I don’t know if you can talk about Ubud and not mention Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. It was made even more famous by Julia Roberts when she played the author in the movie based on the book. I didn’t read the book, but I did watch the movie on one of my trans-Atlantic flights back in the day when we were corporate slaves who could only travel to distant locations once a year. I never gave that movie a second thought and probably wouldn’t have watched it if I wasn’t stuck on a plane with nothing else to watch. I didn’t even know that the “Love” part of the movie took place in Ubud until I got there and saw all sorts of references to the movie.
I’m sure you can find love in Ubud, maybe not with Javier Bardem, but there are plenty of healthy, single people there and if you can’t speak Bahasa Indonesia, don’t worry about it. Based on my unscientific eyeball-census, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least forty percent of the population is European, Australian or American. Since Kanako is already desperately in love with me, we skipped the “love” part and went straight to the “eat” part. Ubud is the perfect place to fill your belly with all sorts of tasty food. You can also get delicious Western food here that you’d be hard-pressed to find in other Indonesian cities. Of course, the prices for some of these Western establishments are high for Indonesia, but it’s still very reasonable. It’s even affordable for backpackers who are tired of insanely cheap, but repetitive rice and noodle dishes. Of course, we still ate at some warungs, small Indonesian eateries, that were fantastic too.
From what we experienced Ubud didn’t have any particular food specialties, so we’ll recommend specific restaurants that we enjoyed within walking distance of our accommodations on Monkey Forest street and Hanoman street.
Kafe: Our first meal in Ubud was lunch at this chill spot. The menu advertises that they wash their fruits and vegetables with purified water. Score! Seriously, if you’ve been unlucky enough to surf the Hersey Highway more than once in SEA, but you still want to eat raw veggies then this is a big deal. We decided to trust them and order a couple of sandwiches. They both turned out to be very tasty and we didn’t get Bali belly. Thanks, Kafe! We came back here a few more times and once Kanako had the burrito which I thought was a bit skimpy for the price, it was actually only half of a burrito, but she said it was the best burrito she’s had in awhile. Then again, I don’t know how much that’s worth since she hasn’t been anywhere near a burrito in almost two years. They also have a tantalizing display of desserts which I found to be hit or miss. The raw chocolate pie was just ok, but the walnut carrot cake was lovely.
Address: Jalan Hanoman 44b
The Pond: I love roast duck. Especially when the skin is crispy and the meat is moist. Mmmmm. We passed by Bebek Bengil Dirty Duck Diner after dropping off laundry one day and I decided that I had to have some dirty duck. Unfortunately, we read that Bebek Bengil is not so great and has become an overpriced tourist destination. My sweet boo did some research and found that foodie bloggers were getting their dirty duck fix at a place across the street called The Pond. So, we headed there for dinner and ordered the duck and pork ribs. The duck was much larger than any duck dish that I’ve had in Western countries and the skin was delightfully crispy. The ribs were also very tasty, but don’t bother trying to eat them with a fork and knife like I saw some silly woman doing. Just use your hands and then lick your fingers when you’re done. Ain’t no shame in that.
Address: Jalan Raya Pengosekan, across from Bebek Bengil
Down To Earth: We came here a couple of times for lunch and to use the internet in their breezy upstairs dining area. Kanako had the Dragon Bowl for lunch and it was large and in charge. It was also very tasty. I had an avocado sandwich that should be renamed an alfalfa sprout sandwich because there were much more sprouts than avocado. It was still good though. Don’t order the walnut brownie unless you like dry brownies that taste like they forgot to put cocoa in the mix. The ground floor is a shop for local hippies that sells things like raw chocolate, argan oil, alfalfa sprouts, and a bunch of other hippie stuff.
Address: Jalanl Guatama Selatan
I’m not a huge coffee fanatic like what seems like the majority of the world nowadays, but I do know how to enjoy a good cup and N certainly loves the stuff. So it was a bit of a surprise to me when I became hooked on the stuff at Seniman Coffee Studio, one of our best finds in Ubud. What we expected to be a one-time visit turned into two, three, four, then five because once we had this coffee, we really couldn’t have it anywhere else. It was mindblowing, even for someone like me who doesn’t know shit about coffee. A bonus was meeting one of the owners, Rodney Glick, a contemporary artist and coffee enthusiast who taught us about Ubud, coffee, and the art world.
