Every plate of nasi campur has a story.
It is an ubiquitous dish around Indonesia. And what’s not to love about it? The name literally means “mixed rice,” and the dish normally has a scoop of nasi putih (white rice) accompanied by small portions of a number of other dishes. It might be whatever was freshest or cheapest at the market that morning or it might be the leftovers from last night’s dinner, but one thing is guaranteed: no two plates are ever the same.
It’s a dish that is as diverse as the archipelago itself, with regional variations across the country. In Bali the tastes are often distinctly local, punctuated by basa genep , the typical Balinese spice mix used as the base for many curry and vegetable dishes.
Aside from being delicious, nasi campur can also be one of the cheapest meals around, especially in tourist destinations where the restaurants can lean a bit toward the pricey side. It’s also a great way to sample a number of dishes all at once, putting an end to the age-old dilemma of what to order.
But perhaps what I love best about nasi campur is that every serving tells a story. It may be at a run-down canvas and bamboo pole warung or a slick tourist trap, but just like the dish itself, no two settings are ever the same.
So here’s a mix, or campur if you like, of six servings of stories from Bali about one of my favorite Indonesian dishes — with extra sambal, please.
Warung Melati, Legian
A simple shop with a handful of tables on the main drag down to Legian’s Double Six beach, Warung Melati seems to attract a bookish, relaxed expat or older traveler crowd.
I’m still young, but I hate shenanigans, so I fit right in with the other diners, especially when I pick up my depressing yet beautifully written holiday read, Kirain Desai’s “The Inheritance of Loss.”
Despite the sedate crowd, when it comes to rice it gets a little crazy here. This is no nasi putih only zone. Diners can also choose from nasi kuning (yellow rice) or nasi merah (red rice), which is my personal favorite.
Then you choose from the 30 or so dishes on display, which is as hard as it sounds. There are plenty of veggie choices, about five or six tempe options, fresh fish and meat curries and fantastic gulai nangka , or young jackfruit curry, one of my weaknesses. All the dishes are market fresh and more are made throughout the day, and unlike your usual greasy warung fare they taste clean and healthy.
Add a tall glass of watermelon juice and you’re out a grand total of Rp 22,000 ($2.40). Wham, bam, thank you ma’am. See you tomorrow.
Made’s Warung, Kuta
“Leaaaahhh, don’t play with yer food puh-loise.” Ah, the Australian accent. I have one myself, though for some reason spawning children often seems to make it even louder and more nasal. If you want to hear it in all its glory, Kuta is the second-best place in the world after a suburban Melbourne shopping mall.
But almost surprisingly, at this Lonely Planet-recommended enclave that my people have arrived at in droves, the food is fantastic and authentic tasting. The Nasi Campur Special, somewhat pricey at Rp 55,000, is a plate that dreams are made of. Grilled chicken, prawns in sambal, tempe curry, Balinese pork satay and more piled high on a mountain of piping hot nasi putih garnished with toasted coconut. There’s also a regular nasi campur, hold the extra specialness, for Rp 30,000, and a vegetarian option.
The prices on the menu include tax, service and the special luxury of listening to Australians complain about touts trying to rip them off. Some of the younger tourists also seem to adhere to the “I’m on a beach holiday so I refuse to wear a shirt, even while dining” ideology. But the food is great, and the fresh fruit lassi is also worth a try.
Food Carts at Night Market, Sanur
Night markets always have an air of electricity around them — and I’m not just talking about the cables running dangerously across busy thoroughfares to power the rice cookers. They are always smoky from the sate, loud from the crowds and kind of dirty, just because.
Sanur’s night market is small, tucked away in the back streets off Jalan Danau Toba. But you can get a straw stuck in a coconut right then and there. You can get five million pairs of plastic shoes. And you can get a cheap feed. So it has all the necessary ingredients.
In one of the stalls at the back of the market I found my dream dish on offer. A true Bali-style Rp 10,000 nasi campur, complete with sambal matah, which is made with lemongrass and shallots, accompanied by some unidentified bits of pig’s insides. I sat down to eat on the rickety plastic stool that wasn’t designed with my backside in mind while people bustled in and out for takeaway.
A fellow tourist wandered up in a daze, Bambi-like eyes in shock at the rare slice of gritty reality in squeaky-clean resortville Sanur.
“ Sate ayam ?” he asked, pronouncing every letter painfully while blinking. The women running the stall burst into laughter and pointed further along.
“You should try this, it’s good,” I said. He looked at my plate, pointed at something and asked “what’s that?”
I prodded the slightly squishy meal with with my fork.
“I dunno mate, but it tastes good,” I replied. He looked scared as he wandered off in search of sate. His loss.
Warung Mimpi, Seminyak
Another day, another tourist warung. Sometimes in Bali it seems impossible to escape from streets lined with impeccable little diners trying to pretend they are totally kampungan (village-like). Fact: If you have polished hardwood chairs and tables, you are at least at a rumah makan (restaurant).
But the price at Warung Mimpi was nice, and so was the food. Offering some Padang, Javanese and Balinese dishes to choose from in a pick-your-own-campur arrangement, the little diner seemed very popular with expats who were in the process of building or buying villas. The conversations centered around stonework, landscaping and labor costs, not exactly my areas of interest. More to my liking was a big plate of veggies, rice and some very tasty beef rendang that set me back Rp 24,000. There also seemed to be a sarong-only dress code in force, but I think that’s just the universal uniform of people who are in their first six months of being Bali expats.
Nasi Campur Food Cart Outside Hero Supermarket, Jl Teuku Umar, Denpasar
After being trapped in my hotel for Nyepi, the Balinese day of silence, eating dull food while children ran around breaking things out of boredom, I needed something good.
In a row of kaki lima , or food carts, mostly offering bakso , a dish I avoid due to the inherent mysteries contained in each over-processed grey ball of whatever, there was one beacon of light — yes, a nasi campur stand.
This was a completely Javanese affair, the woman who ran the stall having migrated to Bali in hopes of getting handfuls of tourist dollars, and instead ending up in a dusty lane beside a supermarket carpark cooking the same dishes she always had.
But the opor ayam on the plate was tasty. The little serving of gado-gado a delight. The sticky tempe manis with peanuts was perfectly palatable. And for the laborers from Surabaya, also chasing Bali dollars, who were scarfing it down for Rp 9,000 a banana leaf, it was a little taste of home.
Bali Buddha, Ubud
Something about being in Ubud seems to flick my switch to “hippie mode” on. It takes a good five minutes before I’m chasing down organic juices and wanting to paint pictures of the ducks in the rice fields, despite having the artistic abilities of a preschooler. When I feel a bit silly because of it, I just think to myself “at least I’m not here to just relive ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’ ” and then I go buy another pair of fisherman’s pants without shame.
Bali Buddha is a sparkling purple upholstered wonderland of organics with more of those fisherman’s pants per capita than any Thai fishing village I’ve ever heard about. It also comes with a whole helping of community spirit.
Their vegetarian nasi campur for Rp 27,000 is a clean green treat, with tempe curry, fresh vegetables and a homemade sambal that’s genuinely vegetarian, with no shrimp paste. It’s a satisfying meal, yet light, which leaves room for some of the other treats on offer, like the no-bake cheesecake or the healthier fruit and yoghurt drinks. They also offer a wide range of vegan food.
Out front there’s a community notice board, so if you decide that you just can’t wear normal pants again, you can fill your schedule with yoga, meditation and culture classes and find a cheap villa in the hills to share with some artists or tarot card readers. I was tempted …