A CEBUANO knows his pork.
I first uttered this to the uncle last year. For lunch, we were having pork chops and pork barrel. The former was courtesy of a Parañaque butcher, whom the uncle vilified for mistaking tender for tough.
The latter, of course, was giving the whole country indigestion. I’ve been told that it’s a mistake to watch television news during meals. Yet hearing plunderers sidestep the issue of their accountability makes it easier to gnaw, tear and gnash a rubbery piece of meat.
It may be too vexatious, though, for the nation’s mental health to rely on a steady diet of plunder and frustration to exorcise its demons, er, pork.
The Cebuano way with pork is tastier. Here in the capital, the phrase, “lechon de Cebu,” carries a lot of weight unless one drops it carelessly in the presence of a Cebuano (i.e., someone who grew up dunking “puso tapul” in “inagos”—no need to translate if you are Cebu-born).
Pasty cubes of meat topped by scorched tiles of rubbery skin are the typical mall version of “lechon de Cebu”. The fat tube of liver sauce that’s nestled with the impostor in its shrink-wrapped Styrofoam tray is a giveaway. Did it oink in its past life? It may be a pig. Does this “lechon de Cebu” need saucy embellishments? Wrong provenance.
Coco vinegar, “siling kolikot” and crushed “ahos”. That’s all you need to face lechon de Cebu. (Clean hands and the cardiologist’s clearance help, too, for the bruising hand-to-hand combat.)
Given the number of Cebuanos who have served, willingly or unwittingly, as lechon-couriers for family and officemates, I wonder why no one outside Cebu simply repeats the recipe: stuff a pig with herbs, coat its insides with a pail full of salt, and flip it for hours over a slow fire.
Two of my college chums supplied Manila clients with lechon from Cebu, emphasis on the preposition. They gave up, overwhelmed by the demand. Why not recruit from the thousands of Cebuanos moving to Manila to make lechon locally? Aside from the awkwardness of marketing “lechon de Bicutan” or “lechon de QC,” the Bisdak lechon doesn’t translate well in the capital.
It must be something pigs eat in Cebu. Or the serious rounds of “tagay,” laced with sly Bisdak humor, which accompany the turning of the lechon on the spit.
Or the secret may be in the skewer, not the skewed. For an upland school affair, a pole of metal, not the usual bamboo “tirong,” roasted a pig that was as long and as broad as a dining table sitting 12. The following day, a Friday, we were again gathered around the same pole for a solemn flag retreat.
Nearly perfect as food or poison, the lechon de Cebu does have a limitation. During Christmas, New Year and the Sinulog, it is a challenge to find the perfect, lemongrass-scented, crackling lechon, given the way the holidays resurrect the carnivores from diet or denial.
If your family does not have a history of clogged arteries and swollen joints for at least a century, you are unlikely to have a lechon “suki” who will not charge you a sinful price for a dish that will precipitately reunite you with your ancestors.
Alternative “pasalubong” are chicharon and chorizo. When Cebu runs out of pigs to roast, these delicacies, requiring less meat, remain in stock. Yet, last week, my “suki” for native chorizo opened with a bare counter for two days after Sinulog, which, ironically, recorded fewer visitors than previous fiestas.
Thus, I left Cebu with only a pasalubong of special Chinese chorizo, whose missile-like silhouettes on the airport scanner alerted the guards into inspecting my bag. Initially mystified by my well-wrapped bag of Kwongbees (special but without liver, better than the best of Binondo and Ongpin), the guard cleared me after I said that these were best eaten, not fried, but popped into a pot of cooking rice (the heat expands but keeps the sausage tender and flavors the rice).
Like I said, Cebuanos know their pork.
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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 26, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”