4AM is a peaceful time in Ubud. The alleys are quiet. Traffic is calm. Insects chirp to the dogs sleeping on the sidewalk. 4AM is peaceful just about everywhere in downtown Ubud except Ibu Oka’s, home of the traditional pork dish Babi Guling.
:: disclaimer - for those of you who are squeamish, or dislike knowing where your bacon or pork chops come from, you may want to sit this post out. ::
We arrived in the cement underbelly of Ibu Oka’s very, very early. The open air basement of the restaurant showed the dark, dirty ravine of the Ayung river below. Smoke billowed across the gray ceiling. 12 men in rubber boots moved in and out of tasks like honey bees: grating coconut, hosing down pig pens, stoking the fire. They move silently between tasks; the only sound is grunting pigs and crackling flames.
It is not uncommon in Bali for the pork, (or duck, or chicken) to have been alive only hours before one eats it. Such is the case at Ibu Oka. In the basement of the cafe are four cement pens containing a dozen or so pigs. This morning will be the last for four mid-sized, pink pigs. They are lifted from the pen by the ears, hog tied, and repeatedly stabbed in the jugular, bleeding out into a stainless steel bowl. Their screams are panicked and piercing. You feel the pulse of your own fragile existence with new appreciation and perspective. And from this time on, you eat the pork with an echo of the animal’s screams, and an almost sacred appreciation for the animal’s sacrifice. When you have watched your food die, you will never taste it quite the same way.
What happens next is a babi guling symphony, each person moving seamlessly from task to task: pour boiling water over the carcass, shear off the hair and top layer of skin, slit the belly, remove the organs, rinse the organs, rinse the carcass, move the carcass, skewer with huge wooden stake, break the bones and tie tightly to the body, carry upstairs, fill belly with a plastic bucket full of spices and seasonings, stitch belly closed, stoke the fire, place the skewered carcass over the fire, grind the organs, mix in the blood, clean the intestine, stuff intestine with blood/organ mixture, wrap around skewer, roast, roast, roast. Nothing is wasted, not a single part of the pig nor moment of time is lost in this morning ritual.
When it’s finished, the pork is taken off the flame, feet untied, placed on a large tray and either carried (on one’s head) to another restaurant location (yes, that’s correct… a whole pig balanced on someone’s head.) For the product staying at this location, the women in the kitchen expertly take the pig apart, remove the bones, chop up the meat and skin and serve it with rice, stewed gourd, cassava leaves and blood sausage. Add a little fried chili sambal and the menu is complete.
So what will Mist do with this? Gavin is certain that babi guling will be on the menu. However, it would be nice to have a pig that’s been killed more humanely, the meat isn’t as stiff with adrenaline and stress. And curing the meat would further ensure a more tender texture in the final product. While the climate makes curing meats difficult, Mist plans to debone the entire animal to make it easy to work with in a small space - like the galley of a ship. The classic Indonesian flavors of kaffir, lemongrass, garlic, galangal, ginger, and shallot will all be present in carefully measured amounts… though new additions like activa and candied nutmeg husk will likely find their way into the recipe as well. The final product will be revealed at the end of May, along with 6 other Indonesian inspired courses. Any requests?