The perfect lechon, or spit-roasted whole pig, has skin as smooth and lacquered as a beetle’s shell, glowing amber in parts, burnished to a deep gloss around the shoulders and neck. When a knife is plunged into the skin, there should be a sound like the crackle of Christmas wrapping paper being torn from presents. The crisp outside should slide off, in one big piece with the merest hint of fat still clinging to its underside, exposing succulent meat, having barely turned from pink to off-white. A rivulet of juices trickles down from the scoring lines as though one has punctured a water balloon. The first bite, with skin and some soft innards, with the barest dip into the sauce of your choice: this is the taste of the yuletide season.
Filipinos everywhere are having, or imagining that they are having, this traditional centerpiece of the Christmas feast; anything else on the table is supplementary. The most respected family members receive the prime cuts: the back of the neck for the Tagalog-style lechon; the ribs and belly for the Cebu-style lechon, because the flavor of the stuffing has permeated these areas the most. Every litsonero, or roaster, knows that there are two annual occasions when the usual order of a dozen a day grows to several hundred: the day of the town fiesta and the weeks in the run-up to Noche Buena.
The average Filipino consumes 14.2kg of pork in a year, higher than the global average (although we all know someone who can consume almost as much in one sitting). It is our chief source of protein apart from rice, followed by chicken, with beef and seafood far behind. It can safely be said that Filipinos have a profound love for the pig. Other festive dishes, such as crispy pata (pork knuckle), are similarly porcine; but so is the sisig (sizzling pork) that serves as an everyday pulutan (snack) to go with iced beer as the day winds down.
The Spanish probably had something to do with it. They conquered the Philippines, so it is said, with the cross in one hand and the sword in the other; no one mentions the jamón strapped behind their backs. They had just finished 780 years’ worth of Reconquista in their native land, ending with the capture of Granada in 1491. It was doubtless to much annoyance that they came halfway across the globe to discover that the strongest outside influence on the Philippines was their old enemy, Islam. It was “a different Islam”, writes the historian Ethan Hawkley, “an Islam practiced by Southeast Asian peoples in distinctly Southeast Asian ways”.
Back in Spain, the Inquisition would offer Jews and Muslims a choice between eating pork and being put to death. The pig was not new to the islands that would eventually become the Philippines. As anthropologist Fernando Zialcita puts it: “We are Austronesians. Pork-eating is a common pattern among Austronesians from the Philippines to Hawaii. Eating pork dishes did not have to be sanctioned by the colonizers. It was there all along.” The colonizers, though, introduced the domestic pig and encouraged the consumption of pork, especially as a marker of Christian identity.
There are four endemic species of wild pig (often erroneously described as “wild boar” — these are another species altogether). Their conservation status in the wild is under threat due to overhunting, especially with the unethical “ping pong” method: two compounds, one yellow and one white, which react when pressed together, are smeared with bait. When the wild pig bites into it, the mixture explodes spectacularly, leaving the lazy hunter with a carcass whose head has been blown off. Despite the best efforts of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, this kind of reckless and inhumane hunting of wild pigs continues.
This state of affairs is unfortunate, because properly regulated hunting — preferably without explosives — could maintain a stable wild pig population, while still supplying enough meat for those who enjoy its gamey flavors to eat their fill. In provinces such as Lanao, where Muslim farmers consider them pests, landowners invite Christian hunters to come in and rid them of these meddlesome beasts. This culling results in an abundance of furtive “boar” meat in the region, while the Maranao farmers retain their crops.
In Iligan, northern Mindanao, we go in search of pinakurat — now famous as a seasoned vinegar, but also the name of a local dish of wild pig that uses these same spices. Kurat means “to startle”, and those who have tried the chili-spiced vinegar will have experienced this wild-eyed reaction. But in the case of the dish, it’s the chunks of wild pig that receive the scare. We obtain a kilo and ask Doi Mariano, who runs a local fine-dining restaurant, to cook it for us. The chopped-up shoulder meat is marinated in strong tuba (coconut) vinegar for about five minutes, while garlic, ginger and chilies are briefly sautéed in a pot. Then everything goes into the pot for about five minutes, just enough for the meat to heat up and the acrid part of the vinegar to evaporate. The dish is done at this point: it’s little more than a heated kinilaw (ceviche); perfect to have as a bar bite, when you can enjoy the chewy bits of spiced boar at length while drinking. A more tenderized version of the dish is served as part of a meal, with the chunks of meat simmered and the tough hide now more gelatinous, but it doesn’t have as much punch as the quickly cooked version.
