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Cebu’s lechoneros share their secrets in preparing the country’s tastiest roast pig

At the risk of being fiercely regionalistic, the best inasal nga baboy or lechon (roasted pig) still comes from Cebu. Cebuanos seem to have perfected, if not advanced, the art of lechon-making, placing their version of the Filipino food icon a notch higher than those of other provinces.

Just what is the secret behind the Cebuano lechon’s skin that’s crisp and crunchy from the ears to the tail, and meat that’s oh-so-juicy and tender it absorbs and holds a bouquet of flavors?

To begin with, lechoneros in Cebu don’t stuff the lechon with banana leaves to distribute heat thoroughly. They don’t use young tamarind leaves to impart sourness and neutralize greasiness. They don’t even use brown rice to hold the fat.

And yes, they don’t rely on sauces – neither the liver and breadcrumb-based variety nor the sweet and sour one – to temper the grease.

Traditional Cebuano cuisine features no frills. And the lechon is no exception. Except for a few trade secrets, it is cooked and infused with the common herb and spice flavor from garlic, citrus, basil and shallots, to name a few. Since Cebuanos like to keep it simple, and the lechon is already timplado (seasoned), just a dip made of the usual condiments, such as vinegar, soy sauce and calamansi with lots of pepper, is more than enough to bring out the flavor. Of course, there are a variety of cooking secrets, which the experts we interviewed, reveal.

The heritage town of Carcar, bastion of some of the oldest and best-kept family recipes that have survived through hard economic times, is acknowledged as home of the famed Cebu lechon. At the public market’s carinderia section, lechon stalls, neatly lined up, do brisk business daily.

The secret, according to Guiling’s Lechon owner Miguela “Guiling” Gendreuli, is in the meticulous preparation of the pig and the “soup”.

“It starts by scalding the stomach cavity of a clean slaughtered pig with boiling water,” she says. The soup – a mixture of 7 Up, pineapple juice, water and nine secret herbs and spices – is poured into the stomach cavity, which is immediately sewn up with abaca twine, Gendreuli says. This way, the mixture saturates every strand of the pig’s meat. The soup formula, earlier concocted in the family’s shuttered kitchen in Barangay Bolinawan, is a trade secret, designed by Gendreuli’s father Cinto and perfected throughout their 30 years in
the business.

For Herbert Cang of The Original Cang’s Lechon, the quest for the best lechon starts from the moment he chooses the pig. His method and recipe come from his mother, an excellent cook. Her lechon, the highlight of every family occasion, spawned a business in the 1950s when relatives and friends began to put in their orders.

“We use two-month-old pigs that are rasa (hybrid) because they are not fatty,” Cang says. Their pigs come from small backyard farms in Negros.

It used to be that black local pigs were preferred over hybrid ones because they produced crispier, crunchier skin and less fat. “But times have changed and black pigs are hard to come by these days,” Gendreuli of Carcar notes.
One of Cang’s priorities in lechon preparation is cleanliness. He personally oversees the process as his men blowtorch the pig to get rid of the stubbles after shaving. It is then stuffed with bay leaf, onion leaves, black pepper and garlic.

While Gendreuli uses leaves of the patiotes  (an indigenous herb) to infuse a richer aroma, Cang prefers the traditional lemongrass.

The skewered pig is roasted over slow, steady embers, using charcoal (a sack for every lechon) instead of firewood, which gives out flames. For where there’s fire, there’s smoke, which spoils the lechon’s taste.

Depending on the pig’s size, roasting time takes from two to three hours. “You can tell when the roasted pig is cooked when its digits detaches from the metatarsal, and when the stomach crumples,” Guiling says.

“It’s cooked when the meat separates from the skewer,” Cang says, adding that the crumpling doesn’t mean they have slivered off a few layers of meat in the cavity. “The meat crinkles because the meat inside is so soft and tender.”

To retain the skin’s crispiness, the roasted pig is cooled down to room temperature before being wrapped in paper. For out-of-town orders – Cang swears he has sent lechon on several occasions to a diamond magnate in Hong Kong – the lechon is wrapped in layers of aluminum tin foil, paper and cardboard.

What sets apart his lechon from the others is the signature crunchy skin, which his grandkids can readily recognize. “If they attend a party, they can always tell if my lechon is being served.”

Since Cang doesn’t operate a proper restaurant, he has created a variety of lechons from his home kitchen: boneless lechon (which is a deboned slab of pork meat, stuffed, stitched and roasted), hot-and-spicy lechon stuffed with native red and green chillis, lechon stuffed with dressed chicken (which his mother originally concocted) and lechon stuffed with paella. In time, he plans to open a commercial outlet where his lechon and its permutations can be ordered for take out.
 
For Enrico Dionson, owner of Rico’s Lechon, high demand for his lechon prompted him to open two establishments in Cebu City. Recently, he entered into a partnership with a businessman to add five more outlets in four years. “It’s actually a licensing agreement. He will use our brand name. In return, I get five percent of the daily gross sales.”

This former cockfight bet-taker has come a long way. In 1997, he started roasting pigs and gained regular business from his bosses in the cockpit. Despite having no experience in the food business or an heirloom recipe to back his product, he went ahead and experimented until he got the right formula. Finally in 1999, he received the break he needed when a customer ordered a lechon, which was served in an event attended by then-President Joseph Estrada who was visiting in Cebu. Estrada apparently liked what he sampled because the following day, Dionson found himself on the way to Manila with 50 live pigs, 50 sacks of charcoal, 50 bamboo poles and a crew of lechoneros in time to serve up his specialty for the politician’s birthday bash.

Dionson believes he pioneered spicy lechon in Cebu. “Once at a beach party, it occurred to me that if spicy roasted chicken tastes good, spicy lechon might even taste better.” He prefers roasting his lechon with garlic and onions and doesn’t use lemongrass, adding that he doesn’t want to turn off customers who don’t like the smell and taste of it.
 
“You can really tell our lechon by its taste,” says Jessa Gonzalos of CnT Lechon, one of Cebu City’s pioneering lechoneros. Although the recipe is a trade secret – originated by Norman and Catherine Quijada whose daughters Tiffany and Charmaine now help manage the business – they use the usual condiments that go with the lechon, especially the sibuyas dahon.

CnT Lechon, which boasts six outlets throughout Cebu City, prides itself in being the only lechonero that offers frozen and microwaveable products consisting of legs, shoulder and belly parts. “We don’t deliver our lechon outside of Cebu City, and for the convenience of our customers, we sell lechon in microwaveable packs,” Gonzalos says.

While most outlets offer boneless lechon made mostly of belly slabs, CnT promotes boneless lechon using meat from the head of the lechon. “We have customers who are fond of eating the lechon head, and now they don’t have to worry about the bones,” Gonzalos says.  

CnT sells a half kilo of frozen lechon at Php255 per kilo. Their lechon comes in four sizes: small (good for 8 to 15 persons at Php3,500 to Php4,000); medium (20 to 25 persons at Php4,500); large (30 to 35 persons at Php5,000);  and extra large (40 to 45 persons at Php6,000).

While Aling Gendreuli of Carcar prefers to sell her lechon by the kilo, Cang and Dionson take orders and offer the small, medium, large lechon (determined by the size and weight). Cang sells his lechon from Php2,200 to Php6,000. The chicken-stuffed lechon sells at Php4,200; lechon with paella at Php5,500 and the boneless lechon at Php2,200.

Dionson’s lechon price ranges from Php2,800 to Php7,000. The lechon de leche, which is good for 20 people,
costs Php3,000.