Certain gustatory delights I have taken for granted. Take chicharon, for example. All my life I have enjoyed this wonderful “snack.” I can think of many instances and snippets of memory from the past 4 decades when I was crunching down on some variation or other of deep fried pork fat and skin or rind, with or without spicy vinegar. I missed this snack almost as much as kiamoy and sampaloc when I was studying in the U.S., or was stationed in countries like Indonesia where getting pork cracklings wasn’t so easy. But I never really wondered how they made chicharon commercially, in the same manner that I don’t honestly care how “Chippy” barbecue corn chips are made, either (and I have consumed hundreds of packs of Chippy in my lifetime). The concept of chicharon seemed simple enough, just cut up some fatty pork rind and deep fry it. I even tried a fairly upscale version whose recipe is attributed to the former brilliant finance minister Jaime Ongpin, in this early post, but while delicious, I never bothered to make it again, since it was so easy to buy commercial chicharon…
In Cebu, the epicenter of chicharon is Carcar, a town some 45 minutes drive south of Cebu City. Around the town’s main rotunda, dozens of vendors and hundreds of kilos of freshly cooked chicharon (and other snacks and goodies) tempt the tourists who drive by. Once you have stopped your car and opened your windows, you are bound to take home at least a kilo of this stuff. There are a few folks who lay claim to being the “original” or “the best” chicharon retailer, but nearly everything I have tried from Carcar is pretty darned good. The chicharon is substantial, not light and airy. And the vinegar seeks the nooks and crannies to help bolster the view that the acid will neutralize the fat somehow. :)
So when driving back from the Auction market in Mantalongon, Barili a few weeks ago, we passed by what appeared to be the factory of a famous Carcar chicharon brand, of course we stopped and asked nicely if we could see the chicharon being manufactured. I have to tell you, it was an eye-opener in many, many ways. I really wish I could see more and more of these types of operations, as they are so incredibly interesting… In the top photo a freshly fried batch of chicharon is being taken out of an enormous vat of hot fat, ready to be sent to the retail shop down in the town of Carcar… The entire process goes something like this… pork rinds are cut into the preferred size… then they are parboiled in this huge vat of water that is salted and spiced (for many, that includes copious amounts of MSG), the second photo above… Then the drained boiled pieces are put into hot oil and fried until golden brown.
At this particular factory, they still used wood burning or charcoal fires, which they felt burned hotter and were more reliable than other types of stoves. The cast iron vats were filled with fat, lard I presumed, and there were gallons and gallons worth of chicharon frying away in each batch.
The place had the feel of a 1950′s iron shop, but the aroma clearly meant fat, fat, fat. The smokiness, the strong smell of lard, the decades of scum on the floor of the cooking area were just so authentic, and to me, so fascinating.
The skilled cook kept the chicharon pieces moving in the hot oil, sometimes swirling, sometimes lifting and plonking it down elsewhere in the large pan. Note that he is barefoot, a fact that made me cringe, no safety standards here, but if he was in shoes or slippers, he felt they would be more dangerous because the floor was so slippery. Of course I was thinking more of the dripping hot fat! Yikes.
Once the chicharon was deemed perfectly colored and cooked, they were scooped up in a large wire implement, then unceremoniously dumped into huge plastic garbage cans! Once full, these were sent to the packing area nearby to cool before being packaged.
This garbage can full of chicharon is a site that would make Joey, of 80breakfasts, weak at the knees (a professed chicharon fanatic), but to folks who worked in the factory, they admitted that after seeing chicharon being cooked day after day after day, they had lost their desire to much on it despite the unlimited supply readily available to them!
Once all the chicharon is fried, the charcoal is doused with water to turn down the heat, and the folks in the factory wait for a call from their main outlet in downtown Carcar to tell them to start cooking again. On busy holiday weekends, they are cooking constantly. And yes, now I can absolutely vouch for the fact that when they package chicharon for you by the kilo, the stuff is indeed FRESH and cooked within the last day at most!
The freshly cooked chicharon is cooled then portioned out into 1/4 and 1/2 kilo bags and sealed. They are ready to be sold. I think they were asking PHP500 a kilo, which is two large bags of chicharon.
But the most amazing lesson I learned during this visit? I spied hundreds of boxes of clearly U.S. or Canadian sourced raw material… the contents? Chilled pork rinds imported from the U.S. and/or Canada! Good grief, who would have known that all of that chicharon came from pigs with American citizenship?! Here I was thinking all those pigs sold in the nearby Mantalongon Barili market provided all that skin and fat! Amazing. Asked why they didn’t use local pork rinds, they said the imported stuff was more consistent, better quality, and ultimately more economical than local. But then again, if you read my post on making tinapa from scratch, I never knew the galunggong was all imported frozen from Taiwan… It upsets me somewhat that it seems we make fewer and fewer things from local produce. And particularly when they are such iconic dishes as tinapa and chicharon. Many, many thanks to the folks at Luis Chicharon who allowed me into their factory so I could experience this amazing process of manufacturing chicharon. And as for the poll, some 70% of you were wrong, like I was, and had no clue that the chicharon we all love didn’t come from a local pig. :)