As sugarcane is the main cash crop in the Western Visayas, it’s quite easy to conclude that Ilonggo cuisine would favor the sweet over savory.
“On the contrary, I believe Ilonggos use this peculiar familiarity with sweet ingredients to balance out flavors, rather than allow it to dominate a dish,” says chef Fernando Aracama, whose namesake restaurant, Aracama serves a Negrense boodle platter that has led other chefs to call him the Boodle King. He points out that as boodle fight meals are meant to be eaten with your hands, this consideration will factor strongly into his choices for a perfect boodle feast.
“Negrenses love to eat (and cook!), throw a great party and have a good time. A trip to Bacolod revolves around where and what to eat. We take pride in being a great culinary destination. We serve dishes that are humble, down to earth, easy to enjoy, comforting and intensely delicious. Just like the people who prepare, cook and eat them every day. Our food reflects who we are perfectly.”
The elements of a Negrense boodle
Inasal is truly a trademark dish of Ilonggo cuisine. “The right way to eat this delicious, smoky, aromatic grilled chicken is when it is right off the grill and blistering hot,” says Fernando. Dipping it into a sawsawan (sauce) of sinamak (spiced vinegar) with a splash of soy sauce, siling labuyo (small chili pepper) and a squeeze of calamansi juice is a must.
Both a method of cooking (like inihaw, food cooked over charcoal) and a dish, sinugba is the quintessential beach food. “You can ‘sugba’ everything from whole fish, pork belly or chops, oysters, calamari; whatever you fancy,” says Fernando.
Aracama’s boodle platter features two proteins as a sinugba. One is the boneless beef short rib fingers that are marinated and made extra tender by cooking sous vide (vacuum-packed and placed in a water bath) for 24 hours before they’re finally grilled and brushed with a slightly sweet barbecue glaze. The other is butterflied black tiger prawns grilled and topped with butter, taba ng talangka (crab fat), fresh chives, bits of lemon zest and a dash of sugar.
Ensalada and atchara
These two make for more delicious and flavorful eating. “Here we have a relish made of smoky, charred eggplants tossed with raw garlic, heady vinegar and olive oil garnished with cherry tomatoes, red onions, cilantro and salted duck eggs. Yum! On the side, we have homemade atchara or pickled ribbons of manibalang (semi-ripe) papayas and sweet carrots,” shares Fernando. “It’s a flavor match to any sinugba dish.”
“This what we call our sinangag or garlic rice. In Aracama we make it happier and more vibrant by using achuete (annatto) garlic oil and lots of garlic chips.”
“The sawsawan or dipping sauce is essential and provides the diner with many ways to elevate and personalize the dining experience. They can choose from a variety of fruit vinegars, soy sauce, fish sauce, sour fruits like calamansi, green mangoes or kamias (bilimbi), tomatoes, red onions, siling labuyo and garlic to basics like sea salt and even sugar.”
This story first appeared in the October 2017 issue of Smile magazine.