In Which We Talk About Lechon

Bring on the PIG!

Bring on the PIG!

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.

We ate all the skin; now for the meat...

We ate all the skin; now for the meat…

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…

Got lechon? Chuck it into your sinigang!

Got lechon? Chuck it into your sinigang!

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?  🙂

In Which One’s Tea Break Involves an Ensaymada

Tea, ensaymada, and chill...

Tea, ensaymada, and chill…

At this time of year, the weather is getting a little colder (just a little; we’re currently in the throes of the El Nino) so there are those of us who start craving for something heftier when mid-afternoon rolls around and it’s time for tea.  This means crisps and soda are no longer de rigeur, but it isn’t cold enough just yet for stodgier fare like kakanin (rice cakes) or bowls of champorado (chocolate rice porridge) and congee.  No: this time of year calls for things that fall in between: sandwiches, perhaps; cupcakes and biscuits/cookies; and, of course, ensaymada.

Inspired by the Mallorcan ensaimada (soft eggy dough dipped into melted lard [saim] or butter before being coiled and baked), this rich yeast bread is usually slathered on top with butter and sprinkled with sugar and/or grated cheese after baking.  That, of course, goes for the regular version of ensaymada.  Believe me when I say it can get pretty fancy.

The ensaymada espesyal varies depending on which bakeshop you go to.  If you get one from Eurobake in Malolos, Bulacan, you get a version that’s more buttery than the regular kind and has sliced salted duck eggs on top to cut some of the sweetness with a salty contrast.  Some of the larger bakeshop chains in urban areas offer ensaymadas that are filled with ham; more bespoke ones tout buns filled with gobbets of rich, dark Belgian chocolate or slathered with sweetly golden dulce de leche.

I prefer my ensaymada more on the savoury side rather than sweet, so my go-to bun is the one from Pan de Manila.  Golden with butter and egg yolks, this roll has but a bare scattering of sugar on top and a regular snowdrift of shredded sharp Cheddar.  While this is gloriously decadent on its own, it gains further glory by being popped into a toaster oven for three minutes for the outside to crisp up, the cheese toasty in spots and melting in others.

Rather than coffee, though, this is better eaten with a bottle of cold milk tea for a bit of afternoon bliss; a slight pocket in which to relax towards the end of a busy day.


In Which There is a Classic Spanish Stew…

Tuhod y Batoc...

Tuhod y Batoc…

Outside my office window, the wind is blowing hard; down below, trees are swaying wildly.  The sky is steel-grey and there is a scent of rain in the air.  Times like these are, literally, not salad days.  This is the sort of weather that calls for more substantial fare: thick or chunky soups; pots of steaming hot rice; massive roasts; and, of course, there is always the possibility of a rich stew simmering for hours on the hob.  Times like these are the perfect time for a little Spanish specialty known as tujod [tuhod] y batoc.

The dish gets its name from the cuts of beef used to make it: usually the kneecap (tuhod in Spanish/Tagalog) or shin and neck (batoc in Spanish/Tagalog).  The beef is stewed for hours in broth that gets thickened by all the cartilage; its richness is tempered with a splash of wine, brightened by the addition of peppers, and made considerably substantial by the addition of carrots, potatoes, and mushrooms.

It is said that the most iconic rendition of the dish is the one served at Alba Restaurante Espanol where it is cooked with rice to make a dish that pretty much straddles the line between a more fluid-textured Italian risotto and the drier Spanish paella.  A reasonable facsimile thereof is served at other Castilian establishments, each with its own twist on the dish.  But my favourite version is the one served at Dulcinea.

...con arroz, por favor!

…con arroz, por favor!

While Dulcinea is more popularly known as a pasteleria y salon de the (a pastry and tea shop) whose most popular dish happens to be plate upon plate of decadently crunchy churros dipped in rich Spanish chocolate, it also offers a variety of Spanish viands for those hankering for a hefty meal.

Dulcinea’s tuhod y batoc easily serves two and has this delectably unctuous sauce that demands to be splodged over cups of hot rice.  The beef is toothsomely tender, flavourful; the vegetables tossed into the stew are surprisingly fresh, the sliced peppers still crunchy with a sharp, almost citrusy taste.  It is, in my opinion, just the thing to eat with a friend when the weather outside is grey and inclement and you want a taste of comfort to tide you through a cold afternoon.