Lechon in BaliBy Radel Paredes
Cebu Daily News
Cebu and Bali have three things in common: both island provinces share a passion for religious ceremonies, traditional and contemporary art, and succulent roast pig.
Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country so in most of the archipelago, pork is considered haram or sinful. But Bali remains generally a Hindu community and is left to practice its own religion and culture. This includes its distinct culinary traditions that at times are not too different from the Philippines.
While it borrows many of its religious practices from India, Balinese Hinduism does not really prescribe strict vegetarianism. So people are free to eat anything including food that is considered haram in the mainland.
As the pig (locally called babi) abounds in the tropical forest, it has become one of the favorite sources of meat. And the easiest way to cook it is, of course, the most primitive way: roasting. We Cebuanos do the same thing with our baboy and we call it lechon.
When our Balinese artist friends went around the malls during their visit here in Cebu, one thing that struck them was lechon, which they immediately ordered from a food stall. But they ordered at the wrong time, which was early at night when the skin would already have started to limp.
Still they could tell that it tasted exactly like theirs, except of course the sauce which was a simple mix of vinegar and soy sauce. They told us that, like Cebu, Bali is also famous for its version of lechon, which they call babi guling or roast pig.
We got to try babi guling when it was our turn to visit them in Ubud, Bali’s art community made famous by the film “Eat, Pray, Love”, which stars Julia Roberts. Our hosts took us to what they claim was the best warung (restaurant) for babi guling.
We knew immediately that we were going for a place that specializes in pork as stone sculptures of pig welcomed us in the gate and garden. Some of them had palm boxes filled with little flowers, incense stick, and bits of food on their heads, which shows that they have just been prayed over in a morning ritual. Others were placed under pagoda-like ceremonial umbrellas.
Even the restaurant’s fountain features pig heads vomiting an arc of water into the lotus pond. This adds to an ambience of light humor in the place.
But the main fare was anything but light. The plate had a slab of babi guling topped with still crunchy skin, nasi putih or plain rice, herbs (mostly steamed cassava leaves), small slices of innards, and pork blood sausage. This comes with the usual sambal (freshly ground sauce made traditionally of tomato, ginger and chili).
Just a small amount of this sambal works like a flame thrower for the dish, and its effect immediately shows itself on the face of the novice. Seeing how our faces turned red, our hosts advised us to wash it down with teh panas or hot tea!
A cold drink only worsens it they say. So, there we tried to fight heat with more heat as the firefighters would strangely fight forest fire by burning more trees.
Yet the hot spices only added to the rich flavor, neutralizing the fats of the pork. You eat the meat with a pinch of herbs and sambal then follow it up with a handful of plain rice. That’s the best way to eat babi guling: the primitive way, that is with bare hands and with one leg raised on the chair as we do exactly in the Philippines.
We washed the strong aftertaste down with teh panas, which thankfully is not always boiling hot. Our Australian friend always complains why Indonesians don’t serve tea pumping hot like they do in most of Asia. But perhaps it’s because of sambal, which couldn’t be inflamed further with an equally hot drink.
As we were about to leave, I checked the souvenir booth and was surprised to see the typical wooden phallus commonly sold in Baguio. Noting that it is mostly larger than real life, I am amused at the thought that it may yet represent another aspiration Indonesians and the Filipinos share.
I could have bought this rather odd restaurant takeout for friends back home with a different appetite. But then, it would be too haram for my own taste.