Countdown to Christmas

Janet De Neefe

For the Bali Times

Now that we are in the festive season and have entered that escalading countdown to Christmas (only four more sleeps), I figured it is time to talk about Balinese ceremonial food. Imagine Christmas lunch with your loved ones, sitting down to a grinning table spread with all the trimmings, for example, of a Balinese tooth-filing ceremony! Goodness, I hear you say! But I promise, it would be a feast fit for a king. And let’s face it, no Balinese feast is complete without Bali’s “national” dish, Babi Guling or Suckling Pig. Every major ceremony in our home has born witness to a roasted piglet that has been carved and shared around most of North Ubud.

But what is it that makes Suckling Pig so delectable? In fact, I recently had lunch with a friend from Australia who said he dreams about Ibu Oka’s Suckling Pig when he is away from Bali. Imagine that. Here we are, sitting in my restaurant, Casa Luna, and eating takeaway Suckling Pig, drooling over its many virtues. There’s something dreadfully wrong with that picture.

Ibu Oka needs no introduction in Ubud and has become an Indonesian household name, selling ever-so-tender suckling pig behind the Wantilan on Jl. Suweta. She is a bit like the Colonel Saunders of the tropics without the franchises (and whiskers). But it was actually Ibu Oka’s mother-in-law, Gung Niang Guling, who set the trend, spit-roasting these fat-bellied piglets at the family compound daily in Tegal Sari, Ubud. She was one of those table-carrying D.I.Y. foodstalls on legs, selling Babi Guling in the same location. The space was shared with a few other Balinese mums, nestled under the shade of the Banyan tree. This is where it all began.

Nowadays, in the busy season, up to eight suckling pig are roasted and carried down to the warung ready for a day of frenzied trading. In fact, Ibu Oka’s is almost as popular as the Monkey Forest, with bus loads of tourists pouring in to this crowded space to sample this celebrated treat. You can have the regular-sized portion, or for gluttons like me, you can load up on the deluxe serve, topped with a huge slab of crispy pork crackling. If you are going to indulge, you might as well do it properly.

Between you and me, I seldom ate pork until I came to Bali. Rumors that Australian pig is fed on jellybeans and antibiotics turned me off; but in Bali, these cute little “Babes” are fed on a rather nice vegetarian diet of cooked banana trunk and sweet potato leaves. And you can taste the difference.

But Suckling Pig is a multi-levelled taste sensation. First you have the tender mother-loved meat and then comes the spices. Enter coconut oil. When I was watching a pig being roasted the other day, a tiny grandma wandered in from the mountains carrying a jerry-can of fresh coconut oil. She looked like she had walked from the Himalayas with her tired, sun-beaten looks, faded sarong and worn-out jumper. “We order our coconut oil from this old woman,” said one of the roasters. “She makes the finest we can find.”

As you know, I am a big fan of coconut oil and truly believe this oil makes a huge difference when cooking Balinese food. Without it, the spices would not sing, or rather hum like Annie Lennox, because it is the oil base that kick-starts the wild fragrance of all those earth-bound ingredients into something heavenly. Beyond the fresh oil and the spices are cassava leaves that are tucked into the tummy, an organic stuffing loaded with flavor. While the pig is slowly turning, a mix of coconut oil and turmeric is used to baste the skin, adding a golden glow and a crispy finish. And it doesn’t stop there. At Ibu Oka’s, the suckling pig is roasted over tender coffee wood and coconut husks to add extra flavor and aroma. That’s what I call dedication.

Of course, there are other wonderful Balinese specialties you can make for Christmas or the New Year. Smoked duck is a perennial favorite and roast chicken rubbed with Balinese spices and served with sambal matah is a winner. Or how about roast turkey stuffed with yellow rice or roast lamb rubbed with kecap manis, cracked pepper and seed mustard. But does it really matter what you make?

The foods that promote life, vitality, strength, health, joy and cheerfulness,

which are sweet, soft, nourishing and agreeable are favored by the pure

Bhagavad Gita 17-8

So getting back to the joy of celebration. The eloquent Krishna proffered this quote to his ever-faithful fan Arjuna about the virtues of good food. Because we all know that food embodies something far greater than just a taste sensation and feasting with friends and family is more than just bringing pleasure to the table. A gathering such as this enters our snug inner sanctum that keeps our heart and soul in love: in love with a world that provides and nurtures and in love with humanity. I have often said that the saddest people on the planet are those with eating disorders because they choose to shun a part of life that can lead to such great happiness.

So take my advice and cook up Christmas lunch for family and friends. Spare no expense. In fact, treat it like a Balinese ceremony and make it a happy, busy, noisy affair with loads of laughter and merriment. Because, as they say, what goes around comes around. And even if you can’t offer the finest meal, it will still taste sublime because the spirit of the event will turn it into something unforgettable.

And here’s a little Christmas present to serve with your Christmas feast.


Raw chilli seasoning

This is a deliciously crisp, crunchy sambal, with lashings of kaffir lime, lemongrass and ginger adding to that culinary wow factor. It’s a great accompaniment to roast chicken, summer salads and just about anything char-grilled.


5 shallots                                                        3 tbs oil

1 large red chilli, seeds removed               1 tsp grated ginger

5 small chillies, seeds removed                 5 kaffir lime leaves

1 tsp torch ginger bud, chopped                sea salt to taste

½ tsp shrimp paste, roasted                    1 lemongrass stalk

1 tsp torch ginger shoot, chopped

Slice the shallots finely. Mix robustly with a teaspoon of salt to extract any bitterness.

You don’t need to wash out the salt.

Chop the ginger, lemongrass, lime leaves and chilli very finely.

Mix all the ingredients thoroughly, making sure the shrimp paste is blended in. Check seasonings.

Note: Wash hands thoroughly after handling these ingredients. If chilli burns your skin, rub oil on the spot.

Coconut oil is the preferred oil for this sambal.

Selamat Hari Natal dan Tahun Baru.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

I wish you all a feast of love, good health and happiness.

Cheers, and I will see you in the New Year.

Matur Suksme

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