Dine In, Take Out, or Home Delivery

A fascinating aspect of life in Bali is the huge Indonesian "fast food" market. Many people do not have a proper kitchen in their homes, and many of those who do also like to "dine out". In practice, this usually means walking to the front gate, and buying a snack, or meal, from a "kaki lima". "Kaki lima" translates, into English, as "five legs". They are handcarts, usually about a metre and a half long, a bit higher than that, and about sixty centimetres wide. They have two large bicycle wheels at the front, and a post at the rear to rest on. These three "legs", when added to the "proprietor's" two, make up the "five legs".

The first thing that a tourist would notice is the lack of any refrigeration of the food, and an apparent lack of hygiene. Many kaki limas set out early in the day, with their load of food, and, after a day out in the heat, serve customers well into the early evening. Wise locals use their own bowls and plates, because the kaki lima's crockery, at best, usually only gets a wipe with a suspiciously dirty-looking towel, or a rinse in some very grey water. Also, the practice of regularly washing hands before handling food is not very widespread in road side Indonesia.

Despite this, it is possible to enjoy kaki lima food, without spending the next day in the bathroom. The trick is to get food in your own containers, or on banana leaf. My preference is for food cooked well, in front of you. Kaki limas may have a small charcoal grill, for sate, or a small gas burner and wok for many other different types of food. Others steam their wares, and some, such as a gado-gado seller, will serve it "cold".

The variety of food available is growing steadily. One of the most popular foods is bakso, or meatballs, which cost between Rp 1000 and Rp 5000 (~US$ 0.60), depending on the size of the serving. Bakso carts usually operate between 11am and 8pm. Their trade overlaps with sate and mie ayam (fried noodles with chicken), which ply the streets from late afternoon into the late evening. Other foods include "gorengan", various battered, fried foods, such as banana and tofu, and martabak, a sort of omelette, fried in a pastry envelope. Martabak sellers tend to operate from a fixed location, in the evenings. A large martabak costs around Rp 18,000 (~US$ 2.30), making it a special treat for many families. A newcomer to the kaki lima scene is the "Burgeria" cart, which sells pre-cooked hamburgers, at Rp 2500 (~US$ 0.30), and provides locals with an alternative to the "Golden Arches."

In the middle of the day, and on into the afternoon, carts selling "rujak", a spicy fruit salad, provide snacks to tide people over until the evening. Other carts sport large jars of brightly coloured concoctions, "es cendol", which are a sort of local ice cream. (So I am told - I cannot, yet, bring myself to try them.) Some of these carts may carry ice with them to keep their wares from spoiling.

Each kaki lima has its own "signature" sound. The bakso man (they are all men), tapping a bowl with a spoon, the mie ayam man, banging a piece of bamboo and the rujak seller, squeezing an old bicycle horn are the most common sounds. The "kue putu" cart steams small flour and brown sugar cakes with coconut on top. Its sound is the continuous squeal of its steamer, which, surely, sends the kue putu seller either prematurely deaf, or insane.

Kaki limas have their regular routes, and, in urban areas, they provide social interaction as well as food. Some even carry a few plastic stools so that their regular customers can dine in comfort. It is very common to see a kaki lima stop outside a warung (shop), which, itself, sells food, and serve the warung owner.

Like many "institutions" in Bali, kaki limas are resisting the rapid westernization of the island. They are such a part of the social fabric that they hold a very high position in the "pecking order" on the roads. Whether they are being pushed along the side of a busy road (often in the wrong direction), or stopped in the middle of a small "gang", they have right of way, and all other traffic waits and then goes around them. Kaki limas, like frogs in a swamp, are an indicator of the cultural environment of Bali. When they begin to disappear, many other aspects of Balinese life will be gone with them.

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