Marketman and crew are all liempo-ed out! Last Friday and Saturday, May 7 and 8, we purchased liempo from four different retailers, three of them offering “Balamban-style” stuffed liempo (two in Cebu City, and the “The Original” in Balamban Town), and one retailer who sold unstuffed liempo. In addition, we cooked liempo five different ways, just to see how a home-made version would compare. We not only attempted to replicate the Balamban style, but experimented with four other variations of liempo. Talk about pork overload! Pork is a Marketman and marketmanila.com fan favorite, so we perservered. :) The above photo is of three types of liempo from three different Cebu City purveyors. I dedicate this post to marketmanila suki Lee, in his current far-flung work location, as I am sure he would have been a worthy and ravenous member of our Pork Investigative Group or “PIG” for short. :) This post outlines our findings and opinions…
I wrote this post on Liempo on Bamboo in mid-February 2010, and in the comments section of that post, some fairly active support for one particular purveyor was put forth. After noting the source and content of comments, I decided to close the comments feature to prevent what appeared to be “vote-padding”. Several weeks later, in late-April 2010, I wrote this post on “Balamban Liempo” (the brand name, with 3-4 outlets in Cebu), which seems innocuous enough at the time. It attracted some fairly incendiary comments from what now appear to be fans, not owners, of “Balamban Liempo” (the brand), and wrote a follow-up rant, here.
So when we embarked on this latest liempo round, I did feel a particular responsibility to give Balamban Liempo a solid second chance. Arriving in Cebu mid-morning, we headed directly to Balamban Liempo’s branch in Mabolo, in the small garage or driveway of a home, with place to sit and eat tucked into one side. We were there before 11am, and they had only just started to get their charcoal fire going, so we decided not to wait. This was NOT surprising, it is reasonable to expect that they would have cooked liempo and chickens by say 11am thereafter, so while I didn’t taste anything here, nor even see anything cooking, at least I had seen the location. This is not a restaurant, more like a streetside eatery.
Later the same day, at 1140 a.m., we visited Balamban Liempo’s branch behind Coco Mall, where we purchased the first two portions written about in previous posts. This location was likewise set up streetside, albeit inside a perimeter fence/gate, and the cooking food was not clearly visible from the street. You had to enter through a store or through the open driveway gates to see the roasting chickens and liempo. Tables were set up in the garage/carport, each table with a bottle of vinegar and chilies. I did not take photos to avoid drawing attention to myself, and a crew member was tasked with buying some liempo. There were only two pieces of cooked liempo on offer (no other partially cooked liempo at that point in time), and we picked the larger piece, but when it was taken off the spit, it looked a bit undercooked, and when the vendor heard our concerns, he told us to get the smaller piece instead, as that would DEFINITELY be well cooked. We agreed. We had wanted to purchase two orders that day but there was nothing else on on the grill besides chicken.
I carefully timed the interval between when the pork was taken off the spit and when I plunged my instant read thermometer. For larger pieces of meat it is generally asserted that the internal temperature of the meat will peak some 10-15 minutes after coming off the heat. For this relatively small piece of meat, I decided to wait a uniform 5 minutes for all of the liempos we would buy. The liempo registered a 147-148F temperature, and it didn’t rise beyond that. It is generally asserted that pork is properly cooked at roughly 160F.
Next, I weighed the portion on my portable OXO digital scale. It weighed in at 446 grams and removing the packaging and thermometer weight (total of 14 grams), the net weight of the piece was 432 grams. The previous occasion where we bought two portions of Balamban Liempo, the average portion weighed 420 grams, so for all three portions, the average weight was 424 grams. It is interesting to note that the first time we purchased here, the vendor informed our crew member that each portion was 700 grams (uncooked weight we presume) so at a cooked weight of 424 grams, that would suggest “shrinkage” of 40% — that is far more “shrinkage” than our own experience cooking five pieces of liempo, where the range of weight loss was roughly 25-30%, with an average of 28%. That would suggest, calculating backwards, that the starting weight of these pieces was really more like 600 grams each, not counting the stuffing.
