In the Kapampangan dialect used in Central Luzon, the word sisig was originally a verb that meant “to eat something sour.” In olden times, this meant nibbling on tangy-sweet tamarinds just picked from the tree or munching on the almost-hideously sour kamias (bilimbi) fruit.
Since the 1970s, however, the word sisig has been used to denote an extremely popular offal dish made with finely chopped pigs’ heads and livers marinated with salt, green finger chilies (siling haba), and either vinegar or calamansi juice. The resulting dish is kind of like a rather coarse and porky version of Scots haggis and is served sizzling hot on heated cast-iron platters as either a main course or as one of those nibbles best downed with an ice-cold beer.
It is said that sisig began as a way of using up the pigs’ heads and offal shunned by American servicemen living in the military bases at Clark and Subic during the 1970s. Thrifty Kapampangan housewives were appalled at how the Yanks shunned such good meat; to them, it was a sin to waste such excellent provender – and gave credence to the belief that the Americans didn’t know how to eat at all. (To this day, the idea of noshing on hamburgers and other fast-food offerings along those lines causes anyone of Kapampangan descent to shudder in complete and utter horror.) An enterprising hausfrau by the name of Lucia Cunanan boiled up the meats, chopped them up finely, and left them to marinate in the now-common mix of salt, chilies, and vinegar before sauteing the lot with onions, garlic, and ginger into the dish Filipinos know and love. The rest is, of course, culinary history.
Today, sisig has become part of the menu of any self-respecting Filipino restaurant, food-court stall, carinderia (roadside cafeteria), and school/office canteen. Urban warriors who haven’t the time to faff about boiling, chopping, and frying stuff up can grab the tinned or frozen versions from the supermarkets – better than nothing, I should think.
While the calorific classic is always made with pork offal, the health crazies have come up with versions using bangus (milkfish), chicken, and – may the vegan who created this monstrosity burn forever in the seventh circle of Hell! – tofu or (shudders!) gluten. The fish and chicken versions are delicious enough, though they lack the soulfulness, the richness that makes the original so face-slappingly good. But the vegetarian version is a curse, a crime against all that is good and wholesome and should not be encouraged at all!
It’s rather easy to get good sisig in Manila, really, even in mall food courts. The Flaming Hot stall, a food court regular, has a non-sizzling version that is quite delicious sans the torched bits. Soy sauce, not salt, is used in the marinade and the meat cooks to a sticky, almost gelatinous mess that tastes heavenly and has the proper ratio of soft meat to crisp cartilage. Grab a cup of rice to go with it and you’re all set.
Another food court treat comes from Pinoy Sizzlers over at The Enterprise Center’s food court. You are given the option of having pork, chicken, or fish sisig; whichever meat you choose, it shows up on the quintessential cast-iron plate, bubbling, spitting, and looking pleasantly ornery. If you want to eat it en modo clásico (the classic manner), have the staff crack an egg over the sizzling meat. Toss the semi-cooked egg with the sisig, squeeze over some calamansi juice to give a sharp contrast against the richness, et laissez les bon temps rouler. Unless you’ve ordered a platter big enough for sharing, all orders come with the annato (achuete) – tinged Java rice: don’t fight it, it’s a combination that works big-time.
Alas, as with all things, not all sisig floggers were created equal. A Johnny-come-lately to the food-court sisig scene is Sisig in the City. This whimsically-named food court stall was supposedly given award for being the best sisig seller in the country. In my personal opinion, however, it doesn’t deserve it. The pre-cooked sisig meats are tossed into microwaveable containers (with or without an egg) before serving and are smothered under a regular blizzard of crushed chicharon (crunchy-fried pork crackling). They use so much chicharon, you can barely taste the tart-savory flavors of the sisig. Plus, I wouldn’t have minded so much if the chicharon hadn’t tasted like the packet hadn’t been opened for months. It was, alas, seriously off-putting. Trying Sisig in the City’s food once is enough for me; I’ll stick to my regular haunts, thank you very much.
If you haven’t tried sisig, I seriously recommend it; consider it a delicious, calorific subject in your gastronomic education. And, for all the rest of you who have tried it, what’s your favorite sisig and where do you get it? 😀