WHERE tourists go, foie gras and truffle will follow. Such is the case in Bali, Indonesia’s most tourist-populated region, a haven for fine dining.
But amidst the dress shoes and clank of silverware is a chain of imports and industrial-scale freezing that are driving prices up and hurting smallholder farmers.
This is largely due to the “post-colonial hangover” in the last ten years during which Western foods were celebrated across the island, feeding into an insatiable tourist appetite.
However, these days, there seems a growing awareness about local produce and a general curiosity among tourists about the regional foods of Indonesia.
There’s also hope in some of greater Bali’s operations and restaurants that plug local produce, promote sustainability and empower local communities along the way.
A big player in Ubud’s thriving dining scene is Hujan Locale, a restaurant that makes use of the region’s undulating lands and fertile soil.
Hujan Locale executive chef Will Meyrick told Travel Wire Asia their dishes are thoroughly local from salt to fish.
“Our menu ingredients are sourced from local producers, very little is imported, and if it is, it will say so on our menu.”
Meyrick and his team travel to Mengwi and far into the hillsides along the west side of Bali for ingredients that retain their integrity in terms of both production and heritage.
Not only does this extra effort result in an unpredictable and exciting menu for tourists, it also steers away from the already saturated market of filet mignons.
Meyrick is part of a newer breed of chefs who are keen to take up the challenge of working around local produce rather than going down the easier route of making supply orders based on a fixed menu.
He said, “I love a challenge, the creation of a menu that reflects seasonal influences and the bounty of nature through the various cycles – hot, wet, dry, cool – and harvesting times is a wonderful thing to present to your customers.”
In the case of Hujan Locale, Meyrick and his team work with sometimes unusual ingredients like local river snails (“a very clean meat that works well on our long board pizzas”), nutmeg flowers (“superbly creamy and almost jam-like in desserts”), and native baby starfruit or belimbing wuluh (“fruit and the leaves can be used in many different ways”).
Credit has not gone unnoticed for Hujan Locale; it’s considered one of the best restaurants in Ubud for its take on regional Indonesian food and exciting cocktails.
Awareness about seasonality
The biggest problem in the struggle towards a more sustainable Bali is tourist demand Bali Asli founder Penelope Williams knows all too well about this.
Williams was once attached to Alila Manggis, but upon discovering a plethora of fresh produce in east Bali, decided to head her own operation with the aim of “living by Mother Nature’s rules”.
The menu at her restaurant rotates daily using what’s available from those who fish, farm and forage in the nearby fields, ocean and jungle. The eco-friendly concept she adopts includes sticking to traditional Balinese design, serving up food that’s “at one” with nature, and “giving back” to the locals by way of knowledge.
Most impressively, Williams eschews modern cooking methods and goes back to wood-fire and mud brick stoves, a feat few chefs would be willing to take on.
She’s also an advocate of seasonality, the cultivation and consumption of what’s in season. The biggest stumbling block to practising seasonality is, once again, tourist demand.
“Consumers tend to forget about seasons. They want their mango juice all-year round; the consumer [is causing a] synthetic environment,” she told Travel Wire Asia.
“Tourists should open their eyes to local markets, go to local restaurants; people shouldn’t go to a hotel and demand foie gras and truffle completely disregarding seasonality.”
A better sense of awareness before one travels will make a significant difference – if the resources allow for it, tourists should take pains to research local, seasonal produce and learn to better support restaurants that advocate seasonality.
Supporting local cooperatives
While tourism is Bali’s biggest revenue source, small local cooperatives and developments are trying to break through the market to showcase the island’s rich bounty.
One such operation is Wanaprasta, which “guides and invests capital into infrastructures that directly support high-quality rural products into demand markets”. In other words, they oppose factory-farm systems, experiment with organic farming, and ship out their produce to their depot and food lab. At the same time, they train local farmers to adopt organic and permaculture methods.
Manager of Wanaprasta Tri Sutrisna told Travel Wire Asia that Bali has a small group of foreigners driving the local cause, but a large number of restaurants and chefs still disregard the importance of supporting closer-to-home operatives.
“Only a handful are truly committed to being natural, local or seasonal,” he lamented. “The locavore [movement] in Ubud and Souq in Seminyak are amongst the few that are real.”
He too is of the belief that the general tourist mindset is important to keeping local farming alive. “Generally, tourists are not interested. But a certain kind of cultural tourist is interested though. I think many of these tourists are coming here and putting pressure [to make] changes that are happening incrementally on these issues,” he said.
As supporting local produce becomes more “fashionable” in these parts of the world, he’s hopeful that things are heading in the right direction.
“We have seen an increase in inquiries but it hasn’t always equated with sales just yet. But this might continue to evolve positively,” he said.
No one ever said the battle for sustainability was going to be easy, and while a small group of passionate Bali residents are pushing the needle day by day, the rest of us tourists need to start looking beyond fanciful iterations of gado-gado.