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Why do Travelers Eat in Tourist Restaurants?

Typical noodle dish in Indonesia
Delicious vegetables on display in Java food shop
Delicious vegetables on display in Java food shop

Quite frankly, I don’t understand why anybody eats in tourist restaurants. Those places are way over-priced, charging two to four times the real prices for local dishes. The food is invariably a westernized version of the real thing, and not nearly as delicious. The settings are ho-hum and blasé. And they’re filled with other westerners. Is that really where you want to be when you visit a new country? Really?

Why would you travel all the way to a country that has a distinctive culture and cuisine then not eat at local restaurants? And sample the country’s authentic cuisine? With local people?

Afraid of the unknown?

Sure, local shops might not be as beautiful or as clean as westerners are accustomed to. Yeah, you might not know what the heck you’re about to eat. (though most of the time you can figure it out) And most likely the staff won’t speak English. The menu won’t be in English either, if a menu even exists. And you also won’t be in the company of other westerners, like yourself. But so what? That’s all wonderful, isn’t it?


Is that scenario really so uncomfortable, so intimidating to everyone? Is it so beyond most people’s comfort zone that they won’t even try? I genuinely wonder what’s going on. Everywhere I’ve traveled, in every country I’ve visited since 1998, I’ve seen tourist restaurants packed to the gills with western travelers while local shops, just around the corner, have no western guests at all. Zilch. Just me.

Seriously, what’s up with that? Can anyone explain that to me? Please?

What’s stopping people? Aren’t new experiences and new cuisines part of the travel adventure?

Lash eating at warung in Java
Lash eating at warung in Java

It’s an adventure!

Anyone who makes the extensive preparations and planning entailed in traveling overseas to a new country, obviously has a sense of adventure, of curiosity, of risk-taking. So why does all that quizzical energy disappear when it comes time to eat?

What is so scary or unpalatable about local shops and food stalls? What ‘terrible’ thing is going to happen to you?

Get out of your comfort zone!

So what if you step into a restaurant and you get blank stares? So what if you can’t speak their language and they don’t speak yours? Smile! You can make yourself clear. Point to food on display or to another customer’s dishes. Smile and look friendly. You could always gesture that you’re not sure and you’d like to sample some food first. They’ll probably be happy to let you taste it. They’ll be delighted you stopped in. You’ll get some food. Eat it.

Outdoor food shop in Malaysia
Outdoor food shop in Malaysia

Meet locals!

So what if no other westerners are there? So what if you’re going to sit entirely with locals? Isn’t that why you’re visiting a different country- to see how other people live, to interact with them, to make new friends? How are you going to do that if you hang out with other travelers all the time?

Anyhow, why would you want to hang out with other westerners in foreign countries? You can do that back home.

Worried about a eating in a less than beautiful space? Last I heard, an unpainted wall, a dirty floor, a dim light bulb isn’t going to hurt anyone. Aside from perhaps members of a royal family, nobody’s going to salvage their reputation by eating with locals in a less-than-posh dining venue.

Local Indian restaurant in Malaysia
Local Indian restaurant in Malaysia

You’ll be fine!

Worried about sanitation of food, kitchen or eating spaces? Afraid you’re going to get sick? Well, I’ve been eating in such places for over 14 years and I’m still healthy and kicking. I’m living proof that you’re not going to die or even get seriously ill from eating in local shops, street stalls and markets.

Have I ever been sick? Sure, I’ve had minor food upsets. Travelers’ tummy. But I’ve also been sick from tourist restaurants and even upscale restaurants. In fact the worst food poisoning I ever suffered was from a upscale seafood restaurant. And that was the result of a fridge turned off at my guest house, nothing to do with the restaurant at all.

Skipping local shops and food stalls is not going to ensure you avoid bad food episodes while traveling. You’re likely to get sick from tourist restaurants, too. That’s part of the traveling terrain, no matter where you eat. In fact, even in the USA several outbreaks of food poisoning of one sort or other happen every year.

Any other objections?

Food stalls in Bali
Food stalls in Bali

Go try some local shops and food stalls!

