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This Spicy, Crunchy Chili Topping Is the Essence of Balinese Flavors

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A hand sprinkles flakes of something into a bowl of noodles.
Celene adds the finishing touch — some Sambal Goreng — on a bowl of Indomie instant ramen. (Courtesy of Ren Fuller)

Flavor Profile is our new series looking at how people, some with little or no experience, started successful food businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On a leafy residential street in Glendale, Los Angeles, a line of people snaked its way into the driveway of one unassuming house. A sign on the gate informed customers: “Nasi bungkus are 100% sold out.”

Bungkus Bagus, a popular Balinese food pop-up is run by sisters Tara and Celene Carrara. Two big gold balloons in the shape of the letter “B” floated above the driveway, celebrating the pop-up’s third anniversary.

Tara served customers from behind a colorful booth at the top of the driveway. She knew many by name, greeting them like old friends. Others were first-timers. The sisters’ signature dish is nasi bungkus, which means “rice to go” or “rice package.” The Bungkus Bagus version features nine dishes all wrapped up in a banana leaf.

“It’s a classic hot, spicy, sweet, savory kind of a dish,” said Jim Pickett, who drove from Santa Monica. “Plus, I love the fact that it’s wrapped in banana leaves, and you can have your plate and eat it too.”

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While Tara was serving customers outside, Celene was in the dining room prepping the nasi bungkus. In the middle of a banana leaf she spooned fragrant rice, circling it with three dishes: slow-cooked coconut chicken curry, sweet-spicy tempeh, and long beans with bean sprouts. To finish, she topped each bungkus with a tamari-marinated egg, Bali-style salted peanuts, dried pork garnish, toasted coconut, and the sisters’ house-made sambal goreng, a spicy, crunchy topping of fried shallot, garlic and chili. Celene then expertly folded the whole thing into a bundle.

“It’s such a wonderful blend of sweet and spicy,” said longtime fan Cindy Roberts. “And I can just feel the love that they pour into making it.”

The banana leaf-wrapped parcel is deceptively small for the amount of food contained inside: a rich, filling meal with contrasting textures and zingy flavors.

“I’m quite familiar with the taste because I’m actually from Malaysia,” said Rendra Zawawi. “Bali is nearby, and we sort of share the same taste profile in our food. So when I found out that they were doing this during the pandemic, I was like, ‘Oh, wow.’ It gives a sense of home.”

For Celene and Tara, taste isn’t enough — they want their bungkus to be eye-catching too.

“In Bali, there is a very intentional effort to make everything beautiful,” Celene said. “I really wanted the colors to be balanced all the way across. So, if you’re imagining the bungkus like a clock, there’s balance around the clock itself.”

The sisters’ creative flare is evident in their desserts too.

“All of our dishes are colorful and very dense,” Tara said. “Everything’s a little bit unbelievable when you see it, which I think is a very Bali thing. There’s this whimsy to things there.”

For example, kueh lapis is a cake made from rice flour, tapioca flour and coconut milk. Each layer is dyed a bright rainbow color.

Several colorful dishes and decorations photographed on a white backdrop.
Some Bungkus Bagus pop-up favorites, including the rainbow-colored, sticky dessert, kueh lapis, in the upper right-hand corner. (Courtesy of Caitlin Timmins)

“You have this really bouncy, chewy cake that you can cut up and peel each of the layers as you’re eating it,” Tara said. “So it’s a tactile, silly, wacky, fun dessert. We call it the sticky hand of desserts because you can literally fling it around like a sticky hand or like stick it on your face. It’s popular with children for that reason,  but also with us, because we are children at heart.”

Discovering tastes of Bali in LA

Tara and Celene grew up in Bali, where big family meals were the norm. They would all gather round the table to share feasts, tucking into six or seven dishes at a time.

“I’ve definitely been on a personal quest since I was young, to figure out how to replicate the recipes that we were eating in Bali,” Celene said. “Our stepmom is Indonesian and she definitely was a huge player in teaching me how to make these dishes.”

A group of five young people and a dog pose for a photo with a green verdant background.
The old Bali family, from left: Celene, Ayu, Tara, Ketut Siwi and Suar Mini at home in Campuhan, Ubud in 1995. (Courtesy of Bungkus Bagus)

She added that you can’t simply “Google it” and make the recipe. Textures are important. Celene further emphasized that even the measurements are different, “the amounts of ginger that go in one dish are measured in knuckle lengths!” she said.

