Spicing Things Up in Bali

Published 26 August 2016   

Almost everyone coming to Bali for a holiday has the local food on their mind, and the thing that most defines the cuisines of the archipelago are spices. Balinese and Indonesian cuisine is distinguished by the many freshly ground and blended spices that enliven and add depth to so many dishes. Essential to Balinese cuisine is ‘bumbu,’ a basic spice paste that varies from village to village and from dish to dish. Common ingredients include shallots, garlic, ginger, turmeric, galangal, pepper, coriander, candlenuts, chillies, lemongrass, shrimp paste and palm sugar, and each one of these ingredients will pull the flavour in a different direction.

The result is a pungent mixture, the foundation of all Balinese dishes. Bumbu can be used in many different ways: as a marinade for meat, for example, a stuffing for a roast, or as a base for a sauce, soup or curry. The proper combination of all these ingredients is regarded as an art in Bali, with delicate adjustment required until the exact balance of flavours is achieved. Other seasonings include coriander, kaffir lime leaves, pandan leaves, and tamarind, while more hot fresh chilli can be found in the fiery ‘sambal’ sauces.

There are several types of chilli grown in Indonesia, and it’s important to know that the amount of heat increases as the size of the chilli diminishes. Green chillies are the unripe fruit, and have a different flavour from red chillies; fresh, finger-length red chillies are the most commonly used. Black pepper is the world’s most traded spice and was once only available to the wealthy; its aroma complements strong flavoured foods.


Lemongrass is an intensely fragrant, lemony stalk, which is used either bruised or whole in soups, seafood and meat dishes, or sliced and ground as part of a bumbu spice mix. Turmeric is a root similar to ginger but with a bright yellow to orange colour and a strong, bitter, woody flavour. Vanilla is one of the most expensive spices, due to the exhaustive process of cultivating and curing the long thin pods. Cloves are the dried flower buds of an evergreen tree native to the Indonesian islands of Ternate and Tidore in the Moluccas – known as the Spice Islands.

Whole cloves are frequently used to flavour cooking liquids for simmering fish, poultry or meat; you can see clove plantations, and cloves drying on mats at the sides of the road, in Munduk, in Bali’s Buleleng Regency. Nutmeg is also native to Indonesia, to the tiny Banda Islands, which were once the world’s only source of this spice; always grate whole nutmeg just before use. Tamarind is a dark brown pod containing a sour fleshy pulp, which adds a fruity sourness to many dishes.

Coriander is one of the most commonly used spices in Indonesia; the small, round seeds have a mild citrus fragrance and can be used whole, or ground into a powder. Cinnamon is an essential ingredient in Indonesian cooking; the sticks impart a sweet flavour in curries. Root ginger is another very important ingredient; always scrape the skin off fresh ginger before using, and never substitute powdered ginger as the taste is quite different.

The great thing about these spices is that in their dried form they will last for a long time, and with so many shops selling them all over the country it’s as easy as pie to pick up a stash and take them back for use in your home kitchen and keep your Bali holiday going on for as long as you want each dinner time.

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