It was pushing 1 AM when we left Bali's bustling Motel Mexicola. On our way to the car from the Mexican-themed bar and restaurant—where a rowdy Australian had just poured tequila directly into my mouth—my Indonesian friend Faustine veered from our path to a street cart I hadn't noticed. Just off the sidewalk, a large group of Indonesians sat eating curbside. Faustine returned to our group and handed me a black plastic bag. I asked her what was inside, and she said, "It's a surprise." A surprise late-night snack? Sign me up.
Buzzed, I fondled the contents of the mysterious bag. There was definitely a hard boiled egg in there, and a paper-wrapped package of something, and a tiny spoon. Faustine and the rest of the group called the secretive snack nasi jinggo and told me that it cost a mere 50 cents.
From the comfort of my bed, I dug into the black plastic abyss. I pulled out a pyramid of brown wax paper, a small bag of tofu, and a green chile.
It felt like Christmas morning tearing into the wrapping of the nasi jinggo, albeit a Christmas morning a few drinks deep. White rice appeared and I plunged the baby spoon into fluff with glee. Then, something magical happened—my spoon struck gold.
There was much more to nasi jinggo than the rice and side bits. My brain exploded when I discovered a little omelette, some vegetables, tempeh, chili sauce, and a few noodles nestled between the rice and a banana leaf. At that moment, I understood why Bali was called the Island of the Gods.
Nasi jinggo, also spelled nasi jenggo, is a Balinese fast food that hit the Indonesian island in the 1980s. The street treat isn't a culinary staple of Indonesian culture, but unique alone to Bali. While nasi simply means "rice" in Bahasa Indonesian, jinggo doesn't seem to have a clean translation. What I've gathered is that it refers to the small portion size and takeaway nature of the snack.
The petite package is more than a late-night staple; Bali dwellers also grab it for breakfast. You can take it to-go or chow down near the cart, enjoying the meal on a woven plate with real silverware. While I had only enjoyed the egg version of nasi jinggo, other varieties include chicken, beef, fish, and pork, although the pork kind isn't as common as many vendors and/or customers are Muslim.
Vendors fall into two camps: those who start selling at sunrise and those who hit the streets at sunset. Entrepreneur, chef, and former MasterChef Indonesia contestant Aditya Tirto Usodo took me to find out more about the nocturnal sellers.
"A lot of people eat [nasi jinggo] late at night or around dinner time; that's why [the vendors] come out ready at like, six," Aditya said. "They're going to put a spot nearby clubs, because if you have too much alcohol, how are you going to sober up? Greasy food and carbs. This one is the cheapest one and the easiest one."
Across the street from the Seminyak Bintang supermarket, we queued up at the cart of Aditya's favorite nighttime nasi jinggo hawker, a Javanese man named Nur Cholis who offers customers two types of sambal (chili sauce) instead of just the standard one.
Nur Cholis has been selling nasi jinggo from the same spot since 1995, long before the endless tourist shops lined the street. A bright light jutted out of his cart like an anglerfish's glowing lure, attracting a steady stream of Indonesian customers. Most outsiders disregard or miss the carts, just as I had on my first encounter outside Motel Mexicola. The vendors park subtly in the shadows of the streets and don't vie for the attention of foreigners.
"It's mostly a family business," Aditya said of nasi jinggo operations. "The wife may be the one to go to the market. Maybe the aunt or the brother or sister is the one to cook it. The man, the husband, is the one to sell it."
Just as Aditya predicted, we learned that Nur Cholis is one half of a family business. After he shops for the ingredients at a local market, his wife cooks each day's inventory at their home in Pemogan. Once everything is packed and ready, Nur Cholis makes the 25-minute journey to Seminyak on his motorbike-cum-food stall.
We ate our savory plates and paid Nur Cholis the going rate for nasi jinggo: 5,000 Indonesian rupiahs—about 40 cents in US currency.
I continued the nasi jinggo exploration in the light of day near Seminyak Beach. Bahar Muntaha, a Bali resident from Sulawesi, runs a business giving private surfing lessons and renting out beach chairs. He introduced me to Nyoman, a Balinese nasi jinggo vendor a few feet behind the row of surfboards. Nyoman has been steadily doling out kopi Bali—an instant coffee that sells for the equivalent of around twenty cents—and nasi jinggo there for 15 years.
Bahar translated that Nyoman and his wife start the day at 3 AM at their home in Karangasem preparing nasi jinggo for breakfast seekers. Nyoman hits the beach at 7 AM and posts up in an endless line of parked motorbikes. Like Nur Cholis', Nyoman's mise en place was simple. Sambal and sauces and crispy add-ons are kept close at hand for easy access. He sells his fare until it runs out in the late morning.
I tucked into my nasi jinggo on a wooden bench and watched foreigners wipe out off giant foam surfboards, their limbs flailing out of the breaking waves. Even in the sobering Bali daylight, the nasi jinggo held its own. I didn't need to be drunk to fall in love with it again.