Mark Epchteine
Mark Epchteine
Head of Hospitality

Breaking Bread: Balinese Babi Guling

Posted at 
Breaking Bread: Balinese Babi Guling
“What should the rest of the world know about the fourth-largest country in the world, that they don’t know? Because, let’s face it, I think if you asked most people who are going to watch this show, ‘tell me something about Indonesia,’ you’ll get a total blank.”

-Anthony Bourdain, Part’s Unknown

Bali is a truly mystical place. Optically, chances are you’ve seen the colorful, trendy cafes designed for Instagram selfies, scenic rice paddie terrace overlooks, and the beautiful Balinese and nowadays modern architecture. Today, in addition to the more than four million local residents of the island, Bali is home to over 50,000 foreigners, expatriates, and digital nomads. But long before any of us moved here and transformed the island with foreign influence, Bali served, and still does, as the only Hindu-majority province located within Muslim-majority Indonesia. And this created a myriad of traditions, cultural values, and rituals that are uniquely Balinese. The residents follow a form of Hinduism known as Agama Hindu Dharma. The belief system is seen in all aspects of life: daily practices, architecture, tradition, agricultural practices, and attire, among others. As a foreigner in Bali, you’re privy to a lot of this as the local’s daily life is in your peripheral vision, but my favorite way to quickly experience this is through one of my favorite Balinese dishes, Babi Guling aka barbecued roast pig. 

Babi Guling is a barbecued roast suckling pig, and to the Balinese, a special food common in the rituals that mark the different events of life. There are many ceremonies and holidays in the 250-day Balinese calendar, and on top of weddings, house ceremonies, special days of honor, even ceremonies to clear evil spirits from a piece of land, Babi Guling serves as the common denominator found at all of them; although it holds an extra special place at wedding ceremonies. 

The suckling pig is stuffed with cassava leaves and then cooked over an open fire typically on a spit. Various parts of the babi (pig in Indonesian) are the shining components of the unified dish. The remaining parts of the babi, commonly the skin, foot, ear, nose, and tail are used in the offering plates that the Balinese put out multiple times a day to honor the many Hindu gods. Bali guling historically was made for a ceremonial offering to the Balinese gods, with the pig served whole to represent perfection and abundant grace to the gods.

However, in addition to the pig, babi guling as a dish extends beyond our porky friend. Commonly found in accompaniment is: lawar - a combination of boiled young jackfruit and chopped green beans, a chicken or pork-based broth soup, urutan - a Balinese styled spicy pork sausage, sate - a satay skewer of either chicken or pork, and some places include blood sausage as well.

The exact recipes for the babi guling - and everyone in Bali has their favorite place - are usually guarded family secrets. Within the communities of the villages found in Bali, families are known for their recipes - often granting them village celebrity status. I mean, after all, this is the dish of celebration! Given the dishes' popularity among foreigners and tourists from around the country, Babi Guling is now found commonly around Bali via roadside eateries. In the past, to have some great Babi Guling, as a foreigner you’d find yourself making your way up to Ubud/Gianyar - the spiritual epicenter of Bali. However, due to the dishes' popularity today, an excellent rendition of Babi Guling and the cultural character it exhibits can almost certainly be found within a ten-minute drive of most destinations. 

Extending beyond the confines of local options - hotels such as the W Bali, and Potato Head have Babi Guling in their repertoire. A station for the dish is often found nestled between the lobster tail and the burnt basque cheesecake found at the Sunday brunch at the W. Potato Head embodies the cultural anthology of Bali with their entire ethos. Their property, Desa Potato Head, with desa meaning village brings forth many of the cultural pillars of Balinese heritage and incorporates them into one lifestyle destination & experience. One of the restaurants on the property, and one of my favorites on the island, Kaum, explores Indonesia as a whole through the exotic ingredients found among the many varying regions - from the populous hubs of the island of Java (the most populous island in the world) to the indigenous communities of Sumba & Borneo. 

