The pig leers up at me with its sunken sockets from the flames, looking for all the world like some great, glistening hellbeast. The room is dark and hot and smells of fat hissing against the coals. Though the sun is a long way from its zenith, my shirt already clings to the damp film of sweat on my skin. I wonder how the pitmaster, who's equally drenched despite dispensing with every unnecessary item of clothing, can stand to sit so close to the furnace, patiently turning the spit for five hours without rest.
Sensing my curiosity, he grins and motions for me to take over. Ignoring the muffled snicker from an elderly man mincing chilies in the background, I squat down and do my best not to torch the whole creature. I last about two minutes.
As barbecue fanatics will tell you, slow-roasting whole animals is more art than science, more cult than religion, an ancient ritual that is both universal and deeply specific to its place of origin. Plenty of cultures have been turning swine over fire since paleolithic times, but no two go about it quite the same way. Cajun pitmasters have their cochon de lait. Puerto Ricans and Cubans have their lechón asado. Hawaiians have their kālua pig. Balinese barbecue gurus may boast a number of specialities, but none are as revered as babi guling—suckling pig slathered in bumbu (spice paste) and served with rice, pork satay, blood sausage, long beans, and mahogany-hued shards of skin that splinter against the teeth. This is primal stuff, nose-to-tail cooking that predates the term by centuries.
Unlike the rest of predominantly Muslim Indonesia, Bali's Hindu majority has no qualms about dining on every part of the porker. Babi guling warungs (bare-bones streetside eateries) are all over the island, usually marked with a poorly photoshopped image of a pig ripped from Google images, but few are as famous as where I am now: Warung Babi Guling Ibu Oka 3. Since Anthony Bourdain himself proclaimed it the best he'd ever eaten, the ramshackle warung has moved to fancier digs and opened up two other branches—one canteen, Ibu Oka 1, and one other full-fledged restaurant, Ibu Oka 2, near the outskirts of town—to doll out porcine glory to the masses.
"You know, babi guling is not very healthy. It's not something we Balinese eat every day—I usually stick to vegetables," my motorbike driver tells me on the way over. He laughs while weaving between the thieving monkeys and hordes of dazed Caucasians in fisherman pants that wander the streets of Ubud. "But, you know, sometimes I just have to have it."
I understand the sentiment. Two years ago, on my last visit to Bali, I ate a lot of things, many of them good, some of them devastatingly expensive. I couldn't tell you what most of them were, with the exception of one $3 artery-clogging plate of goodness at Warung Babi Guling Pak Dobiel in Nusa Dua. After all this time, the memory still makes my heart flutter—possibly in fear of actual cardiac arrest—which is how I find myself in the soot-stained pits behind the kitchen, waiting to see if this particular pig lives up to the hype.
While the restaurant's kitschy exterior adorned with concrete statues of swine doesn't inspire much confidence, the techniques do. Cooks here smother pigs in a secret combination of herbs and spices, baste them with coconut milk, and allow them to rest over smoldering coconut husks to infuse them with still more smoke. The cleavers the kitchen team use to dismember the carcasses seem like an excessive use of force. Most of the meat is tender enough to be pulled apart with bare fingers, if one were so inclined.
By the time I sit down to breakfast, I'm a disheveled mess, with flecks of ash clinging to my hair and the smell of pork grease seeping into my pores. Before I can dig in, I hear the unnerving sound of more doomed pigs squealing in their pens several stories down. I have a moment of silence, think of Wilbur, Babe, and Bugs' Bunny's stuttering rival, and briefly contemplate veganism. Then I shake it off and dig in because it smells too damn good not to.
And it is good. Ibu Oka may be a well-trodden part of the tourist trail by now, but it holds of up my hazy memories of babi guling past. Bourdain knows his stuff.
Still, I can't help but wonder if I've made a mistake by heading straight for the single most famous babi guling joint in town. After all, a motorbike ride through the outskirts will take you past a half a dozen much more modest establishments. Having also eaten my share of sub-par babi guling—hardly the worst thing in the world, but not quite the carnivorous nirvana I'd just achieved—I wasn't willing to wing it, though, so I decided to ask an expert. Since chef Eelke Plasmeijer has made a career out of hunting down the best Indonesian ingredients for his restaurant Locavore, I figured he might be able to point me in the right direction.
"The thing to remember about pigs is that they eat everything. In other words, if you feed them crap, they'll taste like crap," Plasmeijer tells me. For the restaurant's house-cured charcuterie, he uses heritage breeds such as the black swayback pig, or babi Bali asli. He's so obsessed with these richly marbled porkers that at last year's Ubud Food Festival, he served a feast called "Back to Black" in which each of the 20 courses contained some part of one of them. Until the 1980s, these black beauties were just about the only pigs used for babi guling and ceremonial roasts. In recent years, however, faster-growing, larger hybrids have take their place and this ancient breed has been pushed to the brink of extinction. "It's beautiful for sausages and it's having a bit of a revival right now, but you won't find places making babi guling with it."
Until this rare breed makes a full-blown comeback, I'll have to make do with its more pedestrian pink cousin. Though Plasmeijer is also a fan of Ibu Oka, he directs me to visit Warung Babi Guling Gung Cung before 10 AM. Like all babi guling joints, they roast in the morning and sell out by early afternoon. Stepping past the slightly morbid mural of a grinning pig with lipstick (really), I spy the carcass cooling in the shop window. Once again, I order the larger plate and once again, I don't regret it a bit. With barbecue games this strong, I couldn't possibly pick a favorite between the two. In comparison to Ibu Oka, the meat at Gung Cung is a tad drier, the skin a bit more brittle. Droplets of melted lard bead on the surface of the accompanying turmeric-tinted bone broth like an iridescent oil spill.
By the time I leave, I'm well beyond sated, but somehow still haven't had enough. I'm already plotting my return back to the pit.
Warung Babi Guling Ibu Oka 3 Jalan Tegal Sari No. 2, Ubud Tengah, Ubud, Kabupaten Gianyar, Bali; +62 361 976 345
Warung Babi Guling Gung Cung Jalan Suweta No.23, Ubud, Gianyar, Kabupaten Gianyar, Bali; +62 361 202 2568
Warung Babi Guling Pak Dobiel Jalan Srikandi No. 9, Nusa Dua, Benoa, Badung, Kabupaten Badung, Bali; +62 361 771633