At a cost of PHP175 per portion, the average estimated cost PER KILO of cooked liempo is PHP412.74 (PHP175/.424). While we didn’t eat at the Balamban Liempo location (we had decided to do take outs at all purveyors, as several don’t encourage eating in), we did immediately taste the skin of the piece we purchased. It was crisp and flavorful, fragrant with herbs speckled all over the portion. We ate a good third of the skin (hence the funny photo up top with skin missing) and enjoyed it. The skin was a bit thick, which suggests that the pieces of liempo come from relatively large pigs, say in the 70-100 kilo live weight range, the same size that would yield substantial pieces of pork belly.
Back at our office, we sliced the Balamban Liempo portion/order in half and were again shocked to see how pink the meat was within. At 148F recorded internal temperature, frankly, it was almost certainly undercooked. The color wasn’t just slight pink, it was widespread pink. And had we purchased the other portion in the store, it would probably have been even more undercooked. I am still not discounting the use of nitrates such as saltpeter (this has never been confirmed) or other preservatives, but the color was, in our opinion, a serious concern. I’d hate to think that the problem was in the quality of the meat used.
What was also very noticeable from our cross-section slice was that this didn’t actually seem to even BE a piece of liempo. There were no trademark streaks of fat, clear layers like you see in all the other photos in this post and previous posts on liempo. It is possible this was just a meaty end-piece, but I was also wondering if it wasn’t a piece of pigue or other cut of pork instead. It had a nice layer of fat just below the skin, but as the photos indicate, the rest of the portion looks like solid meat. I know I said the first two portions of Balamban Liempo we tried were fatty, but I have to say, this portion falls at the complete opposite end of the scale, in that there wasn’t the traditional striations of belly fat at all.
The stuffing, the aromatic mix of chopped green onions, possibly lemongrass, garlic, salt, pepper and any other secret ingredients was clearly stuffed into a cavity in the pork. It was a somehwat of a “mush” and again did not strike me as being cooked through. Not sure if this piece of meat had been marinated for some time before grilling but it was reasonably juicy. I am also go out on a limb and say I thought that possibly ALL of the commercial liempos we purchased may have had MSG as part of their seasoning, but I cannot confirm that without lab testing. I personally do not like MSG in my meat, but others probably don’t mind this much at all.
I zoomed into the previous photo above, to show you the detail of the meat just around the stuffing, as it is very pink and its texture is that of uncooked pork. I realize this could just again be a slip up, but three portions of undercooked pork are a bit disconcerting. Taste wise, I noted the same off flavor that I now think comes from the large amount of green onions that do remain only slightly cooked. And the combination of spices/marinade is not my favorite of all the commercial liempos we tried. I found it was not overly salty, nor bland, but I suspect one would HAVE to rely on the accompanying vinegar to complete this taste experience. For the sake of comparison, we tried all the liempos without the vinegar dips they came with, and again WITH the vinegar. The vinegar and chili tends to overpower most of the underlying flavor in the liempo, but it is a taste combination that almost everyone loves. But then that isn’t about the liempo, it shifts focus to the vinegar chili mixture. In this case, it was slightly opaque vinegar with whole siling labuyo.
“Balamban Liempo” Summary
Cost per portion: PHP175
Average Cooked Weight per portion (3 portions total): 424 grams
Effective Cost per kilo of liempo: PHP413 (boneless)
Internal Temperature 5 minutes after coming off the flames (1 portion tested only): 147-148F
Visible “Doneness”: Very pink, appeared undercooked.
Skin: Nice caramelized color, blistered and very crisp.
Other: Balamban-style, stuffed with chopped herbs in a single “pocket”, appeared to be marinated with herbs, with cooked herbs on the surface of the skin and meat.
