Carcar’s crunchier lechon
It’s a common culinary knowledge that the best lechon (roasted pig) still comes from Cebu. Cebuanos seemed to have perfected the art of lechon-making, putting this porcine recipe a notch higher than its regional versions around the country.
So what makes Cebu’s lechon, or inasal in local cuisine intensely different?
At the risk of sounding fiercely regionalistic, allow me to point out why Cebu’s lechon has skin that’s crunchy from the ears to the tail, and meat that’s evenly and fully cooked; it absorbs and holds a bouquet of flavors. It simply tastes divine.
Cebu doesn’t stuff its lechon with banana leaves to distribute heat thoroughly. It doesn’t use young tamarind leaves to impart sourness and neutralize greasiness. Not even brown rice to hold the fat.
When eating lechon, Cebuanos don’t rely on sauces – neither the liver and breadcrumb-based nor the sweet and sour varieties, to offset its richness, or perhaps to hide its failures.
Because the Cebu lechon has fragrant herb and spice-infused flavor from garlic, citrus basil, shallots, to name a few, a dip made of vinegar, soy sauce and calamansi with lots of pepper is enough to boost the flavor.
Of course, there are other cooking secrets only experts can reveal.
The heritage town of Carcar, bastion of some of the old and best-kept Cebuano family recipes that have survived through hard economic times, is also home of the famed Cebu lechon. At the public market’s Cafeteria/Carenderia section, lechon stalls are neatly lined up serving this delicacy. The secret, says Guiling’s Lechon owner Miguela “Guiling” Gendreuli, 45, is in the meticulous preparation of the pig, and the “soup.”
“It starts by scalding the stomach cavity of a clean slaughtered pig with boiling water. The “soup” — a mixture of 7-Up, pineapple juice, water and nine secret herbs and spices is poured into the stomach cavity which is immediately sewn up with abaca twine,” Guiling says. This way, the mixture saturates the last strand of the pig’s meat. Earlier, the formula is concocted in hush-hush by one of her sons, in the family’s shuttered kitchen in Bolinawan. It is a trade secret known only to Guiling and her son, started by her father Cinto and perfected by the family after thirty years in the business.
Covert combination of herbs and spices aside, Guiling slips several pieces of patiotes into the belly to infuse a richer aroma. She frowns on lemon grass as it gives the cooked meat a “roasted chicken flavor.”
The skin is painted with soy sauce (not cooking oil or sprinkled cold water which gives nothing but blisters) to give just the right salty taste, right before the skewered pig is roasted over slow steady embers (chef Anthony Bourdain puts the Philippines on top of the Hierarchy of Pork after tasting a slow-roasted pig in Cebu). Charcoal (a sack for every lechon) is used instead of firewood which gives out flames thus imparting an unpleasant smoky flavor. Depending on the pig’s size, roasting time takes between two to three hours. “You can tell when the roasted pig is cooked when its digits detaches from the metatarsal, and when the stomach crumples” Guiling says.
To retain its crispiness, the roasted pig is cooled down to room temperature before being wrapped in paper. For out of town orders, the lechon is wrapped in layers of aluminum tin foil, paper and cardboard.
It used to be that black, local pigs are preferred over hybrid ones because they give crispier, crunchier skin and less fat. “But times have changed and black pigs are hard to come by these days,” says Guiling.