Wunderkammer #3: Piggy tales: The Chinese zodiac and Balinese Babi Guling
I bought this dear little piggy at Bali Domestic airport before heading over to Solo (Surakarta) in East Java. It was 2019, the Chinese year of the pig, and I wanted a little piggy dressed in Balinese batik to have as a memento. I still remember buying him in the little gift shop- as he was ridiculously expensive- and I keep him as a talisman of my time in Bali and being able to remember that feeling of excitement and anticipation about revisiting the beautiful city of Solo. The Year of the Pig is my year- and the last time it was my year in 2007, many wonderful things happened for me, as they did in 2019. This little piggy came home to Australia with me at the beginning of COVID-19, and is the only ornament permitted to sit on my bedside table. I’m waiting for our good luck to return.
The Chinese influence in Bali and Indonesia
Chinese New Year is a big deal in Bali, perhaps because of the large volume of Chinese tourists visiting the island. According to Statista.com, “In the first half of 2020, Australia was the largest feeder market for direct foreign tourist arrivals to Bali, Indonesia. In that year, Australians made around 222,000 visits to Bali. Chinese tourists made up the second-largest group of arrivals to Bali, at 117,000 arrivals. Bali is arguably Indonesia’s most popular tourist destination, and saw a total of almost 6.3 million direct foreign tourist arrivals in 2019.”
Indonesia is a sovereign archipelago in Southeast Asia and with a population of 276,540,585 is the fourth most populous country in the world after China, India, and the United States. It consists of five major islands and about 30 smaller groups. There are around 17,508 islands of which about 6000 are inhabited. Bali is only a tiny part of this sprawling nation; a 111km-long, 152km-wide island.
In addition to this diverse population, Indonesia is also the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, as just over 87% of Indonesians declared Muslim on the 2010 census. 9.87% are Christian, 1.69% are Hindu, 0.72% are Buddhist and 0.56% practice other faiths. The Indonesian constitution grants religious freedom although the government only officially recognizes Islam, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism.
Indonesia has more than 300 distinct ethnic and linguistic groups, although the largest and most dominant in terms of politics are the Javanese at over 40% of the population. Balinese consist of 1.67%. Chinese Indonesians account for about 3% of the population but they are influential in much of the country’s trade and commerce.
There are more than 700 languages spoken in Indonesia. Bahasa Indonesia, a form of Malay, is the official language and is used mostly in education, media, commerce, and administration. Most people in Indonesia actually tend to speak other languages as their primary language, however. I always marvelled at my pembantu who could speak Balinese, Indonesian and English, despite having had only the most basic schooling.
To write about Indonesia as a whole is generally about generalisations, because the people and the country are so diverse. The experiences I had in Bali cannot be termed as an Indonesian experience, as Bali is Hindu and its infrastructure is very much geared towards tourism.
Which leads me back to the story of my little piggy.
Indonesia is a Muslim country, so pork isn’t eaten widely, except in Bali. The Balinese often keep pigs at home, feeding them on food scraps, for that important time when they will be killed and eaten, mostly done on big ceremonial days such as Galungan Day, Kuningan Day, and for Weddings. In the backroads it is not unusual to see a recently deceased suckling pig tied with rope to a long stick, being transported by a couple of men holding either end resting on their shoulders, on its way to be carefully to be roasted over hot coals. I have seen the rotisserie process- a man sitting on a stool, slowly turning the handle for the pig to be evenly cooked. It takes hours and hours- all done by manpower. No photos to share of such sights, I’m afraid!
Babi Guling: A Balinese delicacy (and eaten with your fingers!)
Babi guling – which directly translates as “turning pig” is roasted on a hand-turned spit over an open fire. Before roasting, the pig’s skin is usually rubbed with turmeric, and the animal is stuffed with a basa gede spice mixture, literally meaning ‘big spice mix’. It usually consists of shallots, garlic, ginger, kencur (lesser galangal), turmeric, macadamia-like candle nut, bird’s eye chilli, coriander, black peppercorn, salam leaves (an Indonesian bay leaf) and salt, plus a shrimp paste mixed in. I’m sure every home cook has a different version of this!
When the pig is roasted, the crisp reddish-coloured skin is carefully removed, and the meat is cut into chunks. Each serving of babi guling is supposed to have at the very least a chunk of juicy meat, a piece of crispy skin, and a spoonful of stuffing. There is sometimes a big puffy cracker looking piece of crunchy, deep-fried pork fat.
Babi Guling is often served with lawar, another Balinese delicacy.
Lawar consists of chopped meat and vegetables that are typically mixed with coconut, chilli powder, shrimp paste, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, and turmeric. Traditional lawar is made with pork or turtle, but chicken, duck, or beef can also be used. The special secret ingredient- it’s an acquired taste- is pig blood, which is added for colour and flavour.
Where to get the best Babi Guling in Sanur
Warung Babi Guling Sanur is just opposite McDonald’s on the bypass — not far from Sanur’s main tourist street of Danau Tamblingan. For the whole time I had known it, it was painted bright orange and easy to find. It’s all prepared on the premises out the back and they ask about how spicy we would like it. I always ask for ‘tourist grade spicy’ as I have a pretty good tolerance for spicy as a westerner but cannot compete with Balinese spicy- these people chew on chillies like candy from a very young age! I took many of my friends there and didn’t tell them what the lawar was made from. I wasn’t a frequent visitor- Babi Guling is a special occasion food- far too rich to have too often. I expose myself as a rookie blogger and didn’t take lots of photos- so the ones for illustration purposes are the closest I can find to the ones I had.
There are many smaller lesser- known Babi Guling warungs in Sanur- you can see the signs as you whiz past on your scooter- I couldn’t bear to go in if the sign had a picture of it cooking as it looked too much like my erstwhile pet dachshund. The pig is displayed in the front window, and when it’s all gone, the vendors shut up shop and come back with a fresh batch the next day. Many are available as bungkus– take away wrapped in greaseproof paper- a spoonful of rice and then all the porcine elements, then shaped into a little cone or pouch and then stapled at the top and placed in the ubiquitous white plastic bag so it didn’t spill out on the way home. We did try Babi Guling as bungkus one time- and I even tried the skewers of pig liver served on the side. Not to my taste, I’m afraid!