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KUSINA NI NASING
Our next stop last Friday, at roughly 11:55 a.m., was Kusina ni Nasing, on V. Rama Street. Several readers had mentioned that I should try their Balamban-style liempo (stuffed with herbs). This was a larger (physical space and product volume wise apparently) vendor with frontage on a main street. Their roasting/grilling pits were sending smoke out right onto V. Rama, and a medium sized room with say 8+ tables was in the interior or rear of the space. We saw some 12 pieces of liempo grilling when we got there, and two spits were removed from the flames when I took this and other photos. There were customers ahead of us, choosing their liempo, and one or two customers just behind us. They also had several roasted chickens on offer. Most customers bought food for take out, and if I recall correctly, only one table was occupied by diners.
Kusina ni Nasing has its own approach to Balamban-style liempo. They seem to almost physically separate the layers of meat and fat, place their aromatics in between, then pierce the meat with several bamboo sticks to prevent the piece from coming apart while cooking. The herbs and spices are in much bigger pieces and readily apparent. There is lemongrass, green onions, garlic, etc. and you can clearly make out the herbs as they turn on the rotisserie.
This approach results in more heat reaching between the layers and more of a self-basting process with fat and heated herbs releasing flavor and coating the entire piece of meat. I immediately thought that the weight loss on this method of cooking would be greater than if you just slit the meat and added stuffing in one area. I was a bit concerned that all the bamboo sticks piercing the meat would result in a loss of juices, leading to drier meat… Liempo pieces on the spits seemed to VARY significantly in size, and we selected and purchased two pieces that looked appealing and which the vendors said were cooked and ready.
After 5 minutes, I plunged the instant read thermometer into the first piece of Kusina ni Nasing liempo we bought, and it did NOT surprise me that this came in at 165F, indicating pork that was probably WELL DONE.
I also weighed this first piece and it registered some 297 grams, rather light. If you adjust for the thermometer, barbecue sticks and packaging, this had a net weight of 280 grams.
We bought a second piece of liempo at Nasing’s and it registered 162F on the instant read thermometer. Notice that this was an “end-piece” and contained more solid meat and less fat layering.
The second piece registered 387 grams on the scale, or 370 grams net. Notice the large variation in weight between the two pieces of meat, a bit of a turn off for buyers who might feel shortchanged by such wide swings in product weight for the same price… Based on a very small sample of two pieces, our average weight was 325 grams. Assuming a higher shrinkage due to the style of stuffing/cooking at say 33%, this would suggest that the starting uncooked weight of meat would be roughly 485 grams or half a kilo. At PHP160 a serving, the per kilo price of Kusina ni Nasing was roughly PHP492 a kilo, significantly more expensive than other liempo’s purchased. Even if you adjusted for the greater likely “shrinkage” due to the style of cooking, the price would still be roughly PHP470 per kilo.
Back at the office, we noticed that the piece looked well done to the naked eye (dark color and dry texture of the external skin/meat). There were “airy” and dry gaps between layers of meat and fat, where the herbs had been placed and some of the herbs had burned off or flattened and lost moisture…
When chopped up, the pieces were clearly well-cooked, with little if any traces of pink. These portions included bones, which might some find a waste of weight, but I like the bones and the intense flavor the meat around them possessed. The first piece was a bit on the dry side, but the flavor of the meat was very good. The second piece had a little less flavor, probably due to less fat and fewer herbs used on that piece. Overall these were not very salty, but again I would suspect some MSG in the mix of marinade or spices used. Taste wise, the crew thought this was one of the best of the four versions we would eventually try. I thought this was nicely done, but wished it was taken off the flames some 5 minutes earlier. This was also served with chili vinegar, which looked nearly identical to the vinegar we got at Balamban Liempo. We would definitely buy this again.
