There are all sorts of restaurants in this world–there are those that innovate, progress and surprise every time you visit and there are those that are so deeply rooted to the tradition and origins that you know each visit, no matter how many months or years later – you will get the feed you’ve been craving for since your last meal.
Warung Ibu Oka, on the central part of the island of Bali, is one of the latter. Warung (old spelling is Waroeng) is a type of family-owned café, restaurant, or more simply put, an “eatery,” where Indonesians can fill up on their favorites. For any gourmand ever stepping their foot in the Island of the Gods, a visit to Warung Ibu Oka in Ubud is a must.
Located 90 minutes by car from the international airport, Ubud is home to some of the world’s best spas and wellness resorts, as well as Asia’s best restaurants. Of these restaurants, the Ibu Oka Warung is the longest standing, and possibly the world’s most famous, Balinese eatery. Many have eaten here, including the renowned chef-come celebrity travel journalist, Anthony Bourdain. During his visit, he described it as “the best suckling pig I have ever had” and there may be a reason or two for his remarks almost a decade ago.
It was back in 1979 when the small family of Ni Wayan decided to open a shop and sell nothing but suckling pig–along with all its trimmings–to the predominantly Balinese community (not so many expats and tourists back in those days). Almost four decades later and all that from the original shop, still remains–except perhaps the interior which has seen an upgrade or two. But the ingredients, methods and techniques are just as they were when they first started and that may well be what has attributed to the success and fame of Warung Ibu Oka.
It all starts nice and early here, as early as 4 a.m. – each and every single day, except the holy day of Nyepi, the Balinese New Year and the day of silence – when even the international airport is closed for the day of silence to respect the family and ancestors, to appreciate one another and to break the cycle of fast-paced daily life.
The butchers tend their duties with the pigs, which are also reared by the farmers of the extended family, allowing for full control of the quality of the meat and welfare of the animal before they reach the fire pits–located one floor directly below the dining room.
Nothing is wasted by the butchers and the team, absolutely nothing. Each and every part of the animal is used in different ways to prepare a meal which will feature no less than seven different parts of the animal; all carefully prepared in their best possible way.
The pit masters burn copious amounts of firewood and dried coconut husks to get the fire started, while the temperature in the pit room gradually start reaching a warmth close to what you may experience on a sunny, summer day in Bali.
Smoke fills the room with the aroma of charred coconuts as the husks burn and the young coconut water is basted generously all over the skin of the pigs, which the chefs believe make for an exceptionally crispy skin with a distinct flavor, and a rich amber color: closer to that of a deep caramel then the “golden brown” cliché of all things beautifully cooked.
They are not wrong. The whole process of the constant rotation of the pigs takes approximately four to five hours–depending on the size of the animal chosen for the day. This is a hardcore, non-stop muscle-straining and sweat-breaking work by the masters and they do not even stop for a break but instead rotate in shifts. Smoke breaks don’t exist; they simply light up a clove-stuffed cigarette, and continue to spin the spit, basting repeatedly in young coconut water as they puff away.
Whilst the pit masters are busy doing the more demanding and physically straining preparation tasks, the ladies are just as busy in the fire pits and the nearby adjacent rice room. They are prepping rice in mass with no less than 50 kilograms at a time; ensuring not one single customer goes without the humble grain.
Aside from the steamed rice, the suckling pig and all its accoutrements – the female chefs prepare lawar, a coconut and pork rind salad with long beans (also called snake beans) mixed with gentle spices that include turmeric and ginger; a refreshing accompaniment to the rich and fatty goodness, which the pork is so renowned for.
Sambal – the spicy dipping sauce is not the one for chlili-phobics. The long, mildly-hot chilli peppers are prepared in kilos, with the seeds, and stewed slowly after being pounded in pestle and mortar with shallots, garlic, tomatoes and lesser galangal.
The pork fillet and all the white meat from the animal, once cooked is shredded by hand and mixed with another spice paste that would also include a large variety of Balinese aromatic spices, and yes… more chilli.
Urutan – is a pork sausage incorporating plenty of the offal from the animal, mixed with their “secret spice” recipe and encased in the long intestine of the pig. It is then very carefully wrapped around a large bamboo before being placed close to the fire (but not in direct heat) to be cooked through and form another item on your tasting plate.
Not many revelers end up here as most opt to pop-in for lunch which is served from 11 a.m. until all the pork is gone–typically between 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.– thus, literally on a first come, first serve basis.
If you are a self-proclaimed foodie, or simply interested in culinary art and history, then a visit to the preparation room is a must. It is well worth asking a day in advance if you wish to visit the preparation room and the fire pits, so your presence is expected and most certainly welcome, as the family here is always happy to meet visitors and share their culinary art and tradition with you.
Once you are here for your complete set lunch, be sure to grab an ice cold Bintang beer to go with it, a perfect match for what, perhaps, could be described as the most consistent lunch in the world for the last 39 years.
Photography by Thom Rigney