Between the Balinese specialty and lechon, which is the better pig?

Photos by Pepper Teehankee

BOURDAIN BOUNTY Ibu Oka is famous, if not even a tourist magnet, thanks to the late Anthony Bourdain, who took a bite of its babi guling in 2006 and described it as the best pig he had ever had

I should have been a spit-roast pig snob.

I mean I come from the country of lechon, where lechon is done many ways, in different styles, in many variants, although, according to The Food Dictator website, there are basically only two types of lechon—the Manila lechon, usually roasted only with salt and pepper and served with a liver-based sauce, and the Cebu lechon, or the Visayan lechon, which is salted and stuffed with black peppercorn, scallion, and other herbs, plus garlic and the fragrant lemongrass before roasting.

But babi guling, a delicacy in Ubud in Bali, Indonesia, did make me feel at home, even though I was surprised I was treated to it at brunch, really just breakfast for me, for whom the typical first meal for the day is a late lunch or even an early dinner. 

I had it at Ibu Oka, at one of its three branches, of which the original was on Jalan Suweta, very near Jalan Raya, the main street that runs across the very heart of Ubud, and just across Ubud Royal Palace. The warung, a casual roadside eatery as it is called in Bali, does not open until 11 a.m. and serves babi guling and nothing else.

Ibu Oka is famous, if not even a tourist magnet, thanks to the late Anthony Bourdain, who took a bite of its babi guling in 2006 and described it as the best pig he had ever had in an episode of his show No Reservations.

Turmeric is slathered on its skin before the suckling pig—stuffed with basa gede or a spice mixture of turmeric, galangal, coriander, chilis, garlic, shallots, lemongrass with shrimp paste—is roasted on a spit for five to six hours over an open fire.

Not common in other Indonesian regions, where the consumption of pork is forbidden, babi guling is not that complicated a meal It’s not that fancy either, although other than a cultural dish, a Balinese specialty, perhaps the most popular of Bali’s gastronomic offerings, it also used to be ceremonial, an offering to the Hindu gods, to whom the pig would be served whole, symbolic of grace, perfection, and abundance.

No wonder preparing babi guling is somewhat of a ritual. Turmeric is slathered on its skin before the suckling pig—stuffed with basa gede or a spice mixture of turmeric, galangal, coriander, chilis, garlic, shallots, lemongrass with shrimp paste—is roasted on a spit for five to six hours over an open fire.

EAT IT WHILE IT’S HOT Each serving of babi guling at Ibu Oka comes on paper plates with generous chunks of tender, flavorful meat and thick, crispy skin, as well as clear vegetable soup, a chili sauce or paste called sambal, beans and papaya with fresh coconut, breaded pork, blood sausages, and steamed rice

The skin, amber-colored and crispy, is removed and the meat is cut into chunks and so each serving comes on paper plates with generous chunks of tender, flavorful meat and thick, crispy skin, as well as clear vegetable soup, a chili sauce or paste called sambal, beans and papaya with fresh coconut, breaded pork, blood sausages, and steamed rice, sometimes coconut-infused. When I came to visit, before the babi guling, I was served all manner of fried pork rinds, chicken feet cracklings, kropek, and its version of chicharron bulaklak.

It was quite an experience to eat babi guling on an ordinary day, when it proved as special as when it is served, as it is in Bali, on special occasions like birthdays or weddings or at formal gatherings.

In 2009, three years after his visit to Ubud, Anthony Bourdain had his first taste of lechon in Cebu for another episode of No Reservations. He might have forgotten what he had said about babi guling when he declared Cebu lechon “the best pig, ever.”

AFTER THE HUNT FOR BABI GULING Our recent trip to Bali started in Ubud and trying the babi guling at the Anthony Bourdain-endorsed Ibu Oka was on top of our agenda, the vintage VW de México convertibles were a welcome bonus. From left: Pepper Teehankee, the elephant on the road aka Pam Pastor, Michelle Lim, Jerome Gomez, Yvette Fernandez, the author, Angelo Comsti, Jaison Yang, Adjie Wahjono, and Oteph Pelagio.

Although he was right, I think he was also wrong. Between our lechon and the babi guling of the Balinese is a world of distinct charms, which include the culture in which they are eaten and the people they are eaten with. The world is big enough for such “good pigs” and there’s plenty of occasions on which to declare one or the other “the best, ever.”

Book a trip to Bali, Indonesia through Travel Warehouse Inc. Cebu Pacific flies to Bali from Manila and back twice weekly. www.twi.com.ph | www.cebupacificair.com. Photographs courtesy of Pepper Teehankee