We stopped into this place after we met the owner of another cute coffee shop in Denpasar who recommended Seniman and also recommended the coffee I ended up falling in love with: the Papua cold-drip on ice (five cups made per day). I didn’t know that coffee could have such complex flavors, or that it could taste completely different when made the same way by two different people. The young Indonesian boys and girls working there take their coffee very very seriously, and watching them diligently learning from Rodney and making a cup sort of reminds me of the kind of concentration and meticulousness seen during a Japanese tea ceremony.
We landed in Bali and immediately went about getting our visa extensions, which ended up taking longer than expected. We didn’t care at all because Ubud ended up being the perfect place to laze about and recharge and we did just that for two weeks. This town made popular by “Eat, Pray, Love” with sinewy yogis and young women trying to “find themselves” was also chock full of good, healthy, organic(-inspired) food and a great vibe for creative inspiration.
Every morning we woke up to a beautiful sunny day and ate a leisurely breakfast on our balcony in our pajamas. We eventually left our room to get lunch, explore and walk around the town. Maybe we should’ve been less lazy and done stuff like see the traditional dances or gone on tours of the coffee plantations and temples in the area, but we seriously needed some down time. It’s strange because while we never felt like we really needed to take breaks during the Europe leg of our adventure, Southeast Asia’s been a little more mentally taxing for some reason. We love it here in Indonesia but sometimes we need a “taste of home”. Ubud was perfect because it gave us just that and then some.
The afternoons were hot. We walked around the quiet town peeking into cute shops selling organic soaps and clothing, and stopped into cafés and restaurants when we were hungry. During the day, van loads of pale Chinese tourists descended on Ubud from the busier parts of the island like Kuta and Seminyak, fanning themselves under the identical cheap straw hats they probably bought for too much somewhere.
This may sound crazy, but we almost skipped Penang, the food capital of Malaysia! Sometimes our travel plans make no sense. There are so many places to visit that we get overwhelmed and end up sticking with the more popular destinations. This was the mistake we made when we left Thailand and flew straight to Kuala Lumpur. We were in the southern part of Thailand already and could’ve entered Malaysia by train, hitting up Penang first. Instead, we flew directly to KL and plunked ourselves smack dab in the middle of a loud, polluted, and way-too-busy city. To escape the insanity of the Islamic New Year in KL, we headed towards the Cameron Highlands and if you read my post (you best have read my post!) you’d know it wasn’t the peaceful, quiet haven that we were seeking. After paying higher prices for crappier amenities and dealing with too many crowds we were ready to leave Malaysia altogether.
But, we decided that our bellies would be very disappointed with us if we didn’t check out Penang. It didn’t hurt that its airport was the closest and cheapest option to our first destination in Indonesia. Our decision to go to Penang was the best choice we made during our entire Malaysia trip. Besides the fascinating historical architecture in the UNESCO-preserved Georgetown district, the impressive street art, and the exceptionally friendly people, Penang absolutely lived up to our expectations for excellent food.
If you have any doubt about the great food that Penang has to offer, just ask a local. They will wax poetic about their city’s incomparable dishes and insist that the Penang version is unlike the ones you’ve had anywhere else in Malaysia. We had the good luck of talking to a couple of the locals during our stay because the communal eating style makes it quite easy to strike up conversation with unexpected dining companions. The first person we chatted with was an older man who left Penang to go to New Zealand when he was younger and after spending a year there he realized that he desperately missed the food and lifestyle in Penang so he came back. He also told us that an old acquaintance of his owns a successful Malaysian restaurant in NYC, but he doesn’t know the name. That was very helpful of him!
Another guy we met was much younger and moments after asking him about a tofu dessert that he was eating he began to spew a whole list of food in Penang that we must try. He offered to take us to a local food night market, but we already had dinner and dessert so we politely declined. (We also have a rule of not getting into cars with strangers at night. Unless they have candy.) His passion for popular local dishes, however, motivated us to eat a lot more over the course of our stay. That’s a lie. We don’t need any encouragement to eat, but it’s always nice to hear a local get excited about his city’s food.