No one eats pork quite so zealously as those in the areas where the boundaries of the Christian and Muslim worlds blur. Early in the morning, the queues are long at Papa Mai’s, a hole in the wall famous for its grilled pork belly, intestines (ilogon) and pig face (maskara). They sometimes run out as early as noon. Even while there is a halal section in the market, and a row of carinderias that serve Maranao food, the largely Christian town of Iligan is justly proud of its lechon, which is considered among the best in the country. For fear of incurring the wrath of pig-lovers from other parts of the country, I will abstain from saying whether it is the best or not — but I will say that it’s one of the most amazing meals I have ever had. I can also testify that it’s one of the purest versions of lechon that I’ve encountered. I find it close to Cebu-style lechon, though Iligan locals feel Cebu, er, hogs the limelight, and deride its version as over-ornamented with its use of star anise. With good pork, they say, there’s no need to gild the lily — or, to use a more apropos metaphor, to put lipstick on a pig.
“All you need is a good animal to start with, freshly slaughtered, with minimal flavoring,” says Marc James Abitago, who is a third-generation roaster at Jaime’s Lechon (Jaime was his grandfather). The pig goes from being released from its pen to being lowered onto the spit in less than 20 minutes. It is stuffed with a minimalist mixture of lemongrass, green onions, salt and pepper. The belly is turned inside out before it is sewn, so that the fat renders and it cooks in its own oils — no extraneous flavors from coconut oil are basted on. And each pig is turned on a bamboo pole by hand, one person to each pig, controlling the heat by moving the pole away or toward the flames.
One of the worst meals I ever had, by contrast, was in a convenience store where they served me “sisig rice” zapped in a microwave: it was a slop of pulverized meat, drowned in fat and MSG. “Sisig” has become a catch-all term for mystery meats of any sort, and bad sisig can be very bad indeed: boiled cats, probably, hacked to tiny pieces and redolent of liquid seasoning. The original sisig, restaurateur and food writer Claude Tayag explains, isn’t the sizzling affair popularized by restaurants like Trellis in Quezon City. “It’s about asim (sourness).” It was any soured salad, from vegetables to meat in vinegar. The traditional Kapampangan sisig consists of pig’s ears, face and liver carefully boiled or grilled, each timed to its own doneness; the pieces are then chopped and then mixed up.
In other words, sisig is actually “a salad”, as Claude puts it. “In the early 1970s, a barbecue vendor named Aling Lucing Cunanan, by the railroad tracks of Angeles City, accidentally ‘reinvented’ it. According to her daughter Zenaida, Aling Lucing accidentally burnt boiled pig’s ears on the grill one night. And instead of throwing it away, she chopped it up, added vinegar and onions, and then served it to the customers.”
Aling Lucing’s famous carinderia in Angeles created the winning formula which became the basis of sisig as most of us know it today. A mound of hacked bits of pork head was not going to become a bestseller, but fret not — everything can be made better by making it sizzling (this rule apparently goes for everything from the Ilonggo soup dish kansi to ice cream)! Sizzling gets everyone at the table excited by the spattering of hot oil, but no one seems to mind. Credit goes to one Benedict Pamintuan, who ran with Aling Lucing’s recipe and put it on a sizzling platter (she copied it back). Now sisig was ready to conquer the world, starting with Trellis in Quezon City, opened by Claude’s brothers Mario and Renato, who added chicken liver to the recipe. Thus was born the accompaniment to millions of bottles of cold beer.
Meanwhile, heading upmarket, The Black Pig, in Alabang, is one of the newest and most progressive Spanish restaurants in the city. The dishes served up by Carlos Garcia, who was born in Extremadura in western Spain, include duck, lamb and beef, as well as pork. At our request, he prepares a feast of cocido, favada (both stews) and cochifrito (fried pork snacks) — all traditional Spanish dishes.
But Garcia also understands the need to innovate, and that the weather in the Philippines is too hot for the classic hearty stews of the Iberian Peninsula’s winters. His fabada asturiana (bean stew), for example, is light and delicate, with distinct yet earthy flavors. The pork has been marinated on koji, a fungus used by the Japanese to break down the tough tissues and impart a deep, complex flavor to the meat. This is classic Spanish food, yet it feels edgy, contemporary — and very local.
