Oh, Why Did I Eat the Ribs? by Dan Shapiro
A SURREAL CULINARY NIGHTMARE at 30,000 Feet
It was just after the final security checkpoint at Ngurah Rai International Airport when the cold sweat kicked in on a warm, humid September evening.
Two weeks of stunning Indonesian sunsets along the west coast of Bali were coming to an end. A fortnight of elaborate adventures — boat trips in the Indian Ocean, excursions into the rice paddies of Ubud, hikes down the steep cliffs of Uluwatu — had reached a natural close. But the frigid beads of sweat breaking from my tanned pate set off an instantaneous alarm; my immune system was failing, and there was nothing I could do without triggering the alarms of the already suspicious Southeast Asian airport security.
Trying to ignore the signals from my body that something was very, very wrong, while attempting to keep my composure in front of the armed guards and airline staff, I calmly walked out of the waiting hall, onto the tarmac, and boarded Korean Air Flight 634 to Seoul. And while I wasn’t quite certain, there was definitely a clear warning sign from my curdling guts, a raging distress call from my rumbling bowels, that the next seven hours might be a bit painful.
I just never expected it would be the ribs that would get the best of me…
The Bringer of War
Just hours before arriving at the airport for the red-eye to Korea, I was toasting Bintang beers on the final night of an elaborate Bali vacation.
Spending the first ten days with just my girlfriend, a guitar, and the crashing waves of the ocean, the last few evenings were spent in the confines of a private two-room villa, jointly rented with a dear friend and his lady.
As a parting gesture, the four of us convened at Naughty Nuri’s, a well-known spot on the island, famous for its American-style baby-back ribs. Pork is at a premium in the mostly-Muslim Indonesia. Actually, aside from Bali, which is historically and predominantly Hindu, pork is rarely found on the Indonesian archipelago and its 13,000 islands. The four of us used the opportunity to feast on juicy, tender swine.
But, what started out as a celebratory meal, with racks-upon-racks of barbecue-smothered ribs, and traditional sides of coleslaw and potato wedges, would ultimately take a serious turn for the worse. It had to be the ribs that caused the reaction in the airport; I had no other choice but to take my seat on the plane without raising red flags in a country where foreign lives come and go, cheaply.
Fortunately for me, I was seated along the aisle.
The Bringer of Peace
Once boarded and fastened snuggly in my seat, the queasiness seemed to subside, temporarily.
The uneasiness of my percolating stomach briefly stopped just long enough for the stewardesses, dressed in outlandish aquamarine outfits and hats, to go over safety features and procedures before taking off. The first 25 minutes were calm. But then the sweat returned, moist bubbles perspiring, first from my brow, and then at the base of my neck.
It’s a psychosomatic reaction. It must be; the chills, the gradual lightening of my skin from a deep bronze to a shade lighter, and slightly more yellow, than my natural complexion. Ignoring all the obvious indicators my body was sending out, I braved the choppy skies, finding a blissful calm as we passed the Equator.
Hoping to fool myself into health, my mind wandered back to Uluwatu and the Alila Villas. It was there, at The Warung, where we enjoyed a majestic dinner overlooking the ocean from the Island’s southern tip.
Still unfamiliar with Balinese cuisine, my girlfriend and I enlisted the waitstaff to help us select the perfect items from the menu. From the moment they delivered the elaborate sambal tray — which was designed to resemble a congklak board, a traditional children’s game with rows of circular discs — the experience was touching.
From the green and red sambals to the spices and chutneys, the immense and intense flavors exploded in my mouth, exciting my senses. Never before had I tasted such flavors, and immediately I understood why the explorers and colonials took aim at Indonesia. There’s just something about the rich soil and climate that produces such robust and distinct mouthfuls.
Remembering the bold flavors, I began to salivate, just a bit. Drastically, the memory turned, as the alkaline built up along the inside of my lower lip and throat.
Alarmed. Instantly. I carefully, but swiftly, stood up from my seat, assessed the aisles and bathroom situation, and walked forward 10 rows to the nearest lavatory. And with barely enough time to open the door and prop up the lid of the commode, I spewed my guts, pork ribs and all, into the depths of the Airbus A330 as the plane approached the 15th parallel.
Perhaps it was just nerves. Flying never was my favorite. But the sweat returned, and intensified, as I took my seat. My girlfriend looked frightened by the sight of my balmy, moist skin.
The Winged Messenger
With seal broken, I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d be back in the loo, cursing myself, the ribs, the plane, and the Korean stewardesses. Nothing was really wrong though, the majority of the flight still remained, so there was no way that I was actually sick.