My favorite mealtime in Penang was breakfast. We stumbled upon this traditional coffee shop set up in an alley near our hotel where we met a friendly lesbian couple (we are everywhere!) who invited us to sit with them. They helped us order amazing hot coffee, tasty nasi lemak wrapped in brown paper, and my new favorite breakfast dish: soft-boiled egg on thick-cut Hainan toast with soy sauce and white pepper. I absolutely love it when I find a dish that is so simple yet so perfect and the best part is that I can easily replicate it at home. And, the coffee is the best we’ve had since we had to leave our beloved Vietnamese iced coffees behind.
Toh Soon Cafe
Location: Alley way on Lebuh Campbell not too far from Jalan Penang
After spending two weeks with a total of 3 dining options in Tanote Bay we, and our bellies, were very excited to get to Kuala Lumpur. KL is the federal capital of Malaysia and one of the more diverse cities we’ve visited in Southeast Asia. The three main ethnic groups are Malay, Chinese, and Indian which is only important to me becaue it means I can get deliciously diverse food. If you’re interested in the cultural, social, or political dynamics of these peoples living together go read another blog because I can only tell you about how these three cuisines intermingled in my belly.
You’re probably familiar with Indian and Chinese food, but Malay food isn’t as common. At least not in the U.S. Malay food is like a marriage of Indian and Chinese cuisines, but I’d say it’s an unequal marriage because you can really see the Indian influence in the strong spices used in most dishes. If you didn’t know Malay food, you could easily mistake it for Indian. Popular Malay dishes include nasi lemak, satay, and nasi goreng. Just to name a few. Another popular cuisine in Malaysia is Nyonya food which came from the literal marriage between the early Chinese migrants and the local Malays parts of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. If you’re like me you’ll call it “Malaysian” food, but technically it’s a distinct cuisine with it’s own history and signature dishes. KL isn’t known for Nyonya food so if you want the best of this cuisine you will have to go to Penang or Melaka.
I love Indian food. I love it so much that if I couldn’t marry ice cream and cake I would marry Indian cuisine. Wait, who says I can’t marry ice cream and cake? I figured since same-sex marriage is legal food marrying should be too. Damn these religious zealots and their lies!
I’m less enthusiastic about Chinese food, but there are some great dishes in KL that you should try while you’re there. We were lucky enough to have a local introduce us to some of the best Chinese chow in KL.
Our arrival in Kuala Lumpur just happened to coincide with Eid, the Muslim New Year. Having done no research prior to arriving in Malaysia and underestimating just how Muslim this country actually is, we were thoroughly punished with the unbelievably insane crowds converging on the nation’s capital for the holiday.
Compared to the craziness of Kuala Lumpur (or “KL”, as the locals call it), neighboring Petaling Jaya (or “PJ”) was sounding very pleasant, and we heard that excellent food could be had there. We decided to hop on a bus and visit Grace, a Malaysian local we had met three months back on a tour bus in Vietnam. Upon getting to her quiet neighborhood, we immediately sensed that this was more our style. She walked us to her house to relax before tackling the night market.
Grace and I had met briefly on a tour bus and talked for maybe ten minutes. After that we kept in touch through Facebook, but in reality we were strangers to each other. I was touched that despite this fact, Grace took on the role of hostess since we landed in KL.
So there we were in PJ, sipping on soy milk and chatting with Grace, Goh and their surprisingly tall daughter Pei Ji. Soon, we were walking down the narrow streets towards PJ’s smaller Thursday night market, checking out the various fruit, candies, electronic accessories, and of course, the food stalls. Grace had warned us not to eat too much because we were having durian for dinner, so we just drooled our way past the deep-fried fruit, satay, dofu fa, and other delights. After purchasing a salt-encrusted smoked chicken leg and two kilos of mangosteens (they were crazy cheap), we headed to the durian tents.
At a non-descript cafe on the side of a non-descript street in Da Nang, I sipped a cà phê sữa đá and thought of a recent conversation I had with my mother before leaving for Southeast Asia. I was having a coffee then as well, and I had mentioned that caffeine tends to keep me up at night if I have it too late in the day. My mother made an incredulous face and said, “That’s because you don’t work hard enough. If you work hard like your father and I do, you can fall asleep right away.” To me, that was a strange thing to say because my mother doesn’t work (and has never really worked), unless you call unnecessary clothes shopping a form of employment.*
So there we were in Da Nang, proving her point. We were getting tired of constantly bouncing from one place to another and the Southeast Asian heat followed us around, quietly beating us into submission. A friend in Saigon suggested Da Nang as a quiet place to hang our hats for a while so we trusted her. The city itself doesn’t look like anything special, and is as unassuming as they come. But look a little closer, and there is an empty, beautiful beach lining its eastern coast, a lush peninsula to the north and some damn good food.
