction to the red sauce in the process. All the protein from the tofu and tempeh meant that I was able to make good progress with my workouts but the little voice in the back of my head kept going on about the soy overload. Luckily, it didn’t seem to have any adverse effects in the month or so we were in Bali.
One of the great regrets in my life was the little masakan padang (Indonesian street food) stand on the corner at the end of the driveway of the place we stayed at in Kuta.
We walked past it for a few days, wondering what oddities were piled up in the glass cabinet, and if we should risk trying any of them. We asked the friendly proprietor what he had that was vegetarian – he offered us quite a few choices, but we just couldn’t be sure that the food was fresh made every day, or if it was like Sarah’s grandfather Geoff’s coffee – just add some new water to the pot to top up the brew left over from yesterday and you’re good to go. On closer examination, the plates of food appeared to be fresh but the risk of “Bali Belly” preyed on our minds.
On our last day in Kuta, with only a few minutes until our driver to Pemuteran arrived, we decided to grab a packet for the road from Mr Friendly. We got tofu, tempeh, corn fritters (that I was sure were prawn fritters because of the guy’s strange accent), green veggies and potatoes on rice, all wrapped in the usual cone of brown paper and banana leaf. As we tucked into it in the van on the way through Denpasar, I contemplated getting the driver to turn around and drop me off so I could move in with Mr Friendly and his family.
This was by far the best (and cheapest) food we’d had in Bali up to that point – the potatoes were like something sent down from above with a team of angels playing celestial harps. And to think I walked past this place over and over for days! On top of that, I never even got a chance to thank him for being a genius. Down with Gordon Ramsey! Give this guy a TV show ASAP!
Unfortunately, we never found masakang padang that good again despite trying in Ubud, and again when we were back in Seminyak (near Kuta). The concept was the same but only Mr Friendly got it so darn right. Oh well… next time.
While we were in Ubud, we went out to find something to eat, and the first place we encountered was a little restaurant called Warung Bintang. We popped in for a look and were happy to find that it was as mellow and laid back as any eatery you’d expect to find in a town filled with hippies.
Sarah fell in love with the place the moment we walked in the door because it’s an open-air, bamboo structure draped with flowing fabrics, twinkling lights, colourful lanterns and eccentric motifs of Hindu gods. As usual, I was only interested in the food, and I was stoked to find a menu containing green juices, organic veggies and a kitchen where some proper cooking skills were on hand.
We basically lived here during our stay in Ubud, pigging out on fried rice and noodles, eggplant dishes and banana pancakes. Our waiter spoke not a single word of English, but he managed to get our orders right every time. He didn’t even blink when I’d walk down from our villa and ask him to fill up my Hydro Flask (reviewed here) with one of the patented foul green juices – they’re so strong tasting thanks to all the kale, you just know they have to be good for you.
We found other similar restaurants, usually aimed at a more upmarket crowd (Warung Bintang is cheap, cheap, cheap) including the well-known Soma, also in Ubud but a highlight was Mr Sporty’s fast food spot. It’s one of the masakang padang places but the guy who works there was totally unable to look away from the sports showing on the TV, so he serves everything without once looking at the customers, or even at the food! It’s an unnerving experience to say the least.
So in short, I didn’t starve. In fact, with food being so unbelievably cheap compared to NZ and the USA, I thrived but the next stop was Taiwan. Getting veggie and vegan eats in the home of mystery meat would prove to be an entirely new challenge. ASHLEY KRAMER