It’s been said that lechon was discovered when a pet pig got trapped in a burning house. After the fire, the owners of the house saw their (now) scorched pet, its skin shiny and burnished from the heat. Curious, they touched the pig — but it was still hot! Instinctively, they licked their blistered fingers to cool them, and thus the discovery of how good roast pork tasted. Impressionable girl that I was back then, I believed this story, awed at how people could be courageous enough to put burnt unknowns into their mouths.
Now that I’m an adult I still don’t know if that story is true. What I do know however, is that every time there is a lechon, everyone scrambles to get their hands on that crisp crimson skin. I too scurry to get my piece, reveling in the way it shatters in my mouth, several different textures and sensations exploding all at once: the initial crunch when teeth meet skin, followed by a flood of glorious oil; more crunching as the skin breaks up into tiny pieces, the fatty flavor imploding upon itself until finally all that is left is my lubricated palate yearning for more.
French gastronome Charles Monselet once said about the pig, “It is nothing but an enormous dish which walks while waiting to be served.” Indeed, every part of the pig can be and is utilized. One of the earliest surviving recipes in fact, dating to before 500 B.C. is for a pig. It describes the roasting of a suckling pig stuffed with dates and wrapped in straw mixed with clay, cooked in a heated pit. The recipe is Chinese in origin and today, similar methods are still used to roast pigs in the Polynesian islands.
It’s what I’m thinking of as I look into this pit where a lechon will soon be cooked — a wide, concrete cavern that can roast fifteen lechons simultaneously. The prepared pig is slid onto a tuhugan, a metal spear, which is then fitted onto alternating gaps in the pit. It’s 6:20 a.m. on a Sunday inside Aling Loring’s in San Juan, reportedly one of the favorite lechonans of a former President. I considered it no small feat to be here. I had spent the past week getting phones slammed down on me in answer to my request to witness lechon roasting firsthand. It had taken a lot of cajoling and convincing on my part to get Aling Loring to concede to my request. “Bakit mo ba gustong matutong magluto ng lechon?” she had asked, astonished. “Mausok, mainit na trabaho ito.”
The charcoal that is used for roasting is called bakawang. Sourced from Angat, Bulacan, it heats up cleanly and intensely without the typically copious ash of more common charcoals so bothersome to eyes and nose. I watch intently as the charcoal is arranged in a rectangular shape around the pig. In this way, the heat cooks the lechon evenly from all sides as it rotates on the spit. Sudden and direct heat will make the meat tough and prevent the heat from penetrating to the interior.
It was only in the 90’s when roasting lechon was mechanized. “Noon mano-mano, walang tuhugan, walang kawayan. Dati, may isang tao pa bawa’t baboy,” says Malou, one of Aling Loring’s daughters. “Sobrang usok din, parang ang tao ay niluluto,” adds Ryan, the lechonero. “Ngayon may motor, hindi na nakakainip. Puwedeng umupo, mag-yosi, matulog,” he jokes. With technological advances, only one or two designated cooks are necessary to supervise up to fifteen lechons roasting simultaneously. The turning of the spit which revolves to allow the meat to cook evenly is now run by machine which I timed to be an average speed of twelve seconds to one full turn.
While roasting a lechon is now a mechanized process, some things never change. The room is still an old-fashioned affair made from cement and a high corrugated iron roof (yero) to keep the place airy and cool. The silence is punctuated only by the quiet whir of the motor, and the crackling, hissing sound as hot pig fat hits smoldering charcoal. It is this fat which heat transforms into oil that naturally “bastes” and moistens the meat.
It’s unbelievable that the cooking of a lechon seems to defy all the common practices home cooks follow when roasting. At Aling Loring’s, no cola marinades or seasonings are used ”“ just a well-cleaned pig goes on the spit. Depending on its size, a pig will cook in two to three hours. Any longer than that, and the pig will split open and fall into the fire. Not a pretty sight I’m sure, for such an eagerly awaited roast.
Three hours have passed. Since then, the pig has changed dramatically in color: from an off white, the persuasive power of heat is evident first in the fore and hind quarters, followed by the rest of the body. First beige, then a mottled tan, caramel, various nuances of earthy orange tones until it reaches its apotheosis, a slick, swarthy sienna. Despite modernization, the resulting color is the product of a cooking tradition that won’t be rushed; for it is the tantalizing crunch and unctuousness of skin that is its own reward.