Friday, June 20, 2014

Bali's Famous Babi Guling

India has changed my relationship with food. While in Bali about two months ago I was prepared and pumped to search for good local dishes like babi guling, now I kind of just dread meal time because I know that after one bite I'll be full and kind of want to vom, then for the next few hours I'll have indigestion. It's a good time here in India, you should all try it! I mean, of course there have been some really nice things to eat, but right about now my cravings are only for things like a McDonalds hamburger (no beef in India, though) and, like, that chili/cream cheese/cheddar dip that your mom serves with tortilla chips. SO that's where we stand currently. 

But in Bali, babi guling was the bomb. Throughout Indonesia this suckling pig dish is only served in Bali, because most of Bali's population is Hindu while the rest of Indonesia is predominately Muslim. Muslims don't eat pork. So, in the rest of Indonesia look for my main squeeze, mie ayam bakso. In Bali, eat roast pork. 
We had babi guling twice over our two trips to Bali. We stayed in Kuta first, which is like the Australia of Bali – there are most Aussies than Indonesians here, and there's, like, a Starbucks on every corner. You may not think you'd be able to find a good plate of babi guling in a place where everything is dumbed down for tourists, but a cab ride to Warung Pak Malen on Sunset Road in Seminyak would prove you wrong.

A good babi guling consists of various different cuts of pork: crackling, sliced meat, a skewer, blood sausage, innards of some sort, deep fried pieces and more. Pak Malen delivers on variety, but not really on portion size. 
Everything comes piled on top of steamed rice and that's a godsend because babi guling is SPICY. See that ground meat/lemongrass/chili mixture over on the right? That will burn your mouth off your face, in a good way. Pak Malen's sliced meat was tender and moist and there were even a few slices that appeared to be pickled. They were kind of cheap on the crackling, but each piece was redeemingly lined with a juicy layer of rendered fat. Babi guling comes with soup, and while Pak Malen's was based on flavorful pork stock that dripped off the roasting pig, the small cup I got was kind of missing any veg or eatable pork.
When we went to Pak Malen we were the only foreigners there, even considering our proximity to Indonesia's most popular beach resort. It was actually kind of intimidating. I read online that sometimes foreigners get charged the "tourist price" Pak Malen, meaning much more than a local would pay, and from how the waiter was treating us, I was sure we'd get duped. But instead of asking him for the bill, we went to the front of the shop to pay and the woman handling takeaway orders charged us the normal price. Score. Of course, our cab driver on the way back to Kuta asked how much we paid for the babi guling (price is EVERYTHING in Indonesia) and we were proud to tell him that we apparently looked Indonesian enough to pay the local price. He nodded in approval. 
There were more foreigners at Ibu Oka in Ubud, though, considering that it's Bali's most famous restaurant for babi guling, thanks to Anthony Bourdain. Ibu has at least two locations in Ubud. You'll see the small shop right across from the royal palace first, but if you continue down the road and follow signs, you'll find a more sprawling location tucked away from the crowds. This is where the pigs are cooked for all locations, and they're transported around town by motorbike. No joke.
You gotta go with a Tehbotol when you eat babi guling – it's sickly sweet jasmine tea that all the locals drink with the dish so practice until you like it and you'll be a star. 
I was kind of expecting Ibu Oka's dish to be a washout considering the tourist following, but I was pleasantly surprised to see many locals (see: monks) eating in the restaurant. The dish here didn't come with as many cuts of pork as at Pak Malen, but the portion was almost double the size and had blood sausage, which Pak Malen did not. No skewer, though. The sliced pork here wasn't as flavorful as at Pak Malen and was even a bit dry, but it was covered with a spicy, lemongrass-y gravy that almost made up for it. You get a big piece of crackling here, but that didn't stop us from ordering extra crackling. Bathing suit season was on a break for at least the next few weeks while we moved through Java and up the west coast of Malaysia, so, why not.
This crackling was more like crack – fresh off the pig, the initial salty crunch yielded to a glorious gelatinous layer. It's not cheap to get an order of extra crackling but it's worth it. 
Ibu Oka's soup was kind of disappointing. It was full of veg but lacking flavor. Nothing porky about it. A miss. We had to order the soup separately here, but as I wasn't really impressed with it at either warung, I'd skip it next time. 

Discussion of price is missing here because it's been, like, two months and three currencies since Bali, and that's too much for my backpacker brain to handle. Both were fairly cheap, but if you need the more specific deets, you're going to have to consult my accountant, Charles Denby. 


Warung Babi Guling Pak Malen: Jalan Sunset No. 5, Seminyak, Bali, Indonesia

Warung Babi Guling Ibu Oka: Opposite Ubud Palace on Jalan Suweta. Follow signs for larger location.

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