As Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love comes to the big screen, filmgoers will be treated to the breathtaking visuals of the "Love" setting: Ubud, Bali, where Julia Roberts finds a soulmate in the arms of Javier Bardem. Its lush beauty makes Ubud the ultimate location for amour; yet a lesser-known attraction of this mountain town is its accomplished culinary scene.
Long overshadowed by the boldness of Thailand, the diversity of China, the aesthetics of Japan and the French skills of Vietnam, Indonesia struggles to claim its rightful culinary place alongside its Asian neighbours. However, a core group of restaurateurs, chefs and farmers has finally put Ubud on the map as Indonesia's favourite foodie destination.
Bali's cuisine doesn't stem from a court tradition, as in Java, and because of the island's poverty it was created out of necessity rather than self-indulgence. Though not considered sophisticated, worldly cooking, its presentation, like in every aspect of Balinese life, is highly ceremonial, approached with the same care and effort the locals put into their daily offerings to the gods.
The staple of Balinese dining is immediately apparent: Rice is everywhere. Terraced, geometrically patterned paddies grace practically every vantage point on the island. Temples rise amid them; Roberts gleefully cycles alongside them for the film. A typical meal, built around a pile of rice, usually includes a harmonious balance of meat, such as pork or a combination of satays (bites of beef, chicken or seafood on a stick), soy products like tofu and tempeh, and vegetables, like green beans, spinach and bean sprouts. Flavourings range from the aromatic punch of ginger to the heat of chili paste to the smoothness of peanut sauce. Exotic herbs, such as minty betel leaf or sweetness of lemon basil, add distinct embellishments.
The restaurant scene in Bali blends traditional warungs, local food stalls that essentially sell one dish, and Western-style eateries – some that fuse, some that elevate – the local cuisine. And if the island had its own Martha Stewart, it would be Karen Waddell, the proprietor of four Ubud restaurants (Cinta Grill, Kafe Batan Waru, Siam Sally and Terazo) and Bali Good Food Catering (www.baligoodfood.com), which fed the cast and crew of Eat, Pray, Love during their shoot in Bali. Two decades before Gilbert's bestselling book arrived on the scene, Waddell came to Bali, ditched her doctoral dissertation and succumbed to the charms of the island. She opened her first restaurant, Kafe Batan Waru, in 1997 with a fierce mission "to prove that Indonesia has a culinary tradition every bit as noteworthy as its neighbours," she says.
Eat, Pray, Love was Waddell's first film catering experience, and she had a heady task on her hands. "We woke up at 2:30 a.m. to have breakfast ready for 100 people by 5:30; then sometimes for the night shots, we wrapped craft services at 3 a.m.," she says. Despite the lack of prior experience, what made it work for Waddell was the Balinese way of life.
"They believe in gotong royong, which translates loosely to 'community service.' That meant there was an all-for-one and one-for-all attitude that carried us through the exhausting hours and kept smiles on our faces even when we wanted to collapse."
The cast and crew embraced her local recipes, from otak otak, cigar-shaped whitefish cakes roasted in banana leaves, to the raw vegetable slaw known as karedok. As for gossip on the stars' eating habits – Waddell has nothing to dish. "There's nothing really to report," she says. "They ate what everyone else ate, and they were not fussy eaters. They just didn't eat a lot."
So while the "Eat" segment of the film may focus on Italy, there is as much opportunity to dine well in Bali too. Here are a few Ubud standouts:
The burger here, Ubud's favourite watering hole, was a particular favourite of the cast and crew of Eat, Pray, Love, who would request special delivery after a long day of filming. An inn connected to the property made its debut this summer; $103 a night includes the popular breakfast. (Monkey Forest Road; 62-361-975-395; www.baligoodfood.com/cintagrill.asp)
Lanterns filled with glowing flutterers lend the name to this atmospheric outdoor dining concept. Farmers Ben and Blair Ripple are pairing up with James Beard Award-nominee Will Goldfarb for Bali's ultimate farm-to-table experience as everything served on the organic, seven-course tasting menu comes from Big Tree Farms's properties. Their farm in the village of Dualang, just outside Ubud, provides the backdrop for dishes such as Balinese suckling pig with baby watercress salad and purple mustard vinaigrette. $82 includes round-trip transportation from Ubud; opening September. (To reserve, call 62-361-461-978; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bigtreefarms.com/firefly-dinner-series/)
Australian Janet de Neefe brought attention to Ubud well before Elizabeth Gilbert with her 2003 memoir/cookbook Fragrant Rice. Decade-old Indus is her scenic spot overlooking a stretch of rice paddies, best enjoyed during the day for its view. (On clear days, you can even see Gunung Agung, Bali's highest volcano.) Try the Balinese tenggiri curry, a stew of gingery whitefish. (Raya Road; 62-361-977-684; www.casalunabali.com/indus)
Kafe Batan Waru
Waddell's flagship restaurant serves authentic Balinese dishes such as gado gado (vegetables and tofu in peanut and chili sauce), and Bebek Tutu (whole duck slathered in traditional spice paste and smoked in betel leaves). Chili crab Tuesdays, however, is the most popular night for locals and expats. (Dewi Sita Road; 62-361-977-528; www.baligoodfood.com/Batanwaru.asp)
The Eat, Pray, Love crew hung out here on its time off to devour the signature seafood drunken noodles (rice noodles with prawn, squid, mussels, hot chili and fresh basil). (Hanoman Road; 62-361-980-777; www.baligoodfood.com/siam-sally.asp)
This gently priced street stall is a local favourite for Indonesia's national dish, nasi goreng – fried rice with shrimp, chicken and egg spiced with tamarind and chili. (Sriwedari Road; 62-361-970-509).
Special to The Globe and Mail