When I first traveled to Indonesia, I was under the impression that being a vegetarian would be really difficult. That was largely because most travel blogs and guide books I read all said the same thing: “being a vegetarian in Indonesia is challenging.”
I went into my two-month backpacking trip around the islands of Java and Bali believing that the only Indonesian dishes that were suitable for vegetarians were nasi goreng (fried rice) and gado gado (steamed veggies with peanut sauce). During that trip I ate those two dishes countless times. And while both are delicious, they got old. Fast.
It took living in Jakarta for a year for me to realize that Indonesia is actually a fairly vegetarian-friendly country, and in Bali that’s especially true. Sure, Indonesians cook with a lot of meat and fish, and they love terasi (shrimp paste). But they also cook with tons of veggies, tofu and tempeh. Which means, more often than not, there will be vegetarian-friendly options wherever you go.
Vegan and vegetarian places abound in Bali. They run the gamut, from Western cafes to vegan eateries to local warungs (restaurants). Honestly guys, don’t let anyone tell you that being a vegetarian in Bali has to be difficult. Because it is actually downright easy and enjoyable.
A Vegetarian Guide to Bali…
As a vegetarian traveler, Happy Cow is my number one resource. The app is free, so download it now. You can use Happy Cow pretty much anywhere you’re traveling, including Bali. It basically has information and reviews of all the closest vegetarian and veg-friendly restaurants near you. There are a ton of pure-vegetarian restaurants in Bali listed on Happy Cow. And if you’re anything like me and you feel like you’re missing out on traditional Indonesian food, there are a smattering of cheap local Indonesian warungs scattered around Bali that have pure-veg renditions of local dishes. There are also loads of western-oriented vegetarian and vegan eateries too. Happy Cow rocks!
Go-Jek is an amazing app. It’s basically an awesome delivery service that I used a lot during my time in Bali. While it doesn’t have the extensive food directory that other services have, it’s really easy to use and it’s in English. It also lists quite a few vegetarian and vegetarian-friendly restaurants. The drivers will pick up food for you and deliver it to your hotel for a tiny fee. It also makes great use of GPS, so you can locate your driver at any time.
Veg-Friendly Areas in Bali:
Places like Ubud and Canggu are basically vegan and vegetarian meccas. A lot of the restaurants tend to be super hip Western-style cafes. But you will also find a ton of restaurants ranging from Thai to Mexican to Indian… and of course Indonesian. There’s no doubt that vegetarians will eat very well in these places.
Places like Kuta, Seminyak and Nusa Lembongan tend to offer a lot of the same. Think pizza, sandwiches and nasi goreng. There might not be a bounty of pure-vegetarian restaurants but you’ll find plenty of vegetarian options at Western restaurants and even local warungs.
Vegetarian Indonesian Dishes:
When I first came to Indonesia I was ecstatic when I discovered that tempeh plays such a large role in Indonesian cuisine. I’m sure not everyone shares my enthusiasm for tempeh, but I think most vegetarian and vegan travelers can understand why this is exciting.
Tempeh is everywhere in Bali: it is fried up and sold by street vendors as a snack, and it is also featured in many Indonesian dishes. The nice thing about local nasi campur buffets (see below) is that there are bound to be numerous tempeh dishes, which means eating local is easy, cheap and protein-filled! My favorite way that it’s prepared is cut into strips and cooked with kecap manis (a sweet molasses-like sauce that Indonesians put on everything) which gives it a sweet flavor and crunchy texture.
Tofu (pronounced tah-hoo in Bahasa Indonesia) is also extremely popular in Bali. It’s served up in every form imaginable, but fried variations are especially common throughout Indonesia. You’ll often see deep-fried cubes of tofu sold on the street. My favorite tofu snack is called tahu isi. Street vendors stuff huge hunks of tofu with anything from cabbage to carrots to glass noodles and deep fry them until they’re deliciously crunchy. This dish is often served with a sweet and spicy sauce.
Nasi campur (which means ‘mixed rice’ and is pronounced champur) is a vegetarian’s dream come true. You’ll see nasi campur stands on the side of the road throughout Bali. You’ll even see a lot of signs for vegan nasi campur in vegetarian-friendly areas such as Canggu.
What’s great about it is that all the different dishes are displayed in a glass case and you can just point to the ones you want. If you want rice included, just ask for nasi puti (white rice). It’s typically really easy to tell whether or not dishes have meat or fish in them. Luckily Indonesians don’t tend to mix their meats and veggies. The only real challenge strict vegetarians will face is with terasi (shrimp paste). Sometimes you’ll find that tofu and vegetable dishes have terasi in them. But not too often.
You’ll also notice that Indonesians will pile a red sauce on their plate. This is called sambal and it’s a delicious spicy chili sauce popular throughout Indonesia. If you like spicy food (and I do!) definitely try the sambal, but be warned that the Balinese often prepare their sambal with terasi. So you’ll have to ask if it’s vegetarian, or just do a taste test.
