Monday, May 19, 2014

1MB Travels: Bali: Roast Suckling Pig, 'Cat Poop' Coffee and the Temple of the Ocean God

Around this time of year, wanderlust kicks in: it's just before summer, when most people take their vacations - but I save my limited days off for the end of year big holiday trip with the fam.

Last year, it was to Bali - and yes it's taken me this long to post about it. I guess I was saving it for just this time, when I can't quite get that far away - so I can savor the memories and try my best to exercise patience, knowing the next trip will be worth the wait.

Bali may have its pristine beaches, and famous batik trade - and like every other tourist destination, its guides who just want to coral us from one shopping stop to another (for those who would respond with an excited 'yes' to whether they want to visit the Polo Ralph Lauren outlet...while in friggin' *Bali*...I don't really know what to say to you) - but my family tends to like to experience different cultures through food and culinary sightseeing. 

So, when several trusted foodie friends (and oh, Bourdain, too) all recommended the same place for us to taste the pretty much signature Balinese dish of roast suckling pig (babi guling), we had to work it into our itinerary.

Not realizing though that Ibu Oka had multiple locations, it was purely by luck that we arrived at the more intriguing one: our driver for the day, who spoke very little English, had asked if we wanted to go to the 'house' one or the 'other' one.

With the long lines at the 'no reservations' Ibu Oka being the stuff of legend, we simply asked him to take us to the one with the shortest line.  So the 'house' one (#2) it was.

After a long, scenic drive up from Kuta to Ubud, we turned into a narrow alley with a humble sign to mark its location. The walled entrance opened up to a fantastic traditional Balinese structure so ornate, that we at first thought was one of the thousands of local temples - but our guide explained that it was actually the restaurant owner's house, where they first started serving their now famous pig.

Our strategy to visit on New Year's Day, right when the restaurant opened at 11am (and when most other tourists were recovering from NYE hangover) - and on a heavy rain day - paid off.  There was NO line, and only a few diners seated when we arrived.

We were taken straight to one of the covered platforms with low tables, all communal, where diners sat on floormats.  Birds chirping happily in the subdued patter of lightened rain, accompanied by the frenetic rhythms of the staff working their magic in the kitchen, lent a lovely sense of serenity to the place.

Since the family who shared our table did not speak much English, we couldn't trade travel tips...but we spent a few minutes relishing every architectural / design detail before our menus arrived.

Ibu Oka knows what it's great at, and laser focuses on it - so there's really only one thing to get on the menu: babi guling or roast suckling pig, with various accompanying sides to make the different set meals (RP. 40,000 to 60,000 or about USD $4-$6 each!!!).

We loved the incredibly succulent, flavorful pork, but were disappointed with the crackling (skin not as crisp as Cantonese style roast suckling pig - more chewy and a bit rubbery). One of the specials also came with pork blood sausage, but our absolute favorite thing on any of our plates was the fried pork, crunchy little flavor bombs that we couldn't stop eating!  A great deal at just a few dollars per person for lunch - and such an amazing setting to dine in.  If there was any way we could have stuffed ourselves with ten more portions, we would have done it.  Just wished that there was some way we could have brought some of the roast and fried meats back home!

After lunch, we drove through the lush countryside while we discussed our next destination.  Seeing the gorgeous rice paddies on the stormy day, and thinking about the hard labor that it takes to plant and harvest enough to make just one bowl of rice, reminded us to always be grateful!

Whenever my mom told anyone back in Hong Kong about our upcoming trip to Bali, they would always tell her about "cat poop coffee", an Indonesian specialty where native Asian Palm Civets eat coffee berries, and the undigested beans, which are fermented during their journey through the civet's digestive tracts - are then cleaned and harvested to produce the most expensive coffee in the world.

It sounds completely disgusting, but also intriguing.  So we asked our tour guide if there was a "cat poop coffee" factory we can visit - he immediately thought of Teba Sari Bali Agrotourism.

The place is mainly a learning center for tourists, but it's set up like a mini plantation, so that you can walk through and see native plants as well as check out the animals that are used to produce the fermented coffee ("kopi luwak").  The tour was free (though they encourage you to pay for tastings and/or souvenirs at the end)!

