A week and a half ago I was sitting in the Kuala Lumpur airport, waiting to board my plane to Indonesia, slowly nodding in and out of narcoleptic stupor due to a arctic overnight bus ride to the airport. I was clutching my freshly printed list of temples, markets, landmarks, and other “must-see” attractions in Bali. I had only a backpack with a few changes of clothes and a good book, my camera battery fully charged and memory card poised to be filled with images of pristine tropical paradise. I was about to spend a week in what is widely considered one of the most spiritual, exotic, and sumptuous destinations in the world (at least since Elizabeth Gilbert “loved” her way through this previously unheralded gem of Southeast Asia).
Meanwhile, I couldn’t stop thinking about…enchiladas.
Call me irrational, juvenile, even downright insane, but I was literally drooling over the thought of tender tortillas filled with shredded, boneless chicken, smothered in salsa, real cheese, and most importantly loads of guacamole…oh, refried beans! Oh, Cholula!
I have been living in Malaysia for almost three months now. Though I adore Malaysian cuisine, recent unfortunate and highly inconvenient cravings for anything originating from the western hemisphere have left me vaguely unsatisfied after nearly every meal. The small inland town I now call home, Kuala Berang (population: 5,000) has approximately four restaurants and all of their menus are identical–traditional Malay food. Lacking a kitchen as well as access to any international condiments, I have become–if I do say so myself–quite creative with my microwave and various spice blends I’m able to find at my local market.
When I had first arrived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in January, I was righteously appalled when my friends had wanted to eat at the KL branch of California Pizza Kitchen the first week we were there. I went with them, albeit grudgingly, all the while lamenting the tantalizing street food we were forgoing in order to eat pizza and salads. Here I was in an exotic country with curry noodle stalls dotting every street corner, fried rice packets served on bamboo leaves, fresh durian and pineapple, spicy sambal chicken, whole steamed fish proffered by joyful toothless street chefs! There was so much exotic fare to try and we were eating…pepperoni pizza and Caesar salad.
But sitting on that Bali-bound plane, nearly three months into my new life living on the South China Sea, I would have cut off my arm for a Caesar salad…for a veggie wrap, for a pulled pork sandwich, for a hummus plate. How could I have been so callous as to have consumed my delightful fresh green salad those many weeks ago at CPK with anything but utter gratitude and bliss?
For the first time in my life, I have lost all sense of what I will refer to as “food guilt.” What is food guilt? I’ve experienced it in the past as a sort of remorse for knowing what you should be eating, but deliberately choosing something else. I’m not talking about the diet-busting sort of guilt associated with downing a pint of Ben and Jerry’s after dinner. I’m talking about ordering the vegetable platter at the best steakhouse in town, a diet Coke at a swanky new wine bar, lo mein in Mexico City, or a hamburger from a Parisian patisserie. The incongruity between knowing what I should be eating to take advantage of a particular specialty of a restaurant or destination and the deliberate choice to instead satisfy a craving would normally leave me laden with shame at my inability to set my basest need for instant gratification (the CRAVING) aside in favor of following the local flavor a la Anthony Bourdain.
In Bali, however, any remnants of food guilt dwindled and disappeared as fast as evening sunlight over Kuta beach. Bali, in addition to its lush jungles, staggering rice terraces, seaside temples, and charming markets, has an incredible selection of international cuisine options. I ate pesto lasagna, chocolate cake, apple pie, olives and tzatziki, crisp salad, enchiladas, a burger, burrito, strawberry bread, and asparagus soup. Real avocado, real cheese, and the inevitably elusive meat of majority Muslim countries: pork!
I found myself taking advantage of every opportunity I had to indulge in an international treat. There’s pumpkin ravioli on the menu? I’ll take it! Chicken enchilada with guacamole? Say no more! I was an insatiable vacuum for everything that was decidedly un-southeast Asian.
What had gotten into me? Here I was, a self-proclaimed foodie known to “food crawl” my way through new cities and wait in hour-long lines for an ephemeral taste of a food cart delight–unflinchingly (albeit respectfully) declining the Indonesian rice specialty in favor of a good ol’ BLT. My usual inclination to sample street food (I consider unidentifiable meat in unidentifiable sauce an exciting mystery, waiting to be solved by my eager taste buds!) had been supplanted with a voracious appetite for things you might find on a Panera menu.
And yet, it turns out I wasn’t the only one.
Almost as frequently as you encounter a hidden temple, a frangipani flower grove, or a Balinese wood carver presenting a traditional hindu canang sari–you will find a coffeehouse, organic café, or bakery on the winding, moss covered streets of Bali. A thriving expat community both necessitates and sustains the many western eateries dotting the Balinese countryside. In Kuta, a shamelessly touristic beach town almost entirely comprised of Tiger-toting shirtless Australians, the western food scene is predictably commercial: come here to find McDonald’s, Starbucks, and the Hard Rock Café. But in Ubud, the inland cultural gem of the Bali, you’ll find homegrown, locally-owned eateries with menu options and patrons so international and hobo-chic you’ll likely feel at home no matter where you’re from.
Would food guilt have plagued my culinary sensitivities had I eaten an Egg McMuffin and a Starbucks Frappuccino each day in Bali? Probably. But ordering the delightfully chunky pumpkin soup at Ja Juice Café was one of the best dining decisions I made on the trip, as was an equally tantalizing slice of strawberry bread from the Green School’s parent-supplied cafe. A particularly delightful afternoon was spent slowly savoring a piece of apple pie over the International Herald Tribune crossword at Kafe, a bustling open air organic treasure serving things like flax porridge, beet and feta salad, and raw cheesecake to a chatty mix of Indonesians, tourists, and expats.
As ate my way through five fantastic days in Bali, finding a balance between sampling Indonesian specialties (my two favorites: Gado-Gado and Bubur Injin) and well prepared western crave-cures (spanakopita and guacamole–eaten separately–come to mind first), I came to realize that I wasn’t “cheating” on Bali by forgoing fried rice in favor of gazpacho. Bali is–or at the very least, has come to be–just as much embodied by eclectic worldly fare as it is by traditional Indo cuisine. The New York Times, Lonely Planet, and other “insider” guides to the most “authentic” travel experiences recommend Italian food and imported wine while in Bali. Not that I need The Times’ approval to indulge in lasagna in the middle of a rice paddy, but I’ve got to admit it felt better to know that my less than local cuisine choices had been endorsed by several major travel guide giants. The Times hadn’t missed the point by recommending pizza and Chianti; rather, they have appropriately recognized Bali as the multinational cultural hub it has become.
It was perhaps on our last night in Bali, while quietly savoring every bite of my Moroccan mahi mahi wrap, ordered at TJ’s Mexican restaurant, on an island in Indonesia, that I realized I was having one of the most cosmopolitan experiences of my life, and I was all the better for it. I hadn’t felt any food guilt because there had been nothing to feel guilty about. Good food, good company, and good memories are about as much as one can hope for on any getaway–oh, and enchiladas. I can assure you Bali delivered on both accounts.