Episode 26: Lechon, The World’s Best Roasted Pig (Part 1)

Ah, lechon. One of the national dishes of the Philippines. A big, fat, red pork dish filled with mouth-watering, tender, juicy, crispy goodness. The star of Philippine fiestas and every other special occasion. Definitely one you can’t miss.

Lechon is not just your average pig on a bamboo stick. One can only marvel at this delicacy that is golden brown and crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. It’s expensive, but it can attract the crowds to your side whenever you have a feast. One bite and you can never ask for anything better.
To prepare lechon, all you need to do is get a suckling pig, remove its innards (and cook something else with them), bathe the pig in sauces, stuff it with herbs and spices, and then roast the pig slowly over a fire. The sauces you may want to use can vary, much more with the spices (stuffing can include any combination of lemongrass, tamarind, star anise, garlic, green onions and/or chili leaves). It’s not as simple as it looks like.
Barangay La Loma in Quezon City claims the title of “Lechon Capital of the Philippines”. When we say “La Loma,” we’re talking about a barangay where the best lechoneros (lechon roasters) can be found.
La Loma has a rich history long before lechon was born. A long time ago, the district was synonymous with the La Loma Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in Manila, and the La Loma Cockpit, believed to be cockfighting’s oldest home in the country.
It’s said that one of the hottest places in town in the ‘50s was the house of Mang Tomas Delos Reyes, a meat vendor, which was located in front of the cockpit. After a day’s worth of cockfights, the winners would buy pork meat from Mang Tomas to be roasted and served for their merry-making.

Mang Tomas decided he’d rather roast the meat himself and sell the cooked pork. Eventually, he set up shop in 1954, and the first lechon business in the Philippines was born.

As a side note, Mang Tomas created a special liver sauce to complement his lechon. This sweet sauce is what we know today as “Mang Tomas All Purpose Sauce,” “Sarsa ni Mang Tomas,” or simply “Mang Tomas.” Cue the MacGyver theme.
Today, Mang Tomas is not the only lechonero in La Loma. The district gave birth to popular lechon brands such as Lydia’s, Ping-Pings’, Mila’s, and other less-known brands like Monchie’s, Nelia’s and others.
There seems to be a difference with each lechon. Lydia’s, for example, has a thick, crispy, fatty skin to go along with its tender meat. The lechon skin in Mila’s is thinner, and the meat goes best with its creamy, semi-sweet sauce. The lechon meat and sauce combination from Ping-Ping’s gives out a lemony aftertaste. It must be the preparation or the spices stuffed in the pig, I dunno.

The truth is that the lechon’s taste can vary with each person. What seems lemony for me may taste rich and tasty to another. Whether one loves the fat, the skin, or the flesh itself is another matter as well. Still, the praise for lechon is endless, “delicious” would be an understatement.

Of course, lechon is good and all, but one must be reminded that this dish, when taken in excess just like everything else, is unhealthy. 

Eating lechon on a regular basis makes for clogged arteries and cholesterol build-up in the body. And like any fatty food, lechon contributes to some of the leading causes of death in the Philippines, like stroke, heart problems, and the occasional stabbing by the drunkard who wanted that pig cheek on your plate… wait.

Time Magazine declared lechon as “The Best Pig” in the 2009 edition of its Best of Asia series. Time writer Lara Day described lechon in her write-up as a discovery waiting to happen, a recipe with the most desirable results imaginable, and a beloved dish of Filipinos. Old news, but worth reflecting on.
“You could call it the Platonic ideal of a pig, but it’s doubtful if Plato, or even an entire faculty of philosophers, could have imagined anything so exquisite,” she said.
Lechon represents a lot of things about Filipinos: the importance of bonds (family or otherwise), respect for culture, the pursuit of good things in life, and celebrating everything that is rich, delightful, and exquisite. So come over to La Loma sometime and try their lechon. It’s worth the food trip. Really.

It would be nice to note that lechon owes this distinction to celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, incidentally knnow for his voracious appetite for everything pork. Again, old news, but worth reflecting on too. 

During the episode of his show “No Reservations” shot in the Philippines, Tony ate his way around Manila, Pampanga and Cebu Among the dishes he tried was lechon.

The episode showed Tony sampling the skin of a steaming newly-roasted pig and jokingly asking his show’s guest/tour-guide, Filipino-American Augusto Elefano, not to let anyone touch the pig’s cheeks (or at least one side), intending to have it all to himself.

In his blog, he placed the Philippines at the top of his so-called “Hierarchy of Pork”, followed by Bali, Indonesia and Puerto Rico.

Let me quote his entry: “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.”

Wait a minute, Cebu?!