We were curious how our Zubuchon chicharon compared with our competition, so one day we bought samples of 9 or 10 other brands of chicharon for sale in the domestic departure lounge of the Mactan airport and did a taste test, as well as comparing prices, packaging, weight, etc. It would seem ungentlemanly to rate each one of these producers individually, as we are retailers of chicharon ourselves, so I won’t be that specific. Instead, I would like to make some general comments on the product and provide tips for consumers so that they can make more informed buying decisions in future.
Laman or no Laman
I realize it is completely a personal preference, but ahh, my readers are true to my heart, with roughly 75-77% of you prefering chicharon with LAMAN and not just the airy light all-skin versions so frequently available these days. If you are going to ramp up your cholesterol levels, you might as well do it with a product that has character, verve and purpose — that is chicharon with LAMAN. Otherwise, I would send you to the grocery aisles with all those mysteriously puffed up and flavored foil packets concoctions that miraculously retail for less than PHP10 a packet. Hocus pocus, artificial flavorings, space-age puffing and frying equipment, carbs and fat is great sometimes (I have to admit a weakness for Chippy since childhood), but chicharon is one of the oldest and most honest of junk foods. :) All-skin or the lighter airier chicharons are cheaper to produce. They require less labor, less time cooking, less rendering of fat, and less energy to fry them. They have greater volume for their weight. Surprisingly, at the Cebu airport, roughly 50% of all chicharons on offer are of this type, even though it seems 3 out of 4 people seem to prefer the chicharons with laman. Traditional Carcar chicharon, for which Cebu is quite well known, has laman — and this style should be and is more expensive by weight.
Lard or Vegetable Oil
Believe it or not, not all chicharons are cooked in pure lard. That was a revelation for me. Several producers use cheaper vegetable oils, and while some might be bamboozled into thinking that vegetable oil is healthier, that isn’t necessarily so. Lined up against each other, and blind-tasted, the chicharons cooked in vegetable oil (most likely hydrogenated or partically hydrogenated) could be easily picked out of the line up. They definitely had a somewhat disagreeable taste, or at least a distinguishing taste. Chicharon cooked in lard seemed more like chicharon… the taste and flavor profile was consistent and more honest. Whether you use vegetable oil or lard, the key is to use FRESH oil. Oils that have been re-used often, undergoing high temperatures then cooled down and heated up again and again are EVIL. Ideally, you should seek chicharons using fresh lard. If you want to do the same test, buy several brands and taste them against each other, you will find there are outstanding ones and there are some relatively gross ones… The differences are most apparent when tasted right up against each other. :(
Seasonings, Additives (MSG or no MSG) and/or Preservatives
Almost all of the chicharons tasted probably had some to serious amounts of MSG in their ingredients line up. But oddly, few if any actually spelled out MSG or monosodium glutumate in their list of ingredients, choosing instead to lump it all together under “seasonings”… If you wish to avoid MSG, look for products specifically labeled NO MSG. Some folks like MSG so its inclusion shouldn’t concern everyone, but there are others who might prefer products whose taste is naturally developed, rather than with the use of flavor enhancers. Many chicharons in our test batch used a mixture of garlic powder, salt and MSG, while others probably use this flavoring packet called aji-shio, which is MSG and other powdered flavors. We don’t use any MSG in our chicharons, just salt and sometimes a little garlic powder. We do occasionally make batches of paprika flavored chicharon for special orders — and it tastes terrific, but many consumers assume it is spicy (not slightly sweetish, actually) and shy away from it so we don’t regularly stock it. I also make small batches of vinegar and salt chicharon for family and friends and love it, but it’s quite expensive as I import the powdered vinegar and salt mixture. If I found a trustworthy local source without MSG, I would definitely want to offer the salt and vinegar chicharon as a regular variety…
Weight & Prices
It seemed odd to me that several packages contained weights like 60, 70, 90 grams instead of a nice round number like 100 or 200 grams. The first thing we did was to actually weigh each package of chicharon, and duplicate samples of each brand when available. Some slight variances in actual weight vs. published weight is normal and expected, particularly since many of these packages are hand packed and thus some will be up to 5% below or above the published weight. Roughly 60-70% of the packages tested were close to, or at, the published weights. None were noticeably heavier than published weights. But 30%+ of the packages were up to 15% underweight, which is not nice at all. We would have to buy a dozen of each of those brands to determine if the lesser weight is chronic, or intentional, or just an aberration. Best I could guess, there are two things at play here… the odd weights are to make price comparisons between bags a little bit more difficult for consumers. Hence, unless you are a walking calculator, it’s hard to tell if a 40 gram package for PHP35 is a better or worse deal than PHP60 for a 70 gram package of chicharon (the later is cheaper by PHP18 per kilogram worth. Add on the possibility of underweight contents, and the price comparison becomes downright confusing.
Our findings? The average cost per kilo of all types of chicharon ranged from PHP800-1,200 per kilo at the airport lounge, which does have higher prices than say, downtown sources due to higher rents, etc. Considering the price of the best raw materials, the seriously labor intensive nature of making good chicharon, good packaging, and the shrinkage, I can tell you this is a reasonable range for a quality product if you don’t feel like messing with making your own batch. However, remember that airier “without laman” is significantly cheaper to make than chicharon “with laman”. :)
Do not be deceived by fancy packaging… there appeared to be little correlation between packaging and quality of product. More likely, nice packaging resulted in higher prices. I can appreciate the effort and investment in packaging, but this should sway you little in your search for the best and the best value chicharon.
Expiry dates range from about 15 days to 3 months! Ideally, it’s best to buy chicharon that has been freshly cooked and packed. At Zubuchon, we cook chicharon 6 times a week, in relatively small batches. It is a pain in the neck, but it ensures that we almost always have fresh stocks. It also means that for the airport, we replenish daily, and often twice daily. And the chances of your buying chicharon cooked within the last 24 hours is fairly high. At our restaurants, the chances are you are buying chicharon cooked within the last 1-3 days. Our packs are generally labeled with expiry dates of 15 days after the chicharon was cooked. It can last another week or two after that, but we don’t recommend it. I believe we had the shortest published expiry dates of all packs tried. We did notice several other brands with one month, two month and even three month expiry dates. Personally, I think 2-3 months is simply way too long and unless they are using preservatives, special packing that removes air from the package, etc., you are likely to detect an increasing level of rancidity in your chicharon. It probably won’t harm you, but it won’t be the best tasting chicharon, either. Of the several packs we tried, at least 30% were noticeably to ridiculously rancid. Try to stick to products that were cooked within the last 5-10 days or LESS when you consume the product. I do like those stalls that sell freshly cooked chicharon, but most of them do the airy skin only (and often with re-used vegetable oil rather than lard) versions and I prefer chicharon with laman. Don’t buy chicharon and let it sit in your pantry for another month or so. I have never frozen chicharon, but that’s worth a try I suppose — I just threw a pack into deep freeze for a couple of weeks to see if that yields reasonable preservation of taste and crunchiness.