The glory of rice terraces and babi guling in Ubud

Ubud, Bali, is historically known as a spiritual, cultural, and arts center of Bali, filled with endless temples, different types of straw and wood crafts, paintings, vegan and vegetarian Balinese restaurants, and places to do real yoga (yeah, not just the trendy stuff where everyone stands around wearing Lulu Lemon pants). It is also surrounded by lush tropical forests, endless wildly growing fruit trees, and quaint rice paddies. In the past, it has been an important source of the island for medicinal herbs and plants, as its name actually comes from the Balinese word for medicine, “ubad.”

While other westerners have visited Ubud for decades before, from my perspective, the rise in interest in Ubud and Bali overall really came after Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love came out, and then its subsequent movie of the same name starring Julia Roberts. In her journey that she shares, Gilbert travels to three countries that all happen to start with the letter “I” (supposedly a coincidence to truly find herself, thus the focus on “I” – Italy, India, and Indonesia). Much of her time noted in the book as well as shot in the movie is in Ubud. Since then, it’s become a bit of a cliche for me to hear yet another American couple go on their honeymoon to Bali. It starkly contrasts with the Aussie reputation of being the place where frat parties rein over all.

But after a day trip to Ubud, I felt like it was a totally different world than that of Kuta. It had fewer people, more walking space, more lush green area. Even the places deemed touristy like the Tegalalong Rice Terraces were quiet, scenic, and peaceful. We went in the morning, so the rice terraces had far fewer people than I’d originally anticipated, and it made for a lot of good, quiet time to shoot some videos and also just enjoy the scenery and the sounds. This is the most scenic and well manicured rice paddy I’ve ever visited, as most of the ones you pass in Asia are all flat. The series of rice paddies use the subak, which is a traditional Balinese cooperative irrigation system, which is thought to have come about in the 8th century. This is what creates the “terraced” look of the rice paddies here that differentiate their look. I loved the experience we had at Bali Pulina, where we got to have a personal tour of the agro-touristic plantation, where they grow everything from durian and cacao to coffee and even cinnamon. The whole area the plantation was on was like being in the center of a tropical jungle full of rich, delicious natural ingredients. We had a complimentary coffee and tea tasting to sample all the different varieties and really loved the overall experience of sitting outdoors and enjoying these delicious treats in the middle of nature. Even when the rain came, we were shielded and could still enjoy the sounds under cover.

One of the other big highlights for us was trying a very famous babi guling (Balinese roasted suckling pig) dish at the most respected restaurant for it in Ubud; all this restaurant makes is babi guling, so it has to be good, otherwise it would have died a long time ago. What was most notable about this pig, other than the earth shattering and crisp, thick pork skin, was all the other accompaniments you eat this with, ranging from the spiced chopped long beans with what tasted and appeared to be freshly grated coconut, fluffy, airy rice, fried pieces of pork, and tender meat from different parts of the pig. It was all served on a banana leaf atop a straw tray. This was likely the tastiest dish we’d had of the entire trip, and if not this entire trip, than in Bali, hands down. To be honest, this may have been the best suckling pig I’d ever eaten in my entire life; nothing else had skin this crispy and fatty that just shattered in my mouth or melted in my mouth, or a spice mixture this complex, spicy, and memorable.

The spice mix that the vegetables are seasoned with is called basa gede, literally meaning “big spice mix,” which seems fitting for the name. Some of the many elements of this complex and addictive spice mix include shallots, garlic, ginger, galangal, kencur (another type of galangal), turmeric, candle nut, bird’s eye chillies, coriander, black peppercorn, salam leaves (Indonesian bay leaf) and salt, plus a shrimp paste mixed in. That spice mix needs to be packed up and sent back to my apartment in New York, ASAP.

Ubud – you were so tasty and beautiful. I need to come back to you in the future.

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