I literally ate nasi campur once or twice a day while in Bali this summer. It never really gets old because there’s so much variety, even for vegetarians. It’s also incredibly cheap at roughly 10,000-30,000 rupiah (US$0.75-2). Also, make sure to order a sweet iced tea (es teh manis) to go with your meal.
Nasi means rice and goreng means fried. You guessed it, nasi goreng is basically an Indonesian version of fried rice. What makes it unique is the use of tamarind and kecap manis. This dish is ubiquitous on the island of Bali, and it’s definitely a go-to for vegetarians, especially if you find yourself traveling in more local areas of the island. Nasi goreng is often served with ayam (chicken), but in my experience in Bali there is usually a version with no meat. Though it is often served with a fried egg on top.
Mie goreng is another Indonesian staple. It’s basically the same thing as nasi goreng (see above), but with noodles.
Gado Gado (aka Gado2)
This has to be one of the best vegetarian foods in Indonesia because, well, anything with peanut sauce is just really freaking good. I wrote a detailed post all about gado gado, but to sum it up it’s an Indonesian “salad” made up of fresh veggies – usually carrots, green beans, cucumber, cabbage and some sort of gourd – tempeh, tofu and a hard boiled egg. All of this is drenched in a creamy peanut sauce and the result is heavenly. Gado gado is ubiquitous in Indonesia and there’s no doubt that vegetarians and non-vegetarians will snack on this dish a lot during their Indonesian vacation.
There are so many variations of this dish that I can’t even list them all but karedok and ketoprak are the ones I’ve tried. Ketoprak is usually made with vermicelli noodles and is really popular in Jakarta. Karedok is a Sundanese (in West Java) variation that’s made with raw veggies. Both are drenched in peanut sauce and are delicious. You’ll likely see warungs selling these around Bali.
Note: Gado gado is usually served with krupuk (crackers), which are often flavored with prawn. I always just put them to the side. And if you want the dish served spicy, say pedas and they’ll usually chop a fresh chili or two into the dish.
I’ll admit that this is not the healthiest option. But damn, when it comes to fried snacks, Indonesians know what they’re doing. Bakwan (corn fritters, pictured above) are my favorite Indonesian snack. Fried tempeh and tofu are also very common in gorengan stands. Gorengan is also super cheap, less than US$1 for a little bag of snacks.
This popular soup is prepared with a coconut broth and chunks of all sorts of fresh ingredients…think corn on the cob, unripe jackfruit, chili peppers, long beans and tempeh. For vegetarians, it’s important to note that some vendors will make this soup with animal-based broths. So if you’re super paranoid (like me) it’s best to ask. But I’m assured by my Indonesian friends that it is most often purely vegetarian. I tend to avoid it, but I wanted to include it for those who are a little less strict.
Sayur asem is kind of similar to sayur lodeh but it’s a safer bet for strict vegetarians. This tart soup can be found everywhere from street vendors to 5-star restaurants. What’s great about sayur asem is that it’s made with a tamarind-based broth and it is rarely prepared with any animal-based ingredients. It is the tamarind that gives this soup its signature sour flavor. Like sayur lodeh, sayur asem is often prepared with young jackfruit, green beans and corn on the cob.
Bubur is basically a rice porridge that’s super popular in Jakarta. But you will see street food stalls selling this dish in Bali. It’s usually topped with soy sauce, kecap manis, cilantro, peanuts, green onion and crispy crackers. This dish is served with skewers of chicken satay and can sometimes be drizzled with chicken broth. To order it without chicken just say, tanpa ayam (without chicken). It’s a simple dish, but I absolutely love it. I even regularly make it at home.
For those who don’t know what martabak is, it’s a pancake filled with either sweet or savory ingredients. In Bali it’s prepared very thick – picture a comically thick pancake (see above). And most often it’s filled with your choice of either sweetened condensed milk, chocolate, cheese, peanut butter, banana or Nutella. Suffice it to say, the sweet variety is super indulgent. It’s also possible to find savory martabak but to my knowledge those aren’t vegetarian.
Useful Words and Phrases:
Even though I’ve spent roughly 18 months living and traveling in Indonesia, I still only know a few words of Bahasa Indonesia. But they come in incredibly handy when it comes to ordering food and identifying what is and is not vegetarian. Here are some useful words and phrases to help you get by:
Beef – sapi or daging sapi
Cheese – keju
Chicken – ayam
Coffee – kopi
Egg – telur
Fish – ikan
Iced tea – es teh
Meat – daging
Milk – susu
Peanut – kacang
Pork – babi
Rice – nasi
Shrimp – udang
Shrimp paste – terasi
Spicy – pedas
Sweet – manis
Tea – teh
Vegetable(s) – Sayur / sayuran
White rice – nasi puti
Without meat – Tanpa daging
Is there [meat]? – Ada [daging]
I’m vegetarian – Saya vegetarian (Though this concept will not fully be understood by some, on Bali you might actually be able to get your point across.)
I don’t eat meat – Saya tidak makan daging
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Are you a vegetarian or vegan traveler? Share your travel tips in the comments below!