Personally, I advocate skipping tourist restaurants and western cuisine entirely when traveling overseas. You’ll gain so much by taking the chance to eat at local shops and street stalls.

The food is invariably more delicious. It’s authenticity is without question. Prices are much lower. Eating with locals, who are not accustomed to westerners eating at their shops, is an entire experience in itself. Locals will be curious, shy, surprised, amused, intrigued, excited. You’ll get smiles and appreciative gestures. You’ll get hospitality. You’ll get appreciation.

Go on, make their day. I dare you.

Oh yeah: full reports, please.

Typical noodle dish in Indonesia
Typical noodle dish in Indonesia
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5 Authentic Indonesian Foods You Wont Find in Bali’s Tourist Restaurants

typical Balinese food - nasi campur

typical Balinese food - nasi campur

Indonesia is a vast, sprawling island nation in SE Asia with well over13,000 islands. Of Indonesia’s dozen or so major islands, Bali, Sumatra and Java are the most famous among western travelers.

The nation of Indonesia was formed at independence from the Dutch after WWII from the rather forced union of formerly independent, completely different cultures and kingdoms established on the various islands.

Not surprisingly then, Indonesia has a huge variety of delicious cuisines. In Bali the most widely available and popular dishes come from Bali, Java and Sumatra. While Bali’s thousands of tourist restaurants do offer a standard selection of Indonesian foods, the dishes generally are altered to what the owners believe western palates prefer. In addition, most Indonesian foods aren’t offered at all.

To dig into Indonesia’s authentic and best cuisines, you’ll have to venture out to local eateries (called ‘warung’ or ‘rumah makan’), night markets and street stalls. At those places Indonesian food tastes much better than at tourist restaurants and costs a fraction of the price. Anyhow, isn’t that part of the fun of traveling to new countries?

Here are my favorite Indonesian foods, ones you won’t find in tourist restaurants. Try them next time you’re in Bali. 

Bubur Ayam

Bubur Ayam - Bali

Price: 5000 rp ($0.60 US)

‘Bubur’ is rice porridge. It’s very similar to American Cream of Wheat, a wet couscous or a rice version of oatmeal. Bubur is popular with Chinese all over Asia who call it ‘congee’. Thais call it ‘Khao Tom’ (rice soup). It’s served in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia under various names. Bubur is also a common food served to anyone who’s sick with a cold, flue or stomach upset. It’s the Asian version of ‘chicken soup’.

‘Ayam’ means chicken in Bahasa Indonesia and Malaysian. So ‘bubur ayam’ is rice porridge with chicken. It’s mainly served at street stalls or morning and evening markets.

The server first fills a bowl or banana leaf with a heaping portion of bubur. On top, she places shredded, spiced chicken and garnishes. Each shop makes its own version. The most common ingredients are whole peanuts, sauteed greens, sliced shallots (spring onions), roasted onions or garlic, and a small bit of broth. Some shops add a shredded coconut broth.

To eat: Stir it all together and dig in. Locals usually add a generous portion of chilies and/or hot sauces. That part’s up to you.


Gado gado - Bali

Price: 3000-5000 rp ( $0.35 – 0.50 US)

Gado-gado is a Balinese dish that sort of breaks my rule: It is actually served in many tourist restaurants. However, that gado-gado is an entirely different entity from Bali’s real gado-gado. In tourist restaurants you’ll be served a plate of white rice, mounds of steamed vegetables, peanut sauce and a few local chips. That version is delicious, too.

However, the real gado-gado is more like a Balinese answer to potato salad. Instead of potatoes, cubes of dense sticky rice are used. Instead of mayonnaise, a spicy peanut sauce it added. Various vegetables and spices are tossed in.

Gado-gado is usually served at street stalls and small shops. It’s always made to order and it’s quite fun watching them make it. First the sauce is created in a large flat mortar with stone pestle. They crush a handful of peanuts, pour in molasses-like-sauce, then add chilies (when ordering, watch that!), garlic, a dash of sugar and a few other spices.

