There are all sort 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 that every time you go there, no matter how many months or years later – you will get the feed you’ve been craving for since your last visit.
Warung Ibu Oka in the central part of the island of the Gods, Bali – is one of the latter. Warung (old spelling is Waroeng) – is a type of family owned café, restaurant or more simply put as “eatery”, where Indonesians can fill up on their favourite for any gourmand ever stepping their foot in the island if the gods - a visit to Warung Ibu Oka in Ubud is a must.
You are at the right place when you see this sign.
Located around 1.5hrs drive from the international airport, Ubud is home to some of the world’s best spas and wellness resorts and Asia’s best restaurants as well as the Ibu Oka Warung which is the longest standing and possibly the world’s most famous Balinese eatery.
Kukul, the super friendly cockatoo is the first to welcome you upon arrival
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.
Aged stone art, covered in moss on the entrance to Warung Ibu Oka
It was back in 1979 when the small family of Ni Wayan and family decided to open a shop and sell nothing but suckling pig and all the trimmings to the predominantly Balinese community (not soo many expats & tourists in those days).
Almost 4 decades later - all remains as is here except perhaps the interior which have seen an upgrade or two. 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.
Early morning blessings for the pit masters and the culinary team
It all starts nice and early here, as early as 4am - 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 and respect to the family and ancestors, to appreciate one each other and break the cycle of fast-paced everyday life.
The butchers do their thing 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, which is located one floor directly below the dining room.
The coconut firewood store
Ibu Ni Wayan Penny prepping the chayote for the mildly spiced pork & chayote soup
The begging of the pork bone broth (around 4:30am)
Blakas – the traditional balinese knife used in preparation of food
Rice steaming room
The pit masters burn copious amounts of firewood and dried coconut husks to get the fire started and the temperature in the pit room gradually starts getting close to what you may experience on a hot sunny day in Bali on the beach in direct sun.
Cooking the Urutan susage
Smoke fills the room with 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 guys believe makes for an exceptionally crispy skin with a distinct flavour, and a rich amber colour - closer to that of a deep caramel then the “golden brown” cliché of all things beautifully cooked.
Preparing chilies for the sambal
High heat, constant rotation and litres of coonut water is what makes it stand out
Pre-service prayers and offerings at the house temple of Warung Ibu Oka
Aside of the steamed rice, the suckling pig and all it’s trimmings – the female chefs prepare lawar, a coconut and pork rind salad with long beans (also called snake beans) mixed with gentle spices that includes turmeric and ginger, which is a refreshing accompaniment to the rich and fatty goodness which pork is so renowned for.
Once done, it’s time for the meat to rest.
They are not wrong. The whole process of the constant rotation of the pigs takes approximately 4 to 5hrs - 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. Smoke breaks don’t exist - they simply light up a clove-stuffed cigarettes which are common throughout the archipelago and continue to spin the spit, basting repeatedly in young coconut water as they puff away.
Whilst the pitmasters 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 en mass with no less than 50 kilos or so at a time – to make sure not one single customer goes without the humble grain.
Sambal – the spicy dipping sauce is not the one for chili-phobics. The long, mildly-hot chili 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 chili.
The best part – crackling can even be ordered on it’s own for those who can’t resist to indulge on more.
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.
The complete feast
If you are a mad foodie or simply interested in culinary art and history – then a visit to the preparation room is a must. Not many revelers end up here as most opt to pop-in for lunch which is served from 11am until all the pork is gone, that is usually around 3pm or 4pm in the afternoon – so literally on the first come, first serve basis.
It is well worth asking a day in advance you wish to visit the preparation room and the fire pits, so you are at least expected and most certainly welcome as the family here is always happy to be visited and share their culinary art and tradition with you.
Once you are her for your complete set lunch, be sure to grab an ice cold Bintang beer to go with it, a perfect match for what could be described as one of the most consistent lunches in the world for the last 45 years? Perhaps…