Iloilo City is a fascinating place that mixes the old and the new, Spanish Colonial architecture with mid-20th Century Modern American, a laid-back island vibe with stiff-upper-lipped emphasis on academic and intellectual excellence.
The food is equally fascinating, being a delicious mix of influences taken from the Spaniards, the Chinese, other Filipino ethnic groups, and even a bit from the Yanks and the Portuguese.
A case in point is pancit molo, the local take on dumplings in a clear broth. Molo was born here in Iloilo, taking its name from the city’s Molo district. This was, essentially, the creation of Chinese merchants who came to trade with the locals and ended up staying for good.
The version I had here in Iloilo seriously makes all other versions I’ve ever had of it pale in comparison.
Unlike the pancit Molo I grew up with which had a two-note broth made savory with chicken and a hint of ginger, this version had a broth with layers of flavor – a notion made possible by the long, slow simmering of chicken stock with shrimp heads, ginger, and spring onions. Plus, this version isn’t just about broth and dumplings; it’s made more interesting by scraps of shredded chicken and bits of shrimp as well as chives.
The pancit Molo of my Manila childhood had grainy-textured chicken-mince dumplings wrapped in thin, papery pastry wrappers that would flutter like gossamer bits of gauze in the broth. Not the ones in the Iloilo version: these hefty, chunky wee beasties were wrapped in a thicker dough – much like the one used for har gau (prawn dumplings). They were gloriously meaty and full-flavored.
The broth and dumplings made a perfectly warming and satisfying snack on a rainy afternoon.
Equally delightful (and, to be honest about it, sub-lethally delicious) is the sisig served in this part of the country. The Bauhinia, a local chain specializing in Filipino cuisine, serves up four versions of this sizzling offal dish: crunchy (topped with chunks of chicharon [pork crackling]), classic (just nice, sticky-textured, and nicely seasoned pork offal), hot (with extra siling labuyo [bird’s-eye chili] thrown in for fire), and – get this! – deadly.
The deadly version is so named because, apart from the pork cheeks, ears, and bits of minced tail that are the hallmarks of the dish, it is made creamier and more unctuous by the addition of pork brain. If that doesn’t send your cholesterol levels soaring, nothing will! :p
Fortunately, none of us at the table were in the mood for killer cuisine, so we just stuck with the classic and the crunchy. Both, I am pleased to report, were good: properly seasoned pork with hints of soy and garlic, the green and red chilies adding floral and fruity nuances along with the heat.
While beer may have been everyone else’s choice for washing the sisig down, I went for the Bauhinia’s rather frou-frou take on iced tea – a magnificent concoction sweetened with cherry syrup and served with orange slices and a Maraschino cherry. 😀