It's nearly 6am in Ubud, Bali, and I'm standing in a long queue of local women in front of a street cart teeming full of repurposed dented plastic water bottles, each boasting a different magical concoction. This 'cart' – actually more just a large wooden box, strapped haphazardly to the back of a moped – and its vendor sell jamu, a traditional Balinese medicinal elixir created by women for women.
Despite the early hour, it's already swelteringly hot and humid. I scuffle forward in the line, happy to finally quench my thirst. A happy, smiley, plump woman asks me what my "problem" is. I say I want to feel and look like I'm 20 again. She cocks her head back in laughter, and like an alchemist, furiously starts pouring various herbal tonics into a cup. Turmeric, ginger, tamarind, and kaffir lime anchor the potion, while various enhancements from roots, flowers, leaves, herbs and spices are added depending on what your needs are. I neck the glass back in one gulp and feel rejuvenated.
Judy Joo's Bali food guide
'Ubud' comes from the Balinese word 'Ubad', which means medicine, and this small Indonesian island harbours a long, rich history full of black magic, spiritual awakenings, and natural remedies.
The nearby Spice Islands influence much of this tradition, offering a potent harvest of nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, cloves, and other prized fragrant plants. This bounty not only cultivates a naturopathic culture, but also a vibrant cuisine bursting with deep, complex flavours. Every year, the Ubud Food Festival brings together dozens of top chefs, both local and international, to celebrate their colourful, dynamic, spirited cuisine.
I've been invited to cook alongside esteemed chefs Matt McCool (yes, really) and Petty Elliott at Api Jiwa, the restaurant at the Capella Ubud, tucked away on the side of a mountain and surrounded by lush rainforest. The hotel is the ultimate in glamping, and my tent feels like a precious jewel box, full of charm, wonder, and local antiques. Even the loo, a grandiose, intricately engraved wooden structure, makes me feel regal.
Every year, the Ubud Food Festival brings together dozens of top chefs to celebrate their colourful, dynamic, spirited cuisine
I indulge in breakfast each morning, starting out with a sparkling turmeric jamu, a more upscale version of my beloved street brew, followed by nasi campur – a classic plate of aromatic banana leaf rice, fiery chilli sambal, nutty chicken satay, steamed green long beans, cassava leaves, tempeh, and thin strips of savoury fried omelette. It's topped with a crunchy mix of lightly cooked bean sprouts, fried mini anchovies, shredded coconut and fresh chillies. I devour the whole thing, relishing the variety of flavours and textures – but not without asking for extra sambal.
I soon learn that there are many types of sambal, and throughout my trip I'm served dozens of regional varieties of this essential hot sauce. Some are fermented with extensive flavor and boast additions such as earthy tempeh, roasted black kluwek nuts, and umami-filled shrimp paste. Others are fresh and fragrantly spicy, full of lemongrass, kaffir lime, shallots, torch ginger, and coconut. They are all immensely moreish, and I'm completely addicted within my first day. Chef McCool makes a locally inspired gorgeous green sambal with just lemongrass, galangal and chillis, and I find myself eating it like guacamole, heaping it on everything throughout my meal.
All of this spice helps you sweat, fulfilling the old Asian adage that you 'use heat to fight heat'. I, however, need to wash this all down with something cool and quickly discover the trendy local cocktail scene. Seasalt restaurant in the Alila Seminyak hotel focuses on sustainability and is committed to zero waste and upcycling – and also serves up some of the best cocktails on the island. I order the La Mer, a dry martini-esque drink, showcasing briny oyster-shell washed vodka, with surprising piquant notes of Thai basil. It is dramatically served in a ceramic oyster shell balancing on white pebbles in a wooden box. I also try the Stretched Pineapple, rightfully named for upcycling the fruit's skin, leaves, and fibrous core. Our waiter then brings over a wooden board showcasing a mound of baked grey sea salt mimicking sand and scattered with seashells and seaweed, alongside a cute round boule of homemade sourdough bread. He dramatically cracks the salt open with a hammer and unearths a small package of seaweed-wrapped line-caught mackerel pate.
Our waiter brings over baked grey sea salt mimicking sand, scattered with seashells and seaweed
Other than forward-thinking cocktails, the local drink of choice here is arak, a distilled liquor made from coconut sap, red rice or sugarcane. To try it at its finest, I head to the Four Seasons, where the Jimbaran Sundara bar artistically infuses its own. Drinks here take you on an exciting liquid journey of Indonesia's intricate history through the spice wars and colonisation. I order a Sibetan, a cocktail encompassing salak-(snake fruit) infused arak, and brem, a type of local rice wine. Fresh tamarind and pineapple juice finish it off, giving it a gorgeous smooth balance of sour and tang.
Early morning the next day, we head to Nasi Ayam Kedewatan Ibu Mangku for a traditional local Balinese chicken breakfast. I'm served a dish of rice piled high with braised shredded chicken, minced satay, fried skin and offal, a boiled egg, roasted peanuts, long beans, grated coconut and sambal goreng. The dining room is a quaint traditional garden, and we slip our shoes off before sitting down in one of the raised pavilions. We order an assortment of crisps – rice crackers, or peyek, studded with soy nuts, crunchy fried eels and shrimp crackers. Breakfast proves hearty and the sambal, even for my taste, packs a serious punch.
Later that day, we head down a back corridor of the main Ubud market to a smoky room with five large fire pits lined against one wall. Each pit has a large pig, spit roasted on a log placed strategically to one side of the fire. Tired-looking men squat on short stools in front of each cubicle, slowly cranking a wheel and turning the pigs by hand for three to four hours. This artisanal process starts every morning at 2am with a fresh slaughter of a local saddleback hog. Then they stuff the cavity with traditional aromatic spices, and the skin is brushed with a turmeric, coconut, and salt mixture that gives babi guling its characteristic golden color. This glistening honey-hued hog is Bali's most beloved dish; the meat is succulent and juicy with hints of ginger, garlic, galangal and shallots and is complemented by salty crackling. Pair with a Bintang beer, and you're completely satisfied.
Food is medicine here, and I can see why. I leave with my stomach and my soul filled with Balinese spirit and fiery sambal.