Once again, I began to daydream, allowing my mind to wander to central Bali, to Ubud and its rice paddies, where we had tracked down the favorite lunch of the common folks, babi guling, or roast pork with crispy skin, served over rice of course.
Even before we arrived on the island, babi guling was on our radar thanks to Anthony Bourdain and his disdain for the western ritual of reserving tables. Tony’s fixers had designated Ibu Oka as having the island’s best roasted pig, and thus we needed that exact meal, even if it meant a 90-minute cab ride into the depths of an island where we neither spoke the language, nor had any solid local contacts.
But signs and posters around Bali stated that Nick Cave, yes Nick Cave, the baddest of the Bad Seeds, would be in Ubud. And with the endorsements of Tony and Nick, Ubud seemed to be a reasonably safe idea. It was.
Before our lunch at the appointed locale and time, there was a quick stop at the tiered rice terraces. The famous and iconic image, its layers and rows of green-upon-green, softly burned into our receptive minds. However, the destination was really more of a tourist trap, designed to sell overpriced teas and meat skewers. We refrained from the latter, but shared a pot of ginger tea as fat drops of rain slowly fell from the sky.
Slightly bored, we quickly slurped down a few small cups before returning to our taxi, rented for the afternoon, and hunted down Ibu Oka.
Just after lunchtime, we were too late to catch the crispy outer layer of the pig, but the soft, tender flesh, served over rice, was juicy and moist, cooked to perfection as one might say, and the entire excursion was instantly deemed a success.
And, as is customary, we took an extra serving to go, offering it to our faithful driver, who had shown some restraint from overcharging during the initial negotiation.
The pig went down easy that early Autumn day. But just as my senses started to remember the tender morsels of pig, my stomach revolted from the thought. The sickness returned and I fumbled with the basic seatbelt-fastening device, the same one I had practiced opening and closing at the beginning of hundreds of flights. Those safety demonstrations really need to consider explaining how to deal with your seatbelt in case of a real emergency, not just in case of turbulence or a crash landing.
Once again, just in the nick of time, I made it to the bathroom to barf. But this time, a second orifice decided to follow suit, and my body transformed into a real-life Chinese finger trap, and my cavities erupted like the angriest of dragons — double dragons to be exact.
The Bringer of Jollity
And so I remained, in the lavatory, pained and relieved, pained and relieved, for the better part of an hour, while numerous passengers knocked on the flimsy folding door that separated my purgatory from their basic need to drain the vein.
There was no way out for the time being, so I let the mind wander. Of course, food was the natural endpoint of my fanciful daydream.
Less than a kilometer from our villa in Seminyak was Sarong, an exquisite indoor-outdoor open-air restaurant, serving some of the finest Asian fusion on the island, maybe even on the planet.
If Tony Bourdain wanted into this place, even he’d need to call ahead, the entire garden packed with hungry guests willing to shell out reasonable coin for Barramundi wrapped in banana leaves, Penang curry, and butter chicken.
Emphasizing the Indo half of the country’s culinary heritage, Sarong was our finest hour during two weeks of gluttonous indulgence, especially given the plating, technical sophistication, and creative take on fusion.
All those free magazines littered around Bali, the ones selling tourists items they’d never need, existing merely for the sake of facilitating advertising dollars, had little value other than to highlight this bright spot, a true gem of Southeast Asian cuisine. And having feasted on pork the day before, we opted for the duck at chef Will Meyrick’s signature joint.
Never before had I tasted such a fine mallard. The succulent cut of dark meat stripped away from the bone with ease, exposing fresh tendrils of meat perfect for consumption.
Before I could complete the wonderful memory, however, the dragons returned, scorching my innards on their way out. The cycle would repeat itself a few more times, but I was convinced I could endure the last few hours of the plane, from the comfort of my own seat.
The Bringer of Old Age
Returning to find my girlfriend sleeping, comfortably, I sat down, eliciting the few remaining ounces of brain power and concentration I had left to distract my body and mind from this downright tragedy.
First enlisting the help of the in-flight entertainment, I soon realized that I no longer had the requisite strength to battle the touchscreen monitor embedded in the seat facing me.
Unable to raise my hand and push and tap to select the latest feature presentations, I returned to memories of Bali, this time to Jimbaran Bay.
Located between Uluwatu and Ngurah Rai Airport, Jimbaran is synonymous with seafood and sunsets.
With nearly a dozen resorts flanking the coast, Jimbaran is another one of those touristy venues that, despite its popularity with travelers, is easily worth the trip, especially to watch the sun fall while feasting on plentiful shellfish.
