Blogging about Anthony Bourdain’s recent trip to the Philippines made me hungry. Reading about food makes me hungry, more so writing about it. Which is why I seldom do it and only as a guest blogger in my wife’s food blog. But Market Man’s account of the lechon fiesta he prepared for Bourdain and company made me crave for the the crispy skin of a newly roasted suckling pig, basted in oil, buttery fat clinging to the insides.
Luckily, there was some leftover crispy pata in the fridge, a decent enough approximation of the succulent roasted pig of our dreams (and later on, cholesterol-induced nightmares). This was enough to still The Hunger (for greasy pork!), at least for the time being. And someone gave me three packets of Bulacan chicharon yesterday, which will come in handy should I feel the urge to clog my arteries even further.
It also rekindled in my mind the old debate about which is better, lechon as it is made the Visayan way (as in the Cebu-made lechon which was served to Bourdain) or the Tagalog version. The difference, I suppose, is that the Visayan roasted pig is infused with so much more aromatic spices and stuffed with lemon grass (tanglad) as compared to the Tagalog version, particularly the ones made in Metro Manila.
Serendipitously, my wife came across a new book edited by poet and playwright Ed Maranan and his daughter Len S. Maranan-Goldstein, “A Taste of Home“, an anthology of Filipino expatriates’ reminiscences of food from the homeland. In it, inevitably, were disquisitions on lechon, one by Jojo Abinales. Dr. Abinales (author of the “penetrating” book on love during the time of revolution, “Sex, Love and the Filipino Communist“) lately of Kyoto University, but once a denizen of Diliman and environs, has this to say:
It is the lemon grass which makes lechon Bisaya infinitely superior to its Tagalog cousin. It is what gives the pig’s insides that wonderful smell as the tanglad melds the various smells coming from the burning fat and boiling body fluids. That taste becomes more evident once one dips the cooked meat into a sauce of coconut vinegar mixed with crushed garlic and siling labuyo.
Tagalog lechon on the other hand does not emit any zest: it is bland. My Manileno friends argue that this weakness is more than made up for by the sawsawan, a mix of pork liver, pepper and spices that brings out the best of their lechon. I tried the sauce a few times, but could not get myself to agree with them that Manila lechon was at par with its Bisayan cousin. My lechon moments in Manila were always forgettable affairs.
My wife, born and raised and Cebu, would agree wholeheartedly. I’ve often heard her say, during the time before she eschewed red meat altogether, that the test of an excellent lechon is whether one would require any sauce to make it tasty. Visayan lechon can be eaten alone, sans sarsa, except maybe for a little dipping vinegar to counter the too-rich taste after awhile.
I would have to agree that in this regard, lechon Bisaya is indeed superior, specially as compared to most of the commercially-produced lechon found in Manila, which is either tasteless or too salty. I’ve always suspected that the sarsa ng lechon so popular in this part of the country was intended to cover up an inferior product. Lemon grass and various spices are also part of the Tagalog lechon recipe, but somehow it can never quite match the way lechon is made in the south.
But the Tagalogs are not ready to throw in the towel just yet. One of the most innovative makers of lechon hereabouts is Ricky De Roca of Lydia’s Lechon. Mr. De Roca, a member of the second generation of an esteemed Baclaran clan of lechon purveyors, has taken the best of Visayan techniques to come up with a product a notch or two above the usual run of roasted pigs commonly found around the metropolis. And the most decadent lechon I’ve ever tasted (and which we have only once a year, specially ordered for Christmas) marries our centuries-old tradition of a spit-roasted pig for special occasions with our Castillian heritage. I’m talking of Lechon Paella, a specialty of Lydia’s, which recipe was perfected by Ricky. It’s a whole lechon, stuffed with seafood paella, which has to be seen and tasted to be believed.
But for lechon purists, the best and only lechon would that made in Cebu. And they would be more than justified in their bias. Jojo Abinales explains further why his Manila lechon moments were forgettable:
But this cannot be said of my experiences with lechon Bisaya, especially the pigs that came out of the pits of Talisay, Cebu. In this municipality north of Cebu City, people roasted their pigs with coal made of a local wood. The woods fragrance permeated the cooked meat and you have this feeling that you were not eating a roasted pig, but one that was smoked. So popular was Talisay lechon in my younger days that my uncles would slip me a fairly huge chunk or two each time I transited through Cebu on my way to Diliman.
The verdict: In general, lechon Bisaya is better.
And for sheer dedication to pursuing the holy grail of the perfect lechon, no one can beat Market Man. The man’s commitment to process excellence is awe-inspiring, as shown in his efforts to create a flawless “Accuchon a la Marketman” , narrated as part of his “Lechon Chronicles“.
Check out the places to buy Cebu Style Lechon in Manila