It’s not often I find myself standing in a deserted supermarket car park at 2.30 in the morning waiting for a strange man to take me to a secret destination.
South China Morning Post Magazine, June 24 2012
A Good Turn
In fact, it’s probably been at least 20 years since I last found myself in a car park late at night waiting for a fellow to do anything at all. But this is Bali, and I am with Sam, my editor for the travellers’ website Travelfish.org. She has received a tip-off from a reader called Dana saying he knows where to find the best babi guling in Bali. The only catch is that we have to keep it a secret.
At 2.45am, as we are soberly scoffing at the idea that Dana might turn out to be a homicidal maniac, or not appear at all, he pulls up beside us on his scooter. As he joins us in our car, we get the introductions out of the way and check his eyes for signs of madness. They seem clear enough. Dana is a young American who’s been in Bali for four years, during which time he’s seriously set about trying to get under the skin of this gorgeous green island. And part of that mission has involved finding the finest spit-roast suckling pig, a specialty for which Bali is famous.
Recipes vary, but babi guling typically involves liberally painting the hide of a young male pig with a turmeric solution and then filling the cleaned-out cavity with a heady blend of rice, ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, chillies, shallots, lime, galangal, pepper, salt and sugar. The belly is then sewn up and the pig hoisted onto a spit, where it is quietly spun for several hours until the skin has turned a rich amber and the meaty juices run clear.
Dana assures us that we won’t be able to find where he is taking us again if we tried, and then directs us along a series of winding suburban roads and narrow country lanes that is impossible to keep track of in the darkness. The only clue Dana will give us appears on his blog, balimanual.com – namely, go to Buduk at 4am and follow anyone you see, as they’re almost certainly going to where we are headed.
We arrive just after 3am and park up on a silent street that shows no signs of life at all. So we follow Dana down a narrow alley beside one of the darkened houses and find ourselves in a poorly lit garage with a corrugated- iron roof, at the back of which sits a young man beside a fiery pit that is, reassuringly, much too small for humans but just right for sacrificial pigs. The warung, or restaurant, is clearly a family affair, and they seem to know Dana’s face well.
Bleary eyed, we sit on small plastic stools at one of the long tables and watch the vaguely hypnotic scene. With one hand, the young man slowly turns the large pig while in the other he holds a long iron rod, which he uses to pluck coconut husks from the unruly pile in front of him to feed into the fire. Occasionally, he smacks the pig’s brittle, caramel-coloured skin with the rod, making a low cracking sound.
We start to take in more of the scene: the metal pole that pierces the pig from end to end and skinny streams of fat that run out from its hide as it is turned over the flames. The heat draws the skin tight over the pig’s frame, and it finally bursts open over its hips to reveal the shiny white meat underneath. Underfoot the ground is slick and, for the moment, a gentle farmyard smell prevails, no doubt coming from the two large porkers out the back that are dozing and twitching, seemingly oblivious to the fate of the other of their number. A confused rooster nags the neighbours to get out of their beds.
Meanwhile, Mother is tucked away in a dark nook chopping and frying and doing things with bits I think it best not to know too much about as I’ll have to eat them soon. Instead of stuffing the pig with the rice and spices mix, she is preparing them separately with the sausages, blood pudding and unmentionables.
By 4am, other diners have drifted in and the communal tables are doing their job. Sweet tea is poured and chat flows. Other diners are curious to know what we are doing here and, by now, so are we. Sam and I have had time to digest what we are seeing and are starting to get a little queasy. The pig’s predicament and the stitches on its belly start to seem all too real and visceral, and remorseful thoughts of vegetarianism bubble up and blend with the rich fat aromas, confronting and confusing us. But waiting time is over, and the pig is being hoisted off the fire and suspended over blue plastic platters. Too late.
The young man expertly sets about carving off sections of skin like arched nut-brown glass, putting them aside, and then swiftly stripping the pig of flesh and bones. In a few minutes, all that remains is the long curved spine. Sam and I go into paroxysms of guilt again. Then Mother puts plates in front of us with a beaming smile.
Steaming hot rice, spicy sliced vegetables, rough slivers of meat, black blood pudding, tiny sausages and those things whose names I’ll never know are crowded onto the plate. Crowning it all, a golden shard of crackling glistens. Vegetarianism will have to wait. We order extra portions of crackling but turn down the soup that traditionally accompanies the dish.
Like the others, I tuck in with fingers, savouring each morsel, even the unmentionables, and then pick up a small piece of crackling and bite down. It is rich, sweet, crunchy and melting. It is so good that I decide to forgive Sam for having cruelly taken me to a Bikram yoga class the evening before. It has liberated me to eat more.
The restaurant mostly serves men girding themselves for a hard day’s labour and boys at the end of a long night out. The family is not interested in extending the menu or branding, or any of the other complications that normally ruin such a good thing. There isn’t even a sign outside on the road. For anyone truly determined to try it, I recommend contacting Dana through his blog.
If you’re not that committed, but still want to try some wonderful roast pig, Warung Babi Guling Sanur, opposite McDonald’s on the Jalan Bypass Ngurah Rai in Sanur, is an excellent choice. Its pigs are cooked behind the restaurant, helping you to skip the portion of guilt.
South China Morning Post Magazine, June 24 2012