It’s only on the third invite that I’m finally able to accept the invitation to the now-famous lechon degustacion hosted by Dedet de la Fuente. A monthly fete ongoing for almost two years, it’s to Dedet’s credit and exceedingly open-hearted generosity that she opens her home to (almost) complete strangers to help spread the point about pig, Pinoy style, that is.
We’re talking about lechon of course, something that nobody does better than the Filipino. Dedet offers her own take on it, elevating her interest in pig roasting and serving it in innovative ways. Here, my chronicle of porcine pleasures.
Self-taught and armed with only a single class on pig roasting, Dedet has mastered the craft. From a modest start, she now has around 12 pugons (wood fired oven) at the back of her house. I may have arrived too late but the smell of roasting pig is absent – or it may be that the ovens are so well-insulated that the desirable aroma is kept under wraps. For now.
We’re a big group this evening and there’s a place setting set meticulously for each one of us.
Dedet rings a ruby colored glass bell – hey, my mom had one of those when I was growing up – at the beginning of each course. She asks us to guess what the bowls of pâte are made of. Similar in color and served with crackers, the bihud or fish roe pâte is dubbed Pinoy Caviar. The other, Pinoy Pâte, is made with balut (fertilized duck egg). I don’t recall anymore which is which in the photo above but the difference in taste – as is their appearance – is almost indiscernible. Smooth and sophisticated, the duo of spreads is a cleverly conceived introduction to a Philippine food-themed meal.
There’s a restaurant I once went to that served sautéed balut enshrouded in a puff pastry cover. I grew up eating this so-called “Fear Factor food,” but there’s really nothing fearsome about it. In Dedet’s Balut Salpicao strong with garlic and lacquered with butter, it’s easy to just pick which parts I like (the yolk, of course). Mmm.
I like squash blossoms any which way and I continue to be surprised at the ways cooks and chefs present them. In her version, Dedet calls it Rellenong Bulaklak, and they’re stuffed with kesong puti (white cheese) and anchovies. I want to like this dish but I feel that its oiliness overwhelms everything else and there’s just too little of the stuffing.
Eto Naiba lives up to its name of being the odd man, er dish out. The only vegetation that we’ll see for the evening, it’s our plate of gratuitous greens blooming with lychee, melons, and edible flowers – “…whatever’s in the market,” our host explains.
It’s time! Dedet (on right in black and white blouse) rings her ruby bell and we scamper – at least I know I do – to the adjoining room. There, Yaya Ruth, Dedet’s longtime helper and whom I call “master lechonera,” smiles and starts the ceremony. Dressed in snazzy chef’s whites and wielding a sharp knife, she stabs and slices the pig lengthwise, its serrated blade sliding down. Each masterful stroke yields a strident crrrunch!crrrunch! sound that sends mouths watering uncontrollably. “God, I love that sound,” a girl beside me murmurs, staring transfixed at the pig’s bubbly skin. Meanwhile all around us, flashbulbs pop and people angle to get the best shot. Those who aren’t slaves to their cameras (lucky them) wait only ‘til Dedet “introduces” us to each pig and then they proceed to dig in and pig out.
First up is the German Lechon, one of the few that isn’t stuffed with rice but is otherwise stuffed mercilessly with an assortment of aromatics: whole heads of garlic, baby potatoes, stalks of lemongrass, lemon rounds, and calamansi. It’s fragrant and tender, and reminds me of my favorite Cebu lechon. “Mash the garlic with the potatoes for a little taste of heaven,” Dedet instructs with a smile.
Calamansi Sorbet to start afresh, its zingy character cools and calms but I’m ready for more pig.
The Laing Lechon is my favorite and others agree it’s theirs too. The rice is shot through with spice and tempered only briefly with gata (coconut milk). But it’s this heat that fights the cloy of the pig’s fat and oil and keeps my appetite revved.
There’s only muted conversation with the introduction of each new pig. Everyone seems deep in thought and enjoyment, mulling over how each pig differs from the last. Naturally, there are the usual wails about cholesterol levels and blood pressure but I’m more interested in pacing myself so that I can finish strong; a meal of this caliber deserves nothing less. I can exercise tomorrow.
The best parts of the pig are the ribs because that’s where all the flavor resides. Looking at this picture now, I really wish that I’d gone back for seconds.
The third and fourth pigs come in quick succession. I think Dedet calls this her Spanish lechon, a porcine wonder stuffed with chorizo and – collective sharp intake of breath heard here – taba ng talangka (crab fat) rice. I think it sounds marvelous and pile my plate enthusiastically. Though it sounds devilish, the talangka doesn’t feature prominently here in taste or otherwise; it’s the chorizo that’s the star. Its smoky, similarly porky notes echo that of the lechon rounding out the flavors into one cohesive whole.
Sabachara is pickled banana, a play on saba and atchara. It’s a citric whopper, the acidity of which widens eyes and clears sinuses. Not good on its own but terrific when paired with the legendary Truffle Lechon below.
Though the overuse of truffle anything has unfortunately turned it into a trite idea, Dedet demonstrates restraint with this ingredient. Unlike the now-familiar, gassy smell I’m expecting, there’s but a single bloom of fragrance when the skin is cut and that’s it. Try as I might and tempted though I am to shove my nose into the pig’s innards to inhale deeply, it’s really just roasted pig I smell and succulent meat that I eat. This pig has the thickest, crunchiest skin which I prefer over the preceding, younger lechon de leches.
“Here’s my Cholesterol Sweeper to sweep all the cholesterol out of your bodies,” Dedet announces upon the arrival of little shooter glasses filled with what looks like chocolate pudding. It’s actually oatmeal cooked down with tablea de tsokolate, sticky and only slightly sweet. I never realized how many people have issues with either oatmeal or tsokolate or both; not many people finish theirs. But then again, they could just be too full already, cholesterol be damned.
Gayuma ni Pepita is a romantically mysterious name for a drink I don’t understand. Hints of butterscotch are clouded by squirts of cream. Is this a drink? A digestif? I take one sip and await dessert.
I get happy just looking at these pictures and remembering what Dedet has dubbed her Super Suman. Super it is and loaded with “…all my favorite things.” A Philippine flag stakes its claim on a surfeit and supremacy of yema, Choc-Nut, ube balls, pastillas, pili nuts, dried langka – whoa, we might as well play Name That Food Item. Buried beneath such bounty is homemade suman, lush and moist. I realize that suman’s “blandness” makes it a malleable canvas to play up other ingredients. What a genius dessert this is.
Lechon Degustacion by Dedet de la Fuente
Whole stuffed lechons and other dishes mentioned here are also available for order.
For inquiries: (917) 866.0662 / 425.4605