Ubud has a wide range of great cuisine from all over the world. but where are all the ingredients coming from? Ibu Kat explores…

One of the pleasures of being in Bali is the amazing range of wonderful food that’s available in the tourist areas. You name it — Indonesian, French, Turkish, Cuban, Chinese, Thai, Indian, South American, vegetarian — someone is making it, usually quite well. It’s all very pleasant and very anomalous. There can be just a handful of places in the developing world where international diners expect and receive this level of dining quality and diversity.

But where are the ingredients for all this food coming from?   The four corners of the earth… North and South America, Australia, Europe, even Africa. There’s something very wrong with this picture. Much — maybe most — of the food on the plates of Bali’s better restaurants is produced industrially (you can’t produce food intensively without chemical inputs) and travels tens of thousands of kilometers to get here.   Actually, there’s no good reason why most of it can’t be produced sustainably right here.

The restaurant business, like any other, is about profits. Economies of scale can make it cheaper to buy imported food than locally produced. This is particularly true in terms of meat, which is expensive to produce sustainably. Wanaprasta/PT Superhygiene produces the only chemical-free, free range, humanely raised and slaughtered and hygienically processed meat commercially available on Bali at this time. But very few restaurants buy from them. Even the ‘health food’ cafes and the higher end restaurants buy industrially raised chicken because it’s cheaper. Yes, the good stuff costs more. Yes, it’s worth it. Just don’t eat it as often.

Omnivores might find it interesting to ask their favourite cafe or restaurant whether it serves industrially produced chicken or free range chicken. You’ll probably find that most don’t know how or where the chicken they serve was raised, or what it was fed. One five star hotel in Ubud that shall be nameless lists free-range chicken on its menu but the staff confess that in fact it’s factory chicken. And whether the chickens are fed antibiotics or probiotics to avoid disease (inevitable in overcrowded conditions), mass production is still mass production and there’s nothing free range about it.
“Reviewers here are increasingly out of step with the world food movement. How many of Bali’s food and restaurant reviewers ever even think to ask and inform their readers about a restaurant’s food sourcing credentials?” a foodie recently demanded. “The single biggest input about food, its origin, is routinely omitted as irrelevant.”

One restaurant owner told me that she uses imported carrots because the local ones are too dry for juicing. I argue that this could be remedied by providing better seed to the growers.   With some imagination, training and better seed stock, Bali has the potential to produce high quality food for its hundreds of restaurants

Ubud-based Slow Food Bali, established in 2009, promotes good, clean, fair food. That means food that’s fresh and wholesome, grown locally without chemicals, and with fair return to the producer. Farmers need help to meet Western expectations; growing high quality vegetables is a fairly new concept in Bali.

Slow Food Bali’s Snail of Approval program awards certificates to restaurants which can demonstrate that they use at least 75% local (Indonesian) ingredients, pay their staff fairly and responsibly dispose of their waste.   Currently there are 16 restaurants and six producers proudly displaying the Snail in Bali (to apply, write to snail@slowfood bali.com).


Chef Ray Adriansyah,  of Locavore in Ubud working with local ingredients: patty pan squash from Plaga, oysters from Buleleng, Amara tempura from Payangan, butternut pumpkin from Bedugul, scallops from Lombok, tomatos and ferns from Locavore’s own gardens, locally sourced duck eggs, and apples from Malang.

The world wide Slow Food movement is about locavorism, a concept thought to have been coined in 2005 and noted in the Oxford American dictionary in 2007.   Locavores choose to eat seasonal, chemical–free foods which are produced within a reasonable distance of where they live. There’s some debate about whether locavorism is a good thing or not, with most of the argument coming from the context of the United States. Here in Bali we are looking at a very different set of circumstances; doesn’t it make a lot more sense to source quality ingredients from Indonesia than to fly them in from Chile or France?

Why eat locally produced food? We know what we’re eating by buying from known chemical-free growers. The food is fresher and more nutritious. We support our local community of growers and producers and reduce carbon footprint. Because it’s not produced on an industrial scale, this food may not be cheaper.  As with everything else, we pay more for quality.

I know it’s not realistic for tamu here to eat 100% Indonesian grown foods. We need our olive oil, butter and cheese.  This is not about a perpetual diet of brown rice and mung beans, it’s about being more conscious of where our food comes from and making more thoughtful choices.

And it doesn’t have to be a sacrifice. Restaurant Locavore opened its doors in October 2014 and has been packed ever since.   Chefs Eelke and Ray, who ran an outstanding kitchen together at Alila Ubud, are passionately committed to creating intriguing menus using local produce as well as chicken, pork, duck, lamb and fish with very little imported input. Restaurant Locavore proves beyond argument that it’s possible to achieve international-level fine dining in Bali using over 95% quality local ingredients, and the food is fabulous.

“The concept of locavorism has been increasingly popular in the west since 2005, but still new to Indonesia where most chefs rely on expensive imported ingredients,” says Sumatran-born Ray who trained in New Zealand.  “By developing lasting relationships with local producers and starting our own farm, we ensure our guests the freshest of seasonal produce and ethically fed meat animals.   And by supporting local farmers and food artisans, Locavore is a real member of its community.”

More quality local food and drinks are appearing these days. Several cafes in Ubud are now featuring Indonesia Arabica, which The Coffee Review claims to be the single malt of the coffee world. Why wouldn’t we savour this amazing brew and support local producers instead of patronizing international chains? For example the Rio Helmi Photo Gallery and Café serves Indonesian coffee, with blends of Arabica and Robusta from Aceh, Lampung and Bali; among others it also has a selection of gluten free snacks made from nearly 100% local ingredients. Wanaprasta has developed goat cheeses and hams from entirely local ingredients. Drinkable local wines have appeared. Bali’s chocolate can be excellent.


At the Rio Helmi Photo Gallery and Cafe: Gluten free brownies made from Indonesian ingredients, espresso made from a blend of Aceh, Lampung and Balinese coffee.

Restaurant owners could do much more to educate their customers on mindful dining. “The restaurant business is a nice, direct interface with customers and an opportunity to influence them,” observes Jonathan a diligent locavore who owns the popular vegetarian restaurant Elephant.

I’m not the only one on this soapbox, by the way.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)’s Review for 2013 includes a Key Message reading as follows, “The world needs a paradigm shift in agricultural development from a ‘green revolution’ to an ‘ecological intensification’ approach. This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependant industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small scale farmers.”

So there.

Bless you all, and let’s vote with our forks for high quality, locally produced food in 2016.


text ©Cat Wheeler / photos ©Rio Helmi