A photo reminds me of my ultimate porky pleasure.
The cover photo of one of Anton Diaz’s recent posts is lechon and it triggers a memory of my favorite one. Lechon is roasted pig but such a simple definition doesn’t begin to encompass the get-down-on-your-knees-and-testify deliciousness of this animal.
Lechon is something that I eat only once a year – not by choice, you understand, but even I, with my no-bounds appetite can’t consume an entire pig alone. It requires a crowd, considerable expense, and an occasion, all of which make it even more desirable.
When it comes to lechon, there’s only one number my family calls, and that’s Ulcing’s Cebu Lechon. Years ago, the only time we’d get a Cebu lechon was if someone managed to sneak back a pig on a Cebu to Manila flight. Oh, those were pitiful pigs — soggy-skinned and wilted that didn’t speak well of the glory that is Cebu lechon.
Cebu lechon is deified and most rightfully so, by Cebuanos, and now, even Manileños. This type of lechon is so tasty that unlike the Manila version, it has no need for the traditional liver sauce. The pig is so filled with aromatics – lemongrass, whole heads of garlic, peppercorns, and onions – that the concoction intoxicatingly flavors the whole pig, a true visual, aural, and olfactory overload. It truly is a tasty, tasty treat that inspires superlatives and eye-rolls to the sky.
Known to many Manileños, Ulcing’s is a family business that’s been roasting lechons for the past ten years in the Jusmag Area in Fort Bonifacio, Taguig. It’s run by a shy, and most self-effacing woman named Tessie Javier, whose mom, Ulcing, started the original Ulcing’s Cebu Lechon in the late 1960s. For one reason or another, Ulcing was eased out due to family politics and so Tessie took up the lechon business in Manila and named it after her mother. “I was glad to be able to do that for her,” Tessie tells me in heavily Cebuano-accented Tagalog. “Before she died, it was important to her that there was a litsonan named after her.”
It’s a simple operation that Tessie runs out of her home, a home she’s stayed in since she moved to Manila from Cebu 30 years ago. It’s a house reserved for military personnel, of which her husband and now her daughter and son-in-law are part of. The garden at back is even bigger than the living quarters. It’s a windy, expansive space, lots of greens and overhanging trees, making it very easy to forget that it’s right in the middle of Manila. Freshly-slaughtered pigs, now sporting pale and newly-shaved skin are carefully hoisted onto long rods (tuhugans). Tessie explains that her pigs are flown in from Cebu and she calls them organic because they were fed only rice and organic meal, never any chemicals.
Meticulously arranged rows of charcoal and wood for even roasting. The man who makes lechon dreams come true.
The roasting pit itself looks like a concrete trench with several indentations for the rods. The prepared pig now on spear is fitted onto a gap in the pit. The only heat source is from charcoal, its characteristic ashy aroma and flavor permeates the pig, resulting in that most unique Cebu lechon flavor. During regular season, the litsoneros (pig roasters) will roast about 100 pigs a week, during peak season (Christmas), it’s 100 a day. Some roasters have mechanized roasting operations where the spit rotates mechanically, but here at Ulcing’s, it still harks back to old-fashioned handiwork measured manually in slow, deliberate spins.
Singeing the pig’s skin for a smooth, burnished finish.
It’s quiet here, the silence punctuated only by the crackling, hissing sound as hot pig fat hits smoldering charcoal and wood. It’s this fat which heat transforms into oil that naturally bastes and moistens the meat. I’m surprised when Tessie tells me that she doesn’t marinade or do anything special to prep her lechons prior to roasting. “Just tanglad (lemongrass), sibuyas (onions), and bawang (garlic) and lots of salt,” she tells me, again in Tagalog. She’s entitled to her secrets I suppose but I’m inclined to believe that it might really be just that.
Depending on its size, a four to five kilo-pig will cook in two to three hours and more than double that for the largest pigs that weigh 17-18 kilos. Since the start of cooking, the pig has changed dramatically in color: from an off white, the persuasive power of heat transforms it into beige, then a mottled tan, caramel, various nuances of earthy orange tones until it reaches its apotheosis, a slick, swarthy sienna.
Here’s the lechon on my kitchen table. Liver sauce optional.
This is Ulcing’s Cebu Lechon, a tantalizing crunch echoed in layers of aromatics and saltiness of skin. And for those who don’t already know, it’s the ribs that are the best part.
The Original Cebu Lechon
A-Q6 Jusmag Area, Southside
Fort Bonifacio, Taguig, Metro Manila
828 4724 / 810 6408 / 497 7957 (landlines)
0919 3613291 / 0908 933 1414 (mobile)