Apparently civets in the wild naturally forage and eat coffee berries, but with the formalized production of kopi luwak, they are fed arabica beans - which then make it out of their system in undigested pods like these.
The beans are then removed from pods, sanitized and prepped for roasting.

There are lots of spices that can be added to the roasting process for flavor, from vanilla beans to ginger, to white tumeric.

The precious beans are then traditionally hand roasted (there's a little station to represent that at the learning center).

And ground in a giant pestle and mortar.
The grinds are then sifted, and they're ready to go!
Our tour drops off at an open tasting room, surrounded by lush greenery and soothing birdsong.  Displays at the long communal table serves as reminder of the various stages that the coffee bean went through before arriving for our upcoming service.
We'd gone too far at that point to leave without tasting the infamous coffee...and our guide reminded us that they also produced great teas and other types of coffee as well (Bali gold coffee is also famous, though without as much of a dramatic backstory as kopi luwak) from ginger to ginseng to red rice coffee - so we 'splurged' on the full tasting which comes with 16 different teas and coffees.  I enjoyed the tamarind & saffron tea especially (the menu says it's great for helping to reduce unpleasant body odor, fantastic), but it was all just building up to the ultimate cup...
...And the moment of truth arrived soon enough.  The 'cat poop coffee' (RP 50,000 or about USD $5) looked like any regular cup of coffee would.  Its taste was light-bodied, not very intense in flavor, and slightly more bitter than we would like.  Our guide recommended adding coconut sugar, which to us (as non-coffee connoisseurs) vastly improved the flavor.

Nonetheless, we were excited to have gone on an 'adventure' to learn more about this mysterious coffee, and to have been able to try it for ourselves. 

Aside from drinks, Teba Sari also served up a platter of locally crafted chocolates.

After our culinary adventures, it was time for a bit more of a cultural excursion.  Since the tourist attractions are actually quite spread out on the island, and it was a day of heavy rains - we kept to the Ubud area and ended up at a temple called Pura Taman Ayun / Royal Temple of Mengwi. 
This is one of the most important temples in Bali. Built in 1634, this royal temple stands on an island in a river, and its inner temple is surrounded by a moat. Its name "Pura Taman Ayun" translates to ‘Garden Temple in the Water’.

And indeed the gardens are beautiful.  The towers themselves, structures designed to 'house' the gods and ward off evil spirits, were a lot smaller than we expected,

But a pleasant afternoon stroll through the grounds.  Worth a visit if you're already in the area.
With just enough time left to visit one more temple, we chose Pura Tanah Lot, the temple of the ocean God.

On approach to the temple, there are rows of street vendor stalls where you can pick up souvenirs.

Once we made our way to the back of the marketplace, just before the snake cave and temple itself, there was a procession of some sort: our tour guide said it's the type of procession that people do not talk about out of respect, so we never learned what exactly it was for.

Then there was the breath-taking temple, rising defiantly out of the tempestuous tides.  During low tide you can actually walk across the sand to the rocky island where it sits, but when the tide is up, a ride in a small boat is required. 

That day, the rain let up just long enough for us to snap our fill of photos - literally the minute after we said we were done, an anxious voice came over megaphone, yelling at people to come back up the shore to safety, as the wind, rain and tide were about to sweep in.  A giant herd of hundreds of tourists and locals alike scrambled to get into the clear, and there was a sort of unspoken collective sense of community, and comraderie, as we all struggled to beat the incoming storm / water.

All in all, one of my favorite travel days.  Recap of snorkeling and Turtle Island visit to come!
(To see more photos from this trip, visit my Flickr album here)

Bali, Indonesia

Babi Guling Ibu Oka
Branch 1: Jalan Tegal Sari 2, Ubud, Bali
Branch 2: Jalan Raya Teges, Ubud, Bali (this is the one we went to)
Ph: +62 361 976 345

Teba Sari Agro Tourism
Br. Kelingkung, Lodtunduh, Ubud, Gianyar, Bali - Indonesia
Ph: +08 123 687 466

Pura Taman Ayun
Mengwi Bali 

Pura Tanah Lot
Tabana Bali 82171
Ph: +62 880361 or 880362 



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