The sisters both love cooking, but never planned to make food their business. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and they lost their jobs: Tara as a makeup artist and Celene as a doula. They began batting around the idea of a pop-up food business.

“With our free time, we just started exploring different markets in L.A., and trying to look for the right ingredients to make Balinese food,” Tara said.

They found galangal (a ginger-like root in appearance, but with a more earthy spice profile) and lemongrass in a Thai Town market; and stumbled across long beans and canned jackfruit in a Chinatown warehouse store. On the shelves of a corner store in West Covina, they discovered toasted coconut and crunchy soybean chips. And during a trip to their local Mexican supermarket to stock up on tortillas, Celene spotted large banana leaves.

“Once we found the leaves, we were like, ‘Oh! we could wrap it,’” Celene said.

That’s when the idea for Bungkus Bagus came together. The name means “good package.” The sisters hosted their first pop-up from home in July 2020. The customers were mostly people they knew — but the word got out fast. Soon, 200 customers were pre-ordering weekly meals.

“Everyone was stuck at home and really craving an opportunity to get out and be in community,” Celene said. “The concept has always really been about connecting with people and sharing this amazing place [where] we grew up through the food.”

Two people with long hair pose for a photo in front of a large bush.
Celene and Tara Carrara, sisters and founders of Bungkus Bagus. (Courtesy of Ren Fuller)

The sisters didn’t have experience running a food business, so the first months were difficult. They initially struggled to manage their time, making overly complicated dishes in their home kitchen.

“Everything felt really challenging,” Celene said, “because we were learning so much so quickly, and then also having to problem-solve on the fly all the time. We weren’t sure if we could keep up [that pace].”

Gradually though, the sisters did find balance. They narrowed the menu to focus on the bungkus. They figured out a system where customers pre-ordered food on a Monday so the sisters had the cash to buy groceries for the following weekend’s pop-up.

Running a business together — even living under the same roof for the first nine months of lockdown — would bring many sisters to a breaking point. But for Tara and Celene, being family has made things easier.

“When things do go awry, or I am really stressed out and tired, it’s really easy to have a meltdown in front of her and recover quickly,” Celene said. “We can’t take ourselves so seriously in each other’s company.”

Over the past three years, Tara and Celene estimate they’ve made over 10,000 nasi bungkus at more than 100 events. But it has taken a toll.

“Doing the food pop-ups is a lot of hard work,” Celene said. “I don’t know if our bodies could do it for another 10 years. Even though we love it, it is a very physical challenge to work through.”

A group of people pose for a photo together under a sign reading "Bungkus Bagus: Balinese Street Food."
The new Bungkus Bagus family, from left: Alex Hernandez-Zapata, Dwinisa Perkel, Celene Carrara, Tara Carrara and Ines Vasquez at their Smorgasburg LA booth in 2022. (Courtesy of Bungkus Bagus)

The Carraras are now focusing on increasing production of their condiment, sambal goreng — that crunchy topping of fried shallots, chili and garlic. To make it happen, they’re working out of a busy commercial kitchen in L.A.’s Arts District.

“Switching into the commercial kitchen was a dream,” Celene said. “It allowed us to scale rapidly.”

More from the Flavor Profile series

 Thanks to an industrial-sized chopping machine and large-scale stoves, Tara and Celene can go from raw ingredients to 500 labeled jars in one day. That’s five times what they could make at home. Their sambal goreng is now available in 50 retailers across the country.

“When a new person is introduced to sambal goreng, they have this access point to our childhood and to Bali flavor in a really easy, simple way,” Celene said. “You could be living in Lincoln, Nebraska, and buy a jar of sambal goreng and now have one of the flavors of Bali in your own home.”

The business isn’t fully supporting them yet — Celene and Tara still take the occasional make-up gig or doula client to supplement their income, but Bunkgus Bagus is demanding more of their attention. Their aim is to make it a full-time job.

“We want Bungkus Bagus to be around for the long haul,” Celene said.

“Bungkus Bagus is a project that’s about our sisterhood and our origin story as sisters. We both feel that we can really do anything when we are working alongside one another.”

For more information on Bungkus Bagus pop-ups, or Celene and Tara Carrara’s sambal goreng, visit bungkusbagusla.com.

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