She is often referred to as the “mother of Ubud,” and her restaurant has been a longtime favorite among both travelers and locals: Ni Wayan Murni, a Bali native who recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of Murni’s Warung with the launch of a book that includes personal memories and anecdotes of people who have accompanied her on her journey from the 1970s until today.
Author and photographer Jonathan Copeland, co-editor of “Forty Delicious Years,” as well as a good friend of Murni, said that it felt right to celebrate this milestone “in a more tangible way than simply a T-shirt and party.”
“We didn’t want a book blowing our own trumpet — there are enough of those vanity publications around — but instead a book focussing on the times and life of Murni’s Warung as seen through the eyes of its guests over 40 years,” he said.
It is an approach that gives readers the chance to learn more about Murni and also about Ubud and Bali in general, and particularly how significantly it has changed over the years.
The first thing that needed to be done was to decide on the number of contributors; 40 contributor for 40 years was the logical solution.
“We then compiled a list of colorful, engaging and interesting characters whom we thought we could contact,” Copeland said. “We went through the time-consuming process of trying to track them down. Some were easy to locate but some were impossible to find. We were delighted with the final list as they comprised a wide range of nationalities, occupations and ages which cover the life of Murni’s Warung from day one until the present. They are all busy people with big jobs and we are very grateful for the time they spent on this.”
Murni, who was born in Penestanan, just a few minutes away from Ubud, began selling breakfast snacks before going to school in the 1950s. Less than 20 years later, Murni already owned four shops on Sanur Beach and established Murni’s Warung in Campuhan-Ubud.
Besides traveling the world and collecting Asian antiques and textiles, Murni built Murni’s Houses and Murni’s Villas catering to the growing number of tourists, and recently opened the Tamarind Spa at Murni’s Houses.
In the book, Murni writes that she still finds it incredible to look back at how she started Murni’s Warung — with no more than a bowl of soup and a sandwich.
“I wasn’t a cook and had no knowledge of what Western food was. I had no business plan, no mission statement, and no spreadsheets. I didn’t have electricity or a fridge or an electric oven. I didn’t have staff or suppliers or a car,” she said. “But I did have passion and drive and energy. And I had friends and customers and hard work. Luckily, Murni’s Warung grew and prospered and has been able to serve food and drinks to thousands of people these 40 years.”
Murni also has a very special connection to the restaurant’s location on a gorge above the river Wos, which is sacred to the Balinese people.
“It has been part of my life, going back more than 40 years,” she said. “When I was a very young child […] I played and bathed down there at the river and among the rocks. When I was older, I helped carry rocks up from the river bed to the road for construction use. Later still, after my parents split up, I secretly met my mother below the bridge. I never dreamed that I would be able to buy part of the gorge, live there and go to sleep to the sound of the sacred river crashing over the rocks.”
Jonathan Copeland, who has worked with Murni on three previous publications, said that not many people can survive in the highly competitive F&B industry, especially these days, when new restaurants pop up everywhere in Bali.
“Restaurants often start out as flavor of the month and fizzle out,” he said. “It is not an easy business and diners are demanding and unforgiving customers who don’t give you a second chance.
“I think it’s easy, in retrospect, to see how Murni’s early success came about,” he added. “In the early days there simply wasn’t a place in Ubud to get good food. Murni’s Warung was a beacon for early travelers to hang out. They spread the word and they still do. But obviously there had to be substance to it. I think the substance is what has made Murni’s Warung remain a favorite for so long. Murni is a perfectionist. She is very concerned about the comfort and happiness of her guests. And she is a traditionalist concerned about the preservation of Balinese culture. Murni’s Warung is a Balinese building with Balinese food served by Balinese waitresses in Balinese dress.”
Dr. Lawrence Blair, an anthropologist, author and filmmaker who has been based in Bali for almost 40 years, was among the warung’s earliest customers and still vividly remembers a quiet Ubud.
“Instead of tourists, there were only a few ‘travelers’ and barely a handful of eccentric resident expats,” he writes in his section in the book. “And the place to meet them was Murni’s Warung. But the first real draw to Murni’s was the discovery that hers was the sole place in Ubud to have mastered that most rare and esoteric art of producing a sunny-side up properly fried egg. Further cause for enthusiasm was when she also became the first person in Ubud to provide natural yoghurt and wild honey with one’s tropical fruit.”
Blair was also witness to some of the illustrious figures who have visited Murni’s Warung over the years, including Richard Branson, Mick Jagger, Richard Gere and Diane Von Furstenberg.
“My only regret is that they weren’t all there at the same time,” Blair wrote.
Australian-born Janet de Neefe, founder of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, has also been a regular to Murni’s since the 1980s.
“Many of my fondest memories of Ubud in the Eighties are wrapped up in the walls of this multi-leveled eatery,” she writes in the book. “We’d sip on freshly squeezed lime drinks brimming with crushed ice while slowly eating nasi campur or nasi goreng . Lunchtimes drifted into dinner and it didn’t matter. There was nothing urgent to be done except chat about life, love and cosmic heroes — there were no mobile phones, Internet, e-mails, reality TV, not even Facebook.”
De Neefe, like the other contributors, have always enjoyed the peaceful surroundings as much as the delicious food. But they also all agree that Murni, the heart and the soul of the restaurant — some might even argue, of Ubud — has always been the real draw and the secret of the restaurant’s lasting success.
“Back then, I remember that one of the greatest joys about visiting Murni’s Warung was simply Murni,” de Neefe said. “She used to sit at the front desk and invariably wander up to your table and have a chat. There is so much to love about Murni. Whether it be her heart that’s as big as the moon, her gentle nature, grace or soft humor.”
Ubud Icon Murni’s Warung Turns Forty