After the sauce is nice and creamy, a dense sticky rice is cut into cubes and added. Some greens are tossed in. Sometimes they add boiled egg, tofu and/or boiled potatoes. Fresh bean sprouts are always thrown in at the end. The mix is all mashed around together then packaged up in paper or banana leaf for take out. You can also eat there if they have seats.

* Be sure to tell them ‘not hot’ unless you want your mouth and lips burned off. ‘Tidak pedas’ is the phrase. I usually can tolerate ½ of one small chili. To be safe if you’re timid, skip chilies entirely.

To eat: I usually use a spoon or fork to eat gado-gado. Locals often eat by hand.

Soto Ayam price

Soto Ayam

Price: 5000-7000 rp ( $0.60- $0.80 US) 

Soto ayam is a chicken noodle soup originated in Java, with a very distinctive blend of spices and ingredients. It starts with a dark chicken broth and a portion of very thin boiled rice noodles. Shredded chicken, sliced tomatoes, boiled egg, sliced cabbage, onions, and a few spices are thrown on top. A Balinese version adds a grated coconut mixture and skips the tomatoes.

To eat: Mix it all together and dig in. Most Indonesians add various sauces and/or chillies to spice it up even more. Personally, I skip the sauces altogether since it’s quite flavorful as is. Up to you.


Balinese Kue

Price: 500-1000 rp each

Kue are traditional sweets made of rice flour and/or agar-agar (a seaweed that makes gelatin). Dozens of varieties of kue are available but can broadly be categorized into cake-like sweets, firm pudding-like sweets, jelly-like sweets and deep-fried sweets. Many Balinese kue are the same ones that you’ll find in Malaysia, strange as that may seem.

Some kue are sprinkled generously with natural coconut flakes, others are drenched in brown sugar syrup. Some are filled with a sweet coconut mixture or crushed peanuts or yellow bean paste. Fried kue include fried dough (much like donuts), batter-fried bananas and sweet potatoes, and glutinous rice balls filled with peanuts or bean paste.

Sadly, kue seem to have pretty much disappeared from south Bali. But outside of Bali’s southern tourist sprawl, you’ll find them easily. In villages, they’re sold at morning markets or road-side stalls. In cities, you might also find them at a few local bakeries and shops. The most delicious kue bakeries I’ve found in Bali are located in Seririt City, on Bali’s north coast, and in Negara city, in Bali’s southwest corner.


Babi Guling

Price: 5000-10,000 rp ($0.60-$1.10 US)

Roast suckling pig is a distinctly Balinese specialty. The majority of  Indonesians on other islands of the sprawling archipelago, being Muslims, don’t eat babi guling. Some tourist restaurants might offer it as a ‘special delicacy’ to be ordered at least one day ahead of time, as if it’s super special.

In fact, babi guling is a common, daily local food throughout rural Bali. You can find babi guling shops selling freshly roasted pig, starting early every morning.

To be honest, it’s a big gruesome. The whole poor roasted pig is laying there on display right beside its own chopped up flesh, skin and fat. His eyes stare back at you blankly from his partially-hacked up body while you’re waiting to be served. Usually it’s a carving in progress, so every once in a while the server has to stop packing up meals to go hack off some more meat, peel off some crispy skin, or whack off a body part.

Babi guling dishes - Bali

It has become harder and harder for me to patronize babi guling shops with such horrors on view. We westerners are so accustomed to never seeing the gory reality of meat-eating habits, so it can be really difficult to confront. But if you can get past the poor pig lying there, you’re in for a taste treat.

To credit the Balinese, at least they do use every single part of the pig they’ve just roasted. They eat the crispy skin, the fat slabs, the meat, and the intestinal organs. That’s a lot more than can be said for western societies.

Most Bali Guling shops serve a whole smorgasbord of dishes made from the flesh, blood and organs. One or two vegetable dishes are also on offer. Each customer can get a standard mix — a bit of everything — or can specify which dishes they want. I usually only get the lean meat, a bit of crispy skin and rice.


Have you tried any of these tasty Indonesian foods?

If so, which do you like best?

If not, which would you most like to try?