We did the required touristy stuff like checking out the Bodhisattva of Mercy on Son Tra peninsula (we called her “The Lady”) and spending the day exploring the Marble Mountains. While both of these places were pretty interesting in their own ways, what we enjoyed doing the most was chilling by ourselves during the day and getting the more local experience with our new friends at night.
Beaching was very much on our list of priorities so we made a beeline for a private beach on My Khe. Well, not really a beeline, because we skirted around the main entrance to the hotel and entered through the side entrance to the beach like a couple of sketchy mofos… I guess we kind of are. Don’t get me started on privatizing beaches in these developing countries. We had lunch at an overpriced but decent restaurant next to the beach, soaked up the cleanliness of it all and pretended for a moment that we were guests of this overpriced resort.
It was our last day in Taipei, and we had to complete our foodie tour with one very special dish: Taiwanese beef noodles. So we made our way to Lin Dong Fang (林東芳牛肉麵) with Chienya and Ethan (another friend of ours from New York), plunked ourselves down at a tiny table, ordered bowls of noodles and feasted.
Since my cold was still hanging around, I really should’ve refrained from getting the large bowl. I really should’ve paced myself. I really should’ve done a lot of things to let my poor stomach rest, but it’s impossible when you’re faced with something so delicious. So while I suffered afterwards, the moment of ingestion was sweet.
We woke up to a drizzling, cloudy day and made our way by train and bus to Jiufen and Jinguashi with our private tour guide, Chienya. My cold was now full-blown and my stomach was in protest, but sometimes you just have to suck it up (quite literally, with my relentless runny nose). A bus weaved its way up a mountain side before depositing us at the entrance to Jiufen, and this is where Simon found us. We hadn’t seen each other for years, and he had driven up to spend the day with us.
Like usual, food was on our mind and Chienya had told us that Jiufen was famous for their fish balls and taro mochi. But first, an amuse bouche. We opted for a sweet snack of two types of ice cream over crushed candied peanuts and chopped cilantro, wrapped in a crepe-like wrap. It was surprisingly good, and I loves me some cilantro so I didn’t mind it with ice cream.
Next, we ducked into a fish ball shop and pigged out on fish balls of different flavors, and a glutinous pork thing that they’re also supposedly famous for. It was good, and if I was feeling better I would’ve had seconds.
There’s not much to do on a rainy day, so off we went in search of a snack and wound our way up to a taro mochi shop. We walked through a corridor full of people making taro mochi and sat down for warm, sweet mochi balls and steamed cubes of sweet potato over shaved ice. I’m not a huge dessert person but it was pretty refreshing.
We landed into a thick wall of humidity. We were in Taiwan. Over the years we were living in New York, we had somehow accumulated quite a few Taiwanese friends, and we were finally going to explore their motherland and eat our way through it.
We made our way to my college friend Chienya’s apartment in Donghu via bus and subway, which was super easy because the service people here are helpful and friendly. Chienya busted out some wax apples and pineapple, which was my first wax apple experience and the beginning of our foray into the various tropical fruits of Taiwan. Then, we were off to dinner… At Mitsukoshi. I felt like I was still in Tokyo.
I couldn’t help but immediately start comparing Taipei to Tokyo, because they’re both alike in many ways. First off, there is Japanese writing everywhere, so you can pretty much get by without any problems if you speak only Japanese. Besides the familiar shops and Japanese products they sell here, the culture is similar in many ways. I feel like we’re easing into our Southeast Asia trip, which is different from our Europe trip when we started in Russia.
Our first full day in Taipei was all about food. That morning, we had a traditional Taiwanese breakfast at a typical shop here in Taiwan, which means it’s open to the outside, has a counter with some busy ladies preparing and serving food and it’s a little less than ideal in restaurant hygiene. But I’m going to have to get used to that, because the food was awesome. We went to a local market and picked up some more fruit before heading home to digest in preparation for dinner.