Dave and I spent last Saturday night in a Saigon bar, surrounded by Filipinos who were one moment exchanging misty-eyed hugs as a Filipino band (an exceptionally kick-a** Filipino, band by the way - there is a reason that Filipinos are known as 'the musicians of Asia') performed a sentimental ballad in Tagalog, the next lustily singing along to American hits from the 70s and 80s that even we don't know the words for. It was one of those great, accidental sort of evenings, an evening so fun even the killer hangover that followed me all the way back to KL the next day doesn't mar the memory.
Dave ended up sharing a few beers with a guy from Butuan City (Mindanao). How serendipitous is that - us meeting, in a Vietnam bar, a Filipino native to one of the only three Philippine locales we've spent significant time in (the others being Manila and Pampanga)? It's a small world, indeed. He and his wife were eagerly anticipating a trip home for the holidays. It would be a family reunion and so talk ultimately turned to that pentultimate Philippine special occasion food: lechon.
Lechon tools of the trade
Any Filipino will tell you that all lechon is not created equal. Before journeying to Butuan City last February with our friend Marc (who also hosted us in Pampanga) we heard all about Mindanao-style lechon, uttering words like 'incredible' and 'the best' as we cooled our heels at the Manila airport waiting to board our plane.
When we arrived to Marc's maternal uncle's house lunch was waiting, in the form of the famed local lechon: breathtakingly bronzed, the skin - flabby instead of Luzon- or Cebu-style crispy - cut away from the pig like a leather coat. Butuanons don't prize the skin and we ignored it, concentrating instead on the tender meat fragrant with a blend of herbs roasted inside the pig. We ate with our hands, greedily pulling off ribs and dunking them in dishes of vinegar made from nipa palm sap and spiced up with garlic and chilies. It was a tremendous lechon. Marc hadn't exaggerated.
The next day we headed to Ippie Bantilan's lechon shop to find out what makes the local roast pig so special. The family-run shop has been around for over forty years, and the lechon is prepared live to roasted in-house. The day's orders are kept in a pen in the back; while Dave snapped photos I tried to ignore their existence.
We arrived just after a couple of slaughters to find family members disembowling and cleaning a carcass. The first had been rejected because of its jaundiced liver (note below, the jaundiced liver on the left is pale while the healthy liver next to it is bright red). This is a rare occurrence, Ippie told us.
After cleaning, the carcass is dipped in boiling water to remove bristles and hair
and then skewered on a wooden spit. These days most lechoneros use metal spits.
What makes a lechon a Mindanao lechon (beyond the fact that, unlike Luzon-style lechon, it's not served with a dipping sauce made with grilled pig's liver) is what goes inside - always green onions; garlic; red, orange, and yellow capsicum; serrano chilies; bundles of lemongrass and, at Bantilan's, also star anise and white peppercorns.
After seasoning the pig with a fistful of coarse salt and stuffing it with seasonings Bantilan's prep crew poured a bottle of 7-Up into its stomach,
then sewed it up nice and tight,
and rubbed white vinegar into its skin
before placing it over the indirect heat generated by two rows of burning mangrove wood. After a while one row is eliminated to reduce the heat. The spit is turned constantly by hand, with the help of a bicycle chain.
After one and a half hours the lechon is done, caramel colored and dripping juices,
and is placed on a board, swaddled in paper, and bundled off to the delivery vehicle.
More than a few Bantilan lechon journey well beyond the immediate vicinity. Filipinos don't think twice about packing an especially delicious pig back to family and friends. At the request of his Butuan City-born mother Marc bundled a couple back to Manila, encased in cardboard and checked as luggage.
And we were treated to another for lunch, right before we left.