In her classic novel, Love And Death In Bali, Vicki Baum describes 1930s Denpasar: “We passed through the town of Badung, which is also called Denpasar from its street of shops where Chinese, Indians, Japanese and Arabs have their funny little booths.”
Around a century later, Denpasar, now a city home to almost a million people, preserves much of that multicultural edge and trading-town buzz. “There’s a big cultural diversity: people from Yemen, a Muslim sect from India, and the Chinese on Jalan Gajah Mada,” says street food chef Will Meyrick, who’s leading Infinity Mountainbiking’s Denpasar Street Food Tour, which I’m on. “It’s not just a Balinese city.”
Our first stop, however, is thoroughly Balinese: babi guling, roast sucking pig at Babi Guling Candra (140 Jalan Teuku Umar; above). Meyrick and Denpasar-born Nita Dewi, one of two alternative guides on the tour, escort me round the back. In a furnace of a room, men spit-roast whole pigs over smouldering coconut husks; outside, a worker pares crackling from a finished porker with a ferocious blade.
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“When I first opened my restaurants, I came to Denpasar every night to do the shopping so I got to know many locals,” says Meyrick, whose restaurants include Sarong, Mamasan and Tiger Palm. “When I started to do TV, all remembered me.”
Over the last 30-odd years, Ibu Candra has grown her warung from a bench on a street corner to an expansive space that stretches 15 or 20m back into the building. But, in line with the tradition that babi guling is a morning treat, she still stops serving before 11am. The crackling (above) is outstanding: a melt-in-the-mouth layer of crisp, bronzed skin atop a delicate slick of soft white fat.
Our next stop? The Pasar Badung on Jalan Gajah Mada, quite likely the market that gave Denpasar its name (“north market”). The original building burned down in 2016 in questionable circumstances, and the stalls are currently compressed into a former supermarket – although, in place of shopping trolleys, female porters weave through the crowds bearing wicker baskets on their heads.
We pass through rafts of vendors selling flowers, pandan shavings and palm-leaf baskets for the daily offerings and stop at a stall for the lurid cakes and sweets (above) many Balinese favour for breakfast. There’s sticky rice parcels, stripy lapis cake, the spongy cassava cake known as kue bika ambon, and klepon, glorious green rice dumplings filled with liquid palm sugar and topped with grated coconut.
After the sugar rush, it’s time for a taste of the sea: a lawar salad of finely shredded seaweed followed by rujak, the tangy fruit salad prepared with under-ripe fruit, chilli, tamarind, palm sugar and shrimp paste. “Pregnant women love this,” says Nita. Tasting the salt-sour-sweet combo, it’s easy to see how it could satisfy cravings.
Deep in the bowels of the produce section, Meyrick points out the functioning of the daily market – a lady with a clipboard checking prices against government standards, a wide stall sleek with glossy vegetables that’s the go-to for many of the island’s chefs, and the livestock market, which is currently mainly fowl.
A vendor from Java brandishes a basket of Aqua bottles brimming with the herbal potions known as jamu. I knock back a shot of peppery sirih (betel) mix, supposed to tighten the pelvic floor and reduce bodily odour, mixed with the classic turmeric liquid, kunyit asam, which allegedly regulates periods.
Reproductive health duly attended to, we head to the Tipat Tahu Gerenceng warung (9 Jln Sutomo; above), whose main signature dish is a combination of bean sprouts, tofu, egg, rice cakes and peanut sauce first popularised in East Java. “Traditionally Balinese food was very simple: grilling, stewing, smoking, braising, using found and foraged ingredients,” says Meyrick. “The arrival of the Chinese brought noodles, fried food and more variety.”
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We stroll along Jalan Gajah Mada, once the city’s Chinatown, into Jalan Sulawesi, the epicentre of Denpasar’s Yemeni community, and down a photogenic avenue where fruit sellers ply their trade under street art. This is Denpasar’s historic centre and many buildings date back to the 1950s, or even earlier. Later, Pak Ali, whose grandfather arrived from Yemen when it was under British rule, will talk me through the evolution of his neighbourhood.
While Denpasar boasts more contemporary coffee shops than you can shake a stick at, many with barbers attached, Bhineka Djaja stands out – and not only for its impressive selection of roasts and beans. “This was established as a coffee shop in 1935,” Meyrick explains, over a potent Bali coffee. “But the factory dates back to the late 1800s. This was here before all of the hipsters, before Canggu.”
After a stroll through the Pasar Kartini offerings market, we stop at Warung Wardani (2 Jln Yudistira; above). “Every warung begins in front of someone’s home,” Meyrick says, as we walk through. “With this one, you can see they went in a little further, then a little further – and once you walk back you’re in the compound.”
Daluman, a grass jelly drink with coconut milk, tapioca pearls, palm sugar and grass jelly, hits the spot. The nasi campur (above), comprising two different kinds of pork sate, shredded chicken, spiced pork stew, prawns and veggies, leans a little sweet for my palate.
Undaunted, we’re off to our next stop, Sate Plecing Arjuna (47 Jln Arjuna), a white-tiled affair owned by a Chinese-Balinese family from north Bali that has the feel of a classic kopitiam, but for the musician playing the keroncong, an Indonesian ukulele. Bone-marrow sate (above) – sate sum-sum – is the standout here, alongside the eponymous sate plecing, a North Bali speciality with a rich, darkly-flavoured sambal.
Yet it wouldn’t be a food tour without dessert. Bloated, I waddle around the corner to a stall where traditional rice pancakes cook on bespoke clay pans: called laklak (above), they’re served with the classic Indonesian combo of grated coconut and gloopy palm sugar. “You can take these home,” says Nita, bundling a takeaway packet into my bag. For, while Denpasar’s multicultural street food scene merits much more than the morning we’ve spent, it’s physically impossible to eat another thing.
Infinity’s Denpasar Street Food Tour costs 1,300,000 IDR (US$91) for one person, 850,000 IDR per head for two to four people, and 650,000 IDR per head for groups of five to ten.
– TEXT BY THEODORA SUTCLIFFE
PHOTOS: THEODORA SUTCLIFFE
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.