Lechon is the food that defines the Philippines. It is the most celebrated dish especially around Christmastime. Regardless of the reason for celebration, lechon remains constant in a Filipino party which serves as the highlight of the event.
Tracing back to pre-Hispanic life, roasting of pork had been practiced in our country . Spain cannot stake a claim to be our source. From the personal account of Antonio Pigafetta, he described the religious rituals exclusively performed by women, presided over by the high spiritual priestess called Babaylan.
While the women danced on a cambay cloth to pay homage to the sun while chanting, sipping wine and playing reed flutes, a live large hog fattened for the purpose lay abound on a grass mat and sacrificed by a Babaylan who dipped the tip of her flute in the hog’s blood and marked the natives’ forehead with it.
The feasting then began after the Babaylan was awakened from her trance while the hog was butchered and roasted for the natives’ celebration.
In Talisay Cebu “inasal” was the original term used. They are supervised and operated by women in deference to historical significance during the Babaylan era. Lechon stalls are run by women, call it superstition or lucky charm!
The lechon in Carcar is undeniably Filipino. The pigs are stuffed with lemongrass and garlic, roasted on a bamboo spit for hours until the flesh is meltingly tender with the skin crisp and burnished bronze. It is not served with liver sauce, but only topped with gravy from the juices released during roasting. The use of local herb patiotes give distinct flavor and aroma.
Cebu has built a reputation for the variety and high quality of its lechon, which has lately become a standard for the entire nation. The traditional Cebu lechon’s popularity is due to how flavorful the meat is on its own without the addition of liver sauce.
Although Cebu may be a strong contender for lechon capital of the Philippines, the historic capital to some has long been the La Loma district in Quezon City. Mang Tomas is credited to be the first “maglilitson” in La Loma. Born Tomas de los Reyes, the enterprising meat vendor was the catalyst for the booming litson industry back in 1950s. He began by selling pork meat outside his house which was conveniently located in front of the La Loma Cockpit Arena in Quezon City. He jumpstarted cooking lechon for the celebrating cockfight winners and soon, the flavor of his roast pig began to draw more than just cockfight aficionados.
The demand for Mang Tomas’ succulent roasted pork grew to the point that the erstwhile meat vendor ended up purchasing parcels of land to serve as his backyard roastery and a place for his piggery. The family then put up Mang Tomas Restaurant to service patrons with President Magsaysay as their regular distinguished guest.
In the decades that followed, other entrepreneurs took the cue from Mang Tomas’ successful business model and set up their own roasted pork brand. Some of them even endure to this day. Who has the better-tasting lechon is a matter of subjective taste, but the invention of the ever-present accompanying liver sauce or sarsa remains credited to Tomas de los Reyes.
Ironically, despite Mang Tomas brand and being more famous for its signature sauce than for its roasted pork, the “all around sarsa” is currently owned and manufactured by a different company. In 1991 it acquired the ownership and production rights of the Mang Tomas Sarsa.
Filipinos have managed to raise the standard so high that in 2009 Anthony Bourdain proclaimed lechon the “best pig ever!” It’s skin immensely crunchy which crackles between your teeth like chewing glass.
Lechon may be the symbol of bounty, merriment and unity however, in some cases can cause disease, embarrassment and frustration. It must be consumed in moderation to avoid heart disease. Embarrassment happens when the quality of pork is not fit for consumption and the right roasting procedure is not adhered to, dashing hopes of expectant visitors.
In keeping with the Filipino practice and tradition, it is high-praise where preparation and cooking is observed in a painstaking and consuming passion.
“Lo and behold our rock star!”