Siobak KHE LOK Singaraja

For peripatetic pork-eating foodies in Bali, ploughing through a heavy plate of babi guling (spit-roasted suckling pig) is basically a moral imperative but the tastes are different up north.

BABI GULING is a Bali must-eat. Ibu Oka’s is an “Ubud institution” according to The Guardian, while Babi Guling Pak Malen in Seminyak can rightfully claim the same. Almost every major Balinese ceremonial feast will have a golden pig on display. But for those in North Bali with a penchant for all things porcine, babi guling is not the order of the day. In the northern port town of Singaraja, the prize pork dish drawing epicurean tourists up from the south is the Chinese-influenced siobak.      

The Chinese have a long history in Bali, dating back as far as the 12th century, with migration from Southern China intensifying 400 years ago. Today the majority of Chinese Balinese reside in the eastern and northern regencies of Karangasem, Bangli, Klungkung and Singaraja. The streets of Singaraja are lined with dozens of warung selling siobak – even gerobak (street vendors) proffer the local specialty too – but as is always the way, a la Ibu Oka and Pak Malen, there is one warung which sits at the top: Siobak Khe Lok Singaraja.

Proprietor Pak Ketut Antara is the son of Tan Khe Lok, who opened the simple eatery on Jalan Surapati, not far from the port, in 1964. When he died in ‘71, Tan Khe Lok passed the business to his son. Pak Ketut Antara runs the original warung, and his son operates their second branch in Singaraja. Pak Ketut’sbrother has opened a branch in Denpasar and Jimbaran. Pak Ketut explained matter-of-factly that while there’s some flavor variation between the other branches (“beda tangan, beda rasa” – “different hands, different flavor,” was the Indonesian phrase he used), the recipe he learned from his father hasn’t changed in 44 years.

Siobak is slices of succulent pork belly served with a deep brown, viscous, piquant sauce. The meat is simmered on a low heat for hours in a broth which begins with a pig’s head and bones, then seasoned with ngohyang (Chinese five spice). For the sauce, the broth is mixed with kecap manis, tauco (fermented soybean paste), chilies, salt, and tapioca flour, for viscosity.

The sauce’s final addition, according to Pak Ketut, is the most important element: his father’s perfectly balanced blend of vinegar, red chilis, garlic and sugar. This elixir lifts and sharpens the sauce, making the meal easier to digest. With a handful of kerupuk kulit babi (puffy pork skin crackers) and a little mound of acar (pickled cucumber), siobak could give babi guling a run for its money any day.  

Funnily enough, in terms of nomenclature, the siobak of North Bali and babiguling can actually be translated as the same thing. As Pak Ketut explained, ‘sio’ is from ‘siu mei’, the generic term in Cantonese for spit-roasted meats, while ‘bak’ is pork. As this pork is slowly simmered, however, it should really be called ‘lobak’, as ‘lo’ means boiled. “But because people were more used to the term siobak, as it was more common, the name just stuck,” said Pak Ketut with a smile. Lobak masquerading as siobak.

In today’s age of food apps and cafés opening and closing almost daily, it’s becoming increasingly rare to meet someone from a family selling the same dish for three generations. My visit to Khe Lok didn’t only include a sumptuous plate of pork, but a glimpse into how Chinese culture was – and still is – embraced in North Bali.

“As this pork is slowly simmered, however, it should really be called ‘lobak’, as ‘lo’ means boiled. But because people were more used to the term siobak, as it was more common, the name just stuck.”



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Written by Julia Winterflood Photographs by M. Indra Gunawan/Nusa Rasa May 16, 2018.