There are two things I love about Gianyar: the hand-woven textiles and the food. In the late 1980s I used to frequent Gianyar for exactly those two reasons: to buy metre upon metre of glorious hand-woven cotton and to eat the glorious food near the market while my waistline allowed it. Those were the days!
Gianyar is one of Bali’s eight official regencies and, with its rich history, is arguably the island’s most fascinating. It is the home of archaeological sites such as the ancient caves of Goa Gajah and ancient relics including the huge kettledrum called the Moon of Pejeng. Traditional crafts, from stonecarving and wood-carving, to silver-smithing and painting, still flourish in the kingdom of Gianyar.
And the sparkling jewel in the crown of Gianyar is none other than my home, Ubud.
The town of Gianyar itself is the administrative capital and is resplendent with large Indonesian government-style buildings, banks, wide roads and manicured trees. It has all the hallmarks of a commercial hub, albeit a small one. Two almighty white stone statues of Krishna and Arjuna embarking on their legendary battle, with chariot and horses at full speed, mark the entrance of this proud city. The police station and small jail are conveniently located nearby, adding to the feel of law and order. Gianyar is also home to one of Bali’s finest palaces, and while the gilded ornamental iron gates are closed to visitors, they nevertheless give a hint of the luxury that lies within.
Pisang rai: boiled bananas in a rice batter.
Pak Roshidi fanning chicken satay.
Grilled and boiled chickenmà la Gianyar.
The market sells everything frommkitchen utensils and jewellery to beautiful hand-woven fabrics.
Serving traditional Indonesian drinks with coconut, assorted fruits, agar-agar (jellies) and coconut milk.
When I began selling homewares in Ubud in the late 1980s, my trips to Gianyar were always made more exciting by the promise of suckling pig at the Bale Banjar near the market in the main street. I would buy metres of endek or ikat for my cushions and sheets, and then finish up with a sturdy lunch nearby. I would always take visitors there – even my parents – for an authentic eating experience. Back then, the suckling pig in Gianyar was considered just about the best on the island, and somehow the 30-minute drive from Ubud to Gianyar always added to the euphoric melt-in-yourmouth experience. That was until Ibu Oka from Ubud steered a path to enormous culinary success and claimed the coveted roast-pork trophy and I, like most Balinese, became an Ibu Oka devotee.
But it’s the night market that has put Gianyar back on its gastronomic feet, offering a street-food experience par excellence. After 5pm the culinary transition begins with a kitchen makeover of the Indonesian kind. Food carts are wheeled in and makeshift eateries are set up. Old folk squeeze in between stalls, fanning satay and selling other portable treats. Here lies every tourist’s dream: under-the-stars dining in the balmy tropics, surrounded by locals (not tourists), the sights and sounds of Asia, and masses of tasty, inexpensive food in the cosy environs of a traditional market.
The feasting actually begins outside on a stretch of Gianyar’s main road, marking this formidable gastronomic territory. The inner sanctum of the market lies across the road, beyond the arched entrance. By 7pm it is packed with people from all walks of life, from students to government workers, and from families to old retirees. Apart from the food, part of the charm of the Gianyar night market is its size. It’s small and relatively intimate, while large enough to offer variety. I bump into a young Balinese neighbour and his friends eating nasi campur and wonder how many people from Ubud travel to eat here. The most popular warungs are standing room only.
An array of crispy fried snacks; deliciously tempting.
If you’re still hungry for more, you can grab some of your favourite traditional snacks to try at home.
Grinding peanuts to make peanut sauce.
Dinner at one of Gianyar’s food stalls.
Chicken is the order of the day, with many Balinese food stalls offering a choice of smoked, braised or grilled chicken. What sets each one apart are the home-cooked side dishes and sambals that accompany them. Pepes klingis (spiced coconut paste steamed in banana leaves), lawar (seasoned greens with chopped coconut), pepes ayam (chicken steamed in banana leaves), jekut jepang (choko in a fragrant broth), fresh chilli sambal, fried sambal and deep-fried egg that looks like a dried hair net are among the choices offered. Whatever your selection, you are guaranteed a meal of highly seasoned, not-designed-for-tourists fare.
For the I-love-Indonesian-food diehards, the usual suspects abound. Bakso ayam (chicken balls in broth), nasi goreng (fried rice), soto ayam (light chicken soup) and chicken satay. Other much-loved Indonesian fare includes pecel lele (fried catfish), tempe penyet (tempe with sambal) and ikan bakar (grilled fish). Babi guling is still there, too, in various stages of carved glory, alongside serombotan, a famous vegetarian dish from Klungkung. This glamorous green statement of blanched greens, sprouts and bright pulses is doused in an industrial-strength chilli-coconut seasoning that usually leaves me speechless.
For dinner, I choose a gentle perennial favourite, bubur ayam – soft rice porridge with chicken, slathered in a light curry sauce and topped with crisp shallots and fried adzuki beans for extra crunch from a woman called Ibu Sulastri. It is the perfect dinner on a hot night; creamy risotto-like rice, gently spiced and just enough to satisfy. There are three of us and the total price is less than three dollars.
Drinks include the full gamut of shaved ice, fruit and bright syrup concoctions, or, for a healthy diversion, you can try a jamu (turmeric juice) from the legendary Nyona Meneer stand. Her range of packaged tonics are said to cure almost everyailment on earth.
Amidst this exotic food mecca is just about everything else you might wish to buy, from clothes and underwear to kitchen utensils and jewellery. A video of Ceng Blong, Bali’s beloved shadow puppet maestro, blares in the background in that distinctive raspy, raucous banter, and rattling toys on sale nearby add percussion.
This whole charming al fresco experience is enhanced by dazzling fluorescent lights, communal bench eating and the vibrantcolour, scents and flavours of food from Bali and beyond. The atmosphere is happy and friendly. People chat, joke and ask questions in that delightful Balinese way. Could Gianyar be Bali’s best-kept secret for an authentic, up-close-and-personal Indonesian experience?
Assorted sticky rice cakes.
A seller preparing rice for grilled chicken.
A stall selling bakso, chicken balls, in a light broth.