After our 'Bali Bound' post went up I received an email from a pork-loving reader asking me to write about the babi guling (roast pig) in Ubud. On this trip we were nowhere near Ubud, and while we did sample a very nice plate of pork on our way from the airport to our accommodations in the northern hills, that was about it. But fortunately for reader Ying, while on Bali we met up with Brett Martin, a Brooklyn-based writer who's as crazy for pig as we are for chilies. After Dave and I returned home to KL Brett and his partner in crime J headed to Ubud, where Brett found porky heaven at Ibu Oka. Below, he rates Bali's babi. (Brett also pays occasional homage to all things porcine on his blog, where you can view a few cool Bali videos. And no, we did not pay him to write that first sentence.)
Regular readers of this site will notice that this guest post lacks both Robyn's encyclopedic, insightful knowledge and Dave's beautiful pictures. What it does have is pork - really, really good pork. Pork so good, that it currently ranks in my rolling register of Top 5 Pork Meals, a list than also includes, in no particular order: roasted pork belly from Wong Kee, in Kuala Lumpur; spare ribs cooked by Bill Milroy and his Texas Rib Rangers competition barbecue team; the slices of cottechino that come with a bollito misto at Bologna's Restaurant Diana; and the bacon at Brooklyn's Peter Luger Steakhouse. This last, it's worth noting, is nothing more than thick-cut Boar's Head bacon, albeit charred beautifully over Luger's well-seasoned broilers. It just goes to show that sometimes context is the best sauce.
Which brings us back to the babi guling or roast suckling pig at Ibu Oka, in Ubud, Bali. I was there in early March, soon after Nyepi, Balinese New Year. In order to accommodate the holiday's proliferation of religious rituals, Ibu Oka's usual digs at the center of town had been temporarily commandeered and the restaurant relocated to the owner's sprawling family compound. In Bali, 'family' means something closer to 'clan' and the Agung home includes many buildings, set around multiple courtyards. Most of the property had been transformed into makeshift dining facilities filled with lucky eaters: Ibu Oka roasts only five pigs per day, closing whenever they run out of meat. The doors rarely stay open past 2pm. (The place's popularity has apparently been stoked by some guy named Bourdain who put it on his TV show; haven't heard of him myself.)
Mid-meal, a cook went by, bearing a whole, golden brown pig. When I went in search of the piggy source, I was waved along past the kitchen building where huge pots of rice were cooking, past the family temple and a teenager's equally reverent shrine to Guns N' Roses, past a yard filled with fighting cocks housed n woven rattan cages and another kitchen where cooks were chopping baskets of green chilies, finally to a set of concrete pits where, instead of beautifully roasted pigs on spits, I was greeted by five very-much-alive pigs, awaiting their turn the next day.
That this sight hardly diminished my appetite says something about just how good Ibu Oka's babi guling is. Every morning, starting before 6am, the young pigs are killed, cleaned, and stuffed with a rough, savory hash of shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, and chilies.
They're bathed in coconut oil and then attentively turned by hand beside a scorching pyre of coffee branches.
A few hours later, each resulting portion is like an object lesson in using every part of an animal : chunks of moist rib and shoulder meat; a glistening square of toffee-colored skin; a length of freshly prepared blood sausage; and a crispy scattering of fried offal and crackling - all topped with a sauce made, in part, from the stuffing.
It's enough to make me consider naming my first born Bobby Guling Martin.