It is a dish that borders on the medieval in the sense that it calls to mind the whole roasted beasts that were part of a lord’s banquet table. It is, likewise, a touch of the baroque in that it has become the symbol of pure, glorious, gluttonous indulgence. A whole pig spit-roasted for hours over coals; the fat dripping into the fire and sending up smoke that permeates and flavours the meat; the skin cooks to a deep mahogany colour and shatters crunchily with a sharp tap of a knife.
This is lechon, a true staple of festive tables in the Northern and Central Philippines.
There are those who say that it was the Spaniards who brought the dish to the islands, a variation of the cochinillo [roast suckling pig] that appeared as the main course for feast days. The term itself – lechon – is derived from leche or milk as piglets were the animal of choice for cooking. Others, however, claim that this pork roast is a purely Asian thing and was probably brought to the Philippines by the Chinese or by Balinese traders in the pre-Hispanic era. Of course, indigenous peoples such as the Ifugaos of the Mountain Provinces and the Aetas of Pampanga will beg to differ, whole roasted pigs being part of their culinary heritage since time immemorial.
While there are many origin stories regarding lechon, it is a point of mutual agreement among Filipinos that a proper roast pig should be spitted on a bamboo pole and cooked long and slow over either an open fire or a pit filled with super-heated charcoal. The points of contention, however, include what to baste the pig with, what to marinate it in or with, and even whether or not to stuff it.
In northern provinces, the body cavity of the cleaned and trimmed pig is simply rubbed through with rock salt, perhaps a sprinkle of freshly-cracked black pepper; a few dry bay laurel leaves tucked here and there. This results in mildly-flavoured meat, its natural sweetness coming to the fore. The tender pork is served with a sweetish sauce compounded from pork liver, brown sugar, and vinegar.
Those from the Visayas region, like my late maternal grandmother who always ordered lechon from her hometown of Tacloban in Leyte province, prefer flavourings that are a little more robust. The standard Visayan marinade includes salt, chopped white onions, black pepper, and fragrant lemongrass. The Waray people of Leyte add pandan [screwpine] to this exotic bouquet garni stuffed into the body cavity for a temptingly floral fragrance; sometimes, ginger takes pride of place to remove any residual gaminess from the pork and garlic is thrown in for additional savour. Warays also prefer to eat their lechon with a side of char-roasted taro instead of rice; they also dip the meat into a mix of soy sauce and native vinegar. In Cebu, on the other hand, tamarind leaves are added to the bouquet garni to add a mild and pleasant hint of tartness to the meat and some lechoneros add sliced green chilies for heat.
Now, regardless of which part of the country you’re from, the first thing that gets eaten off a lechon is the crispy crackling skin Unfortunately, in many cases, that’s pretty much all that is eaten off the pig at the actual feast. All the leftover meat is carved up, put into plastic containers and divided amongst relatives to take home. Which brings us to the conundrum of what to do with leftover lechon…
The standard-issue course of action following a feast with a whole lechon is to transform all the leftover meat into paksiw na lechon. In this “throw everything into the pot and mix” dish, leftover lechon is hacked up into bite-sized portions and cooked down till meltingly tender in a sauce made from the liver sauce (sarsa) that came with the pig, vinegar, brown sugar, whole peppercorns, garlic, and bay leaves. Sweet and delectable, pretty much like a Southeast Asian version of pulled pork, it goes down a treat over rice. The paksiw technique works best with the milder-flavoured Luzon-style lechon, though Waray lechon also works well.
Inventive housewives in Central Luzon, on the other hand, mince up all the leftover pork and crackling, toss it with vinegar, onions, and chilies to make a shortcut sisig served on smoking-hot cast-iron platters. I also know people who shred leftover lechon and stir it into char siu sauce for stuffing into char siu bao [siopao] or for stir-fries.
Recently, a relative pointed us in the direction of sinigang na lechon. This combines lechon with tamarind-soured sinigang – always a classic Filipino comfort food; Filipino expatriates are known to burst into tears at the faintest whiff of the tamarind-scented broth – for a dish that takes the “love food, hate waste” ethos to another level. Here, the bashed-up pork is simmered down in a clear broth soured with tamarind paste (or, who are we kidding? An instant supermarket-bought mix will do!) with fresh green veg. The smoky taste and umami richness of the pork balances the acidic taste and character of the soup and the finished dish is a delight when either ladled over steaming-hot rice or simply savoured from an individual bowl. That said, Visayan lechon with all its herbaceous and spicy flavour notes would work best for this dish.
So what’s your family’s lechon story and how do you deal with the leftovers? 🙂