Beyond the resort area is a restaurant row, each eatery indistinguishable from the next, as plastic tables and chairs spill out from the brick and mortar confines onto the beach and the calm waters of the bay.
Groups of families and friends dined on lobster and prawns, calamari and snapper, plate after plate arriving fresh from the kitchen.
More important than the actual restaurant is the view, as every place serves comparable fare at a similar price. The general rule is that the nicer the furniture, the higher the cost. And with the food being identical at every venue, the extra cash was better off spared, and offered to local minstrels, parading the bay for tips in exchange for acoustic renditions of any song you could think of, so long as was reggae or Mando pop.
So enjoyable was our first experience in Jimbaran that my girl and I returned a few nights later with friends. Sharing the meal only enhanced our pleasure.
However, recollecting the hot butter, into which I would dunk juicy chunks of lobster, had a severe repercussion. The dragons started knocking; again, I sprung from my seat, only this time, I was barricaded by the beverage cart, and those damn stewardesses had no concern for my fiery bowels
Slowing down my breathing pattern to a tempo consistent with the movement of the beverage cart, I inhaled as the stewardesses asked passengers for their desired drinks, exhaling as the cans of Coca Cola and ginger ale were delivered. What took all of four minutes felt more like forty, as I tamed the dragons and suppressed my explosive gag reflex.
As soon as I reached the front row of economy class, I shimmied around the cart, expertly and deftly using that extra foot of legroom to pass the very stewardess who almost forced an accident that would have soured the friendly skies for all 250-plus passengers on the plane.
Fortunately, the bathrooms were empty, and I repeated the tortuous ritual that had dominated the majority of our flight time.
With the plane nearing the thirtieth parallel, our destination was in sight.
Drained from the free flow of bodily fluids, I was convinced that I could make it to Seoul for the two-hour layover without another mad dash to the can. In order to remain distracted from my physical ailment and predicament, I shut my eyes and wandered back to our first days in Bali, specifically my birthday, when we celebrated with an elegant candlelit dinner at Metis, an upscale French-Mediterranean restaurant in Seminyak.
My girlfriend planned the meal as a surprise ending to my thirty-first year, and the two of us splurged on hot and cold foie gras and a trio of assorted tartares, pairing everything with Pinot Noir, which was always our default wine when eating both meat and fish.
Sitting on the edge of a courtyard, overlooking a pond full of assorted greenery, we toasted to my birth, excessively.
Following the first two courses, we proceeded to rounds of duck and sea bass; again, that Pinot Noir paired perfectly.
The meal was exquisite, as was the romantic setting. And, as one should always do at the end of a fine meal, we capped off the evening with dessert: creme brulee.
Not traditional Balinese in the slightest, Metis was still an excellent introduction to the island’s dining culture, which includes influence from every major culinary school on earth. And with tourists visiting from every continent, Bali was no doubt an underappreciated culinary hub, far from the reaches of fancy guidebooks and ratings agencies.
Then, just as I was vicariously savoring the final scoop of desert, a ping sounded from the plane’s intercom. The captain announced that we were beginning our descent. Seoul Incheon Airport was within reach, and while the final 30 minutes were difficult, I mustered the strength to keep all my fluids intact using deep yoga breathing patterns, in through the nose, slowly, and out through the mouth.
Epilogue (The Mystic)
Upon arrival, I continued my circular breathing, aware that any mental fatigue could easily result in another episode and violent eruption from my cavities. The journey was far from over, as we still needed to deplane and pass another set of checkpoints in Seoul before making our transit to Shanghai.
And just as I had ignored every symptom before boarding the flight in Bali, I passed through Korean security, where guards are trained to detect illness and bar violators from entering the country.
They never had a clue that I was smuggling some sort of foodborne illness across the border, hiding assorted bacteria in my guts.
The two hours in Seoul were uncomfortable, to say the least. After finding our gate, I used a row of chairs to stretch out and relax. Deliriously dreaming of bubur ayam, a Balinese-style congee, and nasi goreng, the traditional Indonesian fried rice, I spent the entire layover mumbling non sequiturs to myself, singing songs about pork and ribs and violent stomach reactions.
Within a few more hours, we would be back in Shanghai, in our flat, where I showered, thoroughly, and spent a few days recovering and recuperating from the horrific endeavor.
Ultimately, the intense sweats and wrath of the dragons could only be chalked up to gluttony — we did, after all, spend two weeks indulging in some of the most amazing cuisine on Earth. I just pushed it a little too far.
Oh why, oh why, did I eat the ribs?
Catch this nauseated narrative and many more in SN9: Fat Tuesday – available on Amazon!