It’s the sort of thing that makes hard-core food buffs swoon in sheer delight, dieters to flee screaming bloody murder, cardiologists cry foul, and harder-core drinkers to cast a gimlet eye upon a plate-full and demand more beer. You can add it to soups and stews; bash it up and use it to top dishes like pancit palabok or a steaming hot bowl of congee, adding a crispy contrast to the starchy stuff below. The swankier wannabe gourmet-types like tossing it into fusion pasta sauces or into salads that feature native ingredients, adding a rich, wickedly porky nuance into familiar foods; the oomph factor goes up several notches. Or you could just nosh on it on its own: whether it’s the massive, blistered-surfaced curls from the Lapid’s on the corner or the diminutive squares deep-fried in your home kitchen, chicharon is most certainly a classic staple of Philippine cuisine.
It is an offshoot of the days when Spanish galleons sailed across the globe bringing merchandise to different ports of call and, in doing so, integrated elements of various cultures into those of every nation along the route. Chicharon is, obviously, the local spelling of chicharron from Mexico: pork rinds – pork skin and fat – deep-fried until golden and taking a bite results in a highly audible crunch.
There have, of course, in these distressingly health-conscious days, been faux versions of chicharon. You have the crisply-fried chicken-skin variant which goes over big time with people who are crazy about fried chicken. There have been fish-skin versions and, alas, vegetarian variants. However, suffice it to say that there is nothing better than the original with all its porky goodness.
Here in the Philippines, chicharon are classified depending on their appearance and fat content. That in mind, these are:
- Chicharong may Laman This, dear readers, is absolutely decadent stuff: large curls of pork rind with a thick layer of fat. Think slab bacon deep-fried to a crisp and you pretty much have chicharong may laman. Crunchy as you take a bite, the fat melts seductively on the tongue and leaves a memory of sheer, unctuous deliciousness;
- Cocktail Chicharon These are leaner little bites with the fat neatly trimmed off and the seasoning is quite a bit zestier: aside from salt, plenty of black pepper and, sometimes, chili powder are thrown in for some extra oomph. These are so called because these are the idea size for cocktail nibbles or bar snacks;
- Chicharong Pang-gisa These are the little cubes of deliciousness in the jar at the top of this post. This is usually how chicharon is prepared in home kitchens: slabs of pork skin – with or without a layer of fat – are diced and rendered down in large woks (carajays or kawas in the provinces) until the lard has liquefied and the pork skin has crisped up. These are so-called because they are added to stir-fried, soups, and stews. Of course, this hasn’t stopped generations of Filipinos from filching them out of the kitchen just to munch on…; and
- Chicharong Bulaklak The villain in the eyes of many a cardiologist or dietitian, these are segments of pork intestine cut in such a way that they puff up into flower-like tidbits in the fryer. Too much of a good thing – salty, fatty, bitter, and savory – can’t be good for you, but this has never stopped die-hard fans from gobbling the stuff down, preferably with a mug-full of very cold beer.
Seriously, I never really got into the habit of chicharon munching, though I have been known to sneak more than a few cubes of the homemade stuff and I never decline when a plate or bag of these dangerously addictive pork rinds are offered. Nevertheless, my indulgence in these wicked treats is somewhat restrained and I enjoy them as a garnish on rustic dishes like pinakbet or a proper guinisang monggo. Hold the vinegar, please; these porky bits are excellent as is.