The accepted wisdom is that the colonial Spanish largely kept their cuisine to themselves, but Fernando Zialcita disagrees: “The dishes are found among ordinary people in Pampanga and the Tagalog region as well,” he says. Longganisa, too, is everywhere. Puchero, originally a kind of pot-au-feu (French beef stew) that was a colonial adaptation of cocido — the word “puchero” comes from the Latin “puls”, an ancient Roman dish of grains cooked in water — came to be adopted, and adapted, by the Filipino and Chinese mestizos alike.
The popular contemporary version of puchero is a tomato-based stew that can be made from pork, chicken or beef, or any combination thereof. Dishes that used to be cooked by secretive abuelas (grandmothers) began to be served in Spanish restaurants. This is a relatively recent phenomenon; Ambos Mundos in north-central Manila, established in 1888, claims to have been the first restaurant to serve up such dishes.
These days, local dishes that have been given Spanish names, such as adobo — recipes that reach back far into our pre-Hispanic past — can be found side by side with dishes such as morcon (meat roll). And new ones are being invented every day, such as the sisig at Manam in Manila’s Greenbelt mall, which is crunchy, like chicharon (fried pork belly or rind), rather than chewy. Dedet de la Fuente of Pepita’s Kitchen in Makati, known as the “lechon diva”, stuffs her suckling pig lechon with truffles.
The porcine romance continues to reinvent itself. For centuries, perhaps even millennia, the Philippines has enjoyed a love affair with the pig. Fortunately, the pig loves us back.
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How to make lechon in 5 steps
Jaime’s Lechon has been serving up purist Iligan-style lechon for three generations, eschewing metal prongs and motors in favor of traditional bamboo poles and the skilled hands and trained eye of a litsonero or lechon specialist. The pigs are kept on the premises, and Jaime’s can get a live pig onto the spit in under 20 minutes. The process is brisk, humane and scrupulously clean. There’s no sorcery here, just mastery of craft.
- After the pig is slaughtered, it is immediately plunged into hot water, which allows the bristles to be shaved off with a sharp knife. The temperature of the water is important — if it’s too hot, the pig begins to cook in the water rather than on the spit.
- The pig is stuffed with a proprietary mixture of lemongrass, green onions, salt and pepper. Only one woman, Gloria Buhion, one of Jaime’s daughters, knows the recipe, and carefully eyeballs the right amount for each pig by size and weight.
- The belly is sewn shut, but with part of the belly fat turned inside out with careful incisions made. This fat renders while the pig is over the open fire, and so the pig naturally bastes in its own fat. No additional oil is added if they can help it, which avoids the contaminating tastes of other oils.
- The pig is threaded onto a bamboo pole. The roasters at Jaime’s believe that the bamboo imparts its own flavor to the lechon, which can’t be replicated by an industrial, mechanized rotisserie setup. The wood used is a combination of fast-burning recycled timber and fruitwood, including mango and santol.
- An average 25kg to 30kg pig takes around two hours to roast in the pit. The lechon is served with dinuguan, a stew made from the fresh blood, and paklay, a spicy side-dish made from the minced offal. The first cut crunches through the crackling to expose the ribs and belly; the favored part for the Iliganons.
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Where to eat in Iligan
- Papa Mai’s Grill. The roadside stall is most famous for its grilled pork belly, but what you should really get is the ilogon (grilled pork intestines), maskara (grilled pig face) and the spicy halang-halang soup. Alquizar Ave, Tubod
- Kopi Luwak Coffeeshop. Third-wave coffee in Iligan? Absolutely. With a more-than-decent selection of beans from Mindanao and a team of enthusiastic young coffee-lovers who know their stuff, Kopi Luwak Coffeeshop — which occupies a stately old house — is a must-visit. 46 Seminary Dr cor Orchids St
- Fat Pauly’s. From crowd-pleasing session ales to complex steam lagers, the beers on tap at one of the oldest craft breweries in the country are as good as you’d get anywhere. GT Lluch St, Isabel Village, Pala-o
- Jaime’s Lechon. They have a shop near Gaisano Mall where you can get a kilo or two à la carte, but the main action takes place at the roasting house, where pigs are dispatched to fiestas and dining tables all over the region. They will deliver by air, so you can arrange to have the flying pig land at the destination of your choice. To arrange orders by air, contact Marc at +63 916 656 5575. Roxas Ave Extension, across Gaisano Mall
- Mariano’s. This upscale casual restaurant is a hidden gem, tucked away behind an unassuming gate. Modern, sophisticated cuisine, fresh ingredients from the region and honest prices make this place a must-visit. Meadowlark St, Isabel Village, Pala-o; +63 917 717 5071 or +63 63 221 0095
This article first appeared in the December 2018 issue of Smile magazine.