Why is it that the older I get, the more frequently I become exposed to traditional folk dancing (something I loathe), when travelling abroad? I was in Bali; specifically at Rimba, a lovely hotel near the village of Jimbaran, where the resort’s seaside bars, restaurants and infinity pools keep you contentedly complacent. I’d chosen it, though, for another reason: to try babi guling, a classic Balinese roasted pork dish. The rub? It was only served during a Balinese folk dance show.
And so here I was subjecting myself to a one-hour performance complete with intricate costumes and a storyline I couldn’t follow. But all I really cared about was the plate of pork in front of me, just sliced from a freshly roasted suckling pig. I took a bite and pointed my face toward the heavens. The pork was tender, juicy and imbued with garlic, ginger and turmeric that lingered on the palate. This was definitely worth it, I thought. As people 20 years my senior clapped along to the show, I went up to the serving table for seconds.
Babi guling – which directly translates as “turning pig” as it’s roasted on a hand-turned spit over an open fire – is an unlikely find in Indonesia, a country that has the largest Muslim majority population in the world. But Bali is something of an anomaly: much of the population practices an off-shoot of Hinduism that’s been combined with local spiritual traditions, which means that pork – normally verboten in Muslim countries – is fair game here. In fact, eating babi guling in Bali is perhaps the country’s most quintessential dining experience.
In the past, a babi guling feast was usually reserved for big rites-of-passage celebrations: weddings and funerals, of course, but a baby’s third month blessing or a child’s first tooth filling also qualify as reasons to pig out. Today though, perhaps because mass tourism has transformed and commercialised Bali over the last few decades, casual open-air restaurants scattered throughout the island specialise in roast suckling pig. A couple of days after first sampling the dish in Jimbaran, I went to the town of Ubud, where there were ample opportunities to try it sans folk dance.
Ask anyone where to eat babi guling in Ubud – known for its monkeys, temples and yoga-mat-wielding western woman looking for a chaturanga charge – and they’ll point you in the direction of Ibu Oka (Jalan Tegal Sari No. 2; 62-3-61-97-6345), a famed babi guling spot that many claim sets the bar for the dish. Here, I met up with Chris Salans, a Franco-American chef who runs the kitchen at Ubud’s acclaimed restaurants Mozaic and Spice. He’s lived in Bali for 20 years and knows a thing or two about babi guling.
I thanked him for taking the time to meet. “Are you kidding?” he said. “Any time someone asks me if I’d like to meet up and chat over babi guling, I’m there!” Salans doesn’t serve babi guling at his restaurants, and so this is the place he goes when he has a yen for it.