CAN food be a reliable guide for tracing history and heritage?
It’s after all accepted to turn to a native to find out what is the local specialty and more importantly, where to get it. Yet, will someone from the inside see actually eye-to-eye with an outsider?
While documenting a regional seminar, I was asked to recommend the “best lechon” in Cebu. Noting my pause, the visitor asked if he had made a mistake in assuming I was a Cebuano.
I wasn’t able to answer right away because I was debating which information would be useful to him. Confidently, I can suggest a number of lechon makers whose roast suckling pigs travelers love to take home as “pasalubong”.
That’s not to say that, if I were younger and less protective to the point of paranoia of the state of my arteries, I would line up outside these sellers for their version of pure fat-saturated sin.
One’s harder to please for being born in the island that ranks at the top of Anthony Bourdain’s “hierarchy of pork”.
Bourdain has a multimedia following as a food guru who’s adventurous and irreverent in wit and taste. Writing in his blog, “Heirarchy of Pork,” Bourdain crowed: “It can now be said that of all the whole roasted pigs I’ve had all over the world, the slow roasted lechon I had on Cebu was the best.”
Benefiting from Bourdain’s endorsement is a local lechon maker whose branches have sprouted around the city. Yet, it’s interesting that in an all-Cebuano meeting I joined, where the choice of lechon maker, unlike other items in the agenda, had to be reached by consensus, not once was Bourdain’s anointed mentioned.
Thus, I conclude that travelers prefer Cebu lechon for reasons a local may never think of. First, it’s easily accessible. This means a stall in a mall. This rules out commuting for an hour at least to Carcar plaza, disembarking and walking (not riding) to get inside the wet market, running the gauntlet of rivals to reach a “suki (regular)” who will pack the meat while you get a free “taste,” arrange on top the neatly chopped chessboard of crispy skin, and separately bag the “inagos” or meat droppings and more fat-saturated juice for pouring on piping hot rice to match your lechon when you get home another hour or so after you catch a ride back again at the plaza.
I shy away from lechon in a mall. Not only does it cost more, the poor porker should don a jacket to prevent goosebumps from the centralized air-conditioning.
The best lechon means, for a citizen in the Age of Travel and Terrorism, travel-friendly packaging. No banana leaf wrap can get past an X-ray machine.
Yet for a Cebuano, it wouldn’t really be lechon if it were not wrapped in banana leaf (to enhance the aroma, perfectly complementing the traditional herb-and-spice stuffing) before being placed in a plastic bag (to keep the oil from a lap or the family car seat). Most strange to a Bisdak is the cosmopolitan version of lechon de Cebu, perfectly camouflaged inside a styro pack or a box.
During hours of waiting at the Mactan airport, I lost count of these immaculate white boxes dangling from or blending in modular harmony with Samsonites and Jansport trolley bags. I thought these were minimalist-designed travel packs stashing gizmos until I noticed a jaunty pig swinging a generous behind ending in a twirly tail. It might have been designed by Walt Disney himself.
As a Cebuano whose elders earned a living roasting pig, I can reconstruct from memory how an animal can get berserk with anger and pain as every struggle for life impales it deeper into the knife-edge, how every squeal shatters and shatters again the cold of dawn with something quick and hot, how before it becomes the toast of the fiesta table the resigned corpse gleams, hairless, drained, ghostly, waiting for the charcoal pit to give its holiday coat of brown-turning-reddish bursting split skin, what goes into the making of a bowl of “dugo-dugo (blood pudding),” which no trick of pepper or metaphor has ever really spiced or sanitized enough for me.
Don’t worry. If you ask me for the “best lechon de Cebu,” I’ve simplified the choices: stuffing of lemongrass, heart of banana or Arroz Valenciana?
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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 11, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column