Earlier this year I had returned to Bali after a couple of months' hiatus from the island. I knew that as part of my reintegration, I’d have to find myself sitting on a wooden bench at 10:45 AM with a succulent plate of Babi Guling, aroma and all, wafting in front of me. Although I could’ve easily hopped on my scooter and made my way to any of the amazing roadside institutions that are within a few kilometers of my home, I thought a nature-full one hour drive from the beaches of South Bali to the spiritual jungle of Ubud would allow me to soak in the local life and culture that to this day thrives on tradition and simplicity. A reminder that some things don’t change is always pleasant in today’s hyper-changing world.

From the gridlock traffic of Canggu I drove through mellow village roads and lush landscapes of green, and one hour later found myself parked in front of Warung Babi Guling Pande Egi. Remember when I mentioned everyone has a favorite? This is mine. Why is it my favorite? They rub the skin of the pig with Coca-Cola before roasting it, resulting in just the perfect crisp on the skin.

I realized I’d made a mistake when I looked at the time and it was 10:53 - and that had explained the crowds around me. Many venture out here to ensure they’re indulging in one of the best Babi Guling experiences on the island. My usual rule? Arrive before 10 AM. Patience is a virtue, and in my case, I was rewarded with a beautiful assortment of everything found in the Balinese Babi Guling. I’m full but surrounded by a wonderful overlook onto a rice field. This was the perfect time to reflect on how a desire to have one meal forges an adventure - both physically and mentally - through the island of Bali, and how the culture and tradition have made their way beyond the ancient rituals, ceremonies, and celebrations, but as a tribute to those roots in a form accessible to all. 

From my first time trying Babi Guling years ago, to the time I had it a few days ago, it still holds a dear place to me as an homage to where I call home. It’s given me perspective on just how much I could learn about a place and a culture both through the dish itself, and the journey that I had to undertake to get to it. But it has allowed me to think - here I am exploring one culture and island with a population of about 4 million people. But Indonesia is comprised of over 6,000 inhabited islands holding more than 274 million people, and the best way for me to get perspective into all the varying different customs, traditions, and uniquealities of these diverse regions under one unified nation, is through a meal. From Padang food in the current capital of Jakarta, to hinava & jaruk from the tribes of Borneo, and all the different takes on sate in Central Java - a local meal provides amazing clarity and context into the ordinary lives of the residents of the world’s 4th largest country. Babi Guling helps remind me that beyond the confines of my safe, foreigner-friendly backyard of Bali, is an entire country full of amazing, unique food waiting to be explored. One of the Indonesian interpreters in Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown mentioned that to properly explore Indonesian and its cuisine, it would take probably close to 40 years to make it to all the different regions of the country. And with that, I can say with almost certainty that a future breaking bread post will feature both a dish and a place, I would have never known existed. (And I most likely do not know in this moment!) - and that is the beauty of Indonesia.

Looking around today, I’m happy to once again see a mix of local residents, domestic tourists, and foreign tourists alike. Bali’s economy is comprised of ~85% tourism-related activities, and the COVID-19 created a whirlwind of damage to communities across the whole island. Official numbers estimate around 30,000 foreigners remained as residents on the island throughout the pandemic, although I believe the official number was closer to 50,000. As guests on the island, it was important for us more than ever to support the local small businesses and those affected most by the tourism industry coming to a screeching halt. A few organizations I want to highlight that have made incredible contributions over the last two years:

Bali Street Mums
Feed Bali

Sungai Watch

And without further ado, my favorite places for Babi Guling in Bali!

Ubud: Warung Babi Guling Pande Egi (Get here early!)
Babi Guling Selingsing Bu Suci
Babi Guling Depot Chanda (While it runs all day, this one particularly draws a crowd later at night)
Nusa Dua
: Warung Babi Guling Pak Dobiel
Local Recommended:
Babi Guling Pande Bagli

Cross Icon