Back to Bali: Babi Guling at Ibu Oka

Pretty much THE reason for going to Ubud was to eat at Ibu Oka’s, made famous by an Anthony Bourdain feature. I’d tried babi guling in a previous trip to Bali but only had a rather slapdash version. This time, I was determined to make it work. Online accounts told me that babi guling must be had early. There was a rather sketchy description online about a market in Gianyar that had the most awesome babi guling evah! The catch was that it was available only from 6.30am to 9am. Inquiries on this famed market babi guling at the front desk of our resort drew a blank, so that went out of the window. Ibu Oka it was!

I was so obsessive about the babi guling that I dreamt that I’d missed it and they were out of pig by the time I got there. I woke with a start at 6am and was pleased to realise that I was awake bright and early for my dose of pig – even for the market version if I only knew where it was. Sadly, DC didn’t share my enthusiasm to chase down a mythical market babi guling for breakfast and then have lunch at Ibu Oka. We settled for just going to Ibu Oka early to try our luck.

Here it is in Ubud Central, taking up one of the corners where the tourist information centre, Ubud market and Ubud palace meet. The sign is unmistakable.

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Sadly, at 9am it had yet to open.

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DC and I took a detour to do our other business in town – poking around at the various woodcraft workshops in the area slightly out of Ubud central. To our surprise, there was another branch of Ibu Oka out here. Likewise, it wasn’t open yet. I contented myself with a picture, wondering which branch (later I found out there are three branches sprinkled in the area) was the best.

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We made it back to Ubud central at the late timing of 10.30am. By then I was getting antsy, convinced that there’d be a mob of babi guling lovers forming such a formidable line ahead that I’d have to turn back in defeat. But no, it was open and there wasn’t a queue! We perused the menu in leisurely fashion and ordered the babi guling pisah, i.e. suckling pig with different parts. Sadly, our request for more skin was turned down. I was shocked that they’d run out of skin even before official opening hours!

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While waiting, we admired the portrait of Ibu Oka, taking pride of place in the shop.

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Then the moment of reckoning came. There was only one shard of skin, which DC and I divided up clinically, eyeing the pieces to ensure that we had judicious portions. There were thick slices of lean meat, fattier slice of rib meat, deep fried intestine, soup and urap, a salad made from toasted coconut, long beans and cabbage. I tried a piece of skin, and while it was crispy from the roasting on its subcutaneous fat, it wasn’t crispy enough. Chinese-style roast suckling pig achieves the shattering crispness much better. I was starting to feel let down already. Then I tried a meat slice and became a believer. You see, the thing about babi guling is that the skin is but a sideshow. The star of the show is really the juicy meat and the marinade and the urap and how all the textures and flavours marry together in a harmonious symphony. I loved how the mellow chilli and various spices like ginger, onion and possibly turmeric and galangal melded beautifully into the rich meaty flavour of the pork. The crunchy vegetables and toasted coconut in the urap added more flavour and bite.

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DC was very enamoured of the blood sausage. Since we were thwarted in our skin bid, we went for more blood sausage and more fried intestines. The blood sausage had a slightly mealy texture from the congealed blood, but the flavouring was robust and I liked the bursty texture of the sausage casing (presumably made from pig intestine lining).

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The deep fried intestine was crispy and yummy, a bit like a bar snack. The soup was surprisingly good. In Singapore, most local places pay scant attention to the soup, often merely thinning out any stock and adding msg to make up for the lack of flavour. Here, the soup was done like soto ayam, just a richer porky version. It was so excellent I’d come here just for its soto babi.

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And what tied the whole meal together was the preserved chilli sauce. It looks innocuous enough with the green chillis, but beware – those are green chilli padi and there are also red chilli padi bits in the mix. It’s not quite a sauce as in the liquid was mainly oil (presumably coconut oil). It was more salted chillis and shallot shards in oil. But what a wonderfully spicy, deeply aromatic hit of chilli that was. We dosed it quite liberally on our babi guling and I was soon gasping for breath, but it was so good I kept going until there wasn’t anymore babi guling left.

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As we left the joint, we realised that a crowd had formed and a fresh pig had been delivered. Now we know that the pig comes from a central kitchen, so not to worry which branch is good. It was quite a spectacle to see the pig being carved up. First, the head was cut off neatly, then the chef slid her knife under the skin…

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… lifted up a corner and pulled off all the skin in a sheet, steam rising voluminously from the meat.

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Then it was time to process the meat into the various parts for the hungry hordes. If we knew that this was the system, we’d have stayed and ordered another serving of pig skin just to see if it was any better. It was just as well that we didn’t – it’s always best to eat your fill and move on. Having more than we could comfortably eat would have compromised our enjoyment.

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There’s always our next visit to Ubud!

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