“Kusina ni Nasing” Summary
Cost per portion: PHP160
Average Cooked Weight per portion (3 portions total): 325 grams
Effective Cost per kilo of liempo: PHP492 (with bones)
Internal Temperature 5 minutes after coming off the flames (average of 2 portions tested): 163.5 F
Visible “Doneness”: Well-done, slightly dry.
Skin: Nice caramelized color, blistered and crisp.
Other: Balamban-style, stuffed with larger pieces of herbs in at least two layers, with heavy use of short barbecue sticks to keep pieces together.
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Our third stop on Friday, at roughly 12:12pm, was a garish and bright Mr. Liempo stall on busy Escario Street, near the provincial capitol. This is one of a chain of several lechon manok and grilled liempo take out places all over Cebu. Their spits were almost completely full (with at least 16-20 pieces of liempo and over a dozen chickens roasting simultaneously) and it was clear they did a substantial volume of business at this site. Less than 3 months or so in this location, it was possibly the youngest or newest I would think of the 3 liempo outlets we visited so far. Everything was sold for take out here, no eat it allowed. There were buyers ahead of us, and at least one directly behind us in line. Also, they do NOT stuff their liempos in the “Balamban-style” but I wanted to buy some of this to compare those with lots of visible herbs and stuffing, and those without.
The pieces of cooked liempo looked smaller than all of the others we had seen so far, but the price was also lower. We picked a piece that was appealing, they took it off the spit and placed it in a styrofoam container and plastic bag.
After exactly 5 minutes after coming off the flames, I stuck the meat thermometer into the Mr. Liempo piece and it registered 156F on the thermometer, a few degrees shy of the 160F benchmark we were using. This piece did in fact seem cooked from the outside, not overly dry, and still juicy, but the temperature doesn’t lie…
At 356 grams, with ribs/bones included gross, and roughly 339 grams net weight, these actually weren’t as small as we had first thought. At PHP135 per portion, this one sample works out to an effective per kilo cost of cooked liempo with bones of PHP398, the least expensive of all the three city sources we tried.
This none stuffed version looked promising, and appeared to have kept its integrity and juices intact. The skin was VERY GOOD, crisp and delicioius, lighter than the other liempos tried. It hadn’t been overcooked to the point of a slight tinge of bitterness. This was the most like chicharon, at least in this one sample tried.
When we cut this piece open, we found a slight tinge of pink to the meat. At just a few degrees below 160F, this wasn’t a total surprise, but unlike the earlier pink piece of meat, this one appeared cooked, yet pink. And the pinkness was near the ribs or bones. Again, I wondered if this might not be more to preservatives or nitrates in the marinade, but I have to say that among the 8 or so people who were witnessing all this liempo dissection, they didn’t hesitate much to eat this one, whereas nearly everybody was not keen on eating the earlier pink and seemingly undercooked other piece of liempo from another purveyor.
Taste wise, I actually liked this Mr Liempo version. It had none of the distraction of the herbs, and yet the meat was flavorful, properly salted and tasty. Again, I would bet there was MSG in the mix of ingredients. It would have benefitted from a few more minutes on the fire, but that is quibbling. This portion was wiped out by the crew. It also came with a more “pinakurat” cloudier and light brown vinegar accompaniment, rather than just vinegar with chilies. We would buy this again in a pinch, and in need of pre-cooked food for lunch.
“Mr. Liempo” Summary
Cost per portion: PHP135
Average Cooked Weight per portion (only 1 portion tried): 339 grams
Effective Cost per kilo of liempo: PHP398 (with bones)
Internal Temperature 5 minutes after coming off the flames: 156 F
Visible “Doneness”: Tinge of pink, but meat appeared cooked.
Skin: Nice light caramelized color, blistered, light and crisp.
Other: Thinner, longer pieces, no stuffing of herbs, but marinated with their own mix of ingredients. Not a balamban-style preparation.
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Having survived the night without pancreatic failure or bangugot after a day filled with liempo consumption in Cebu City (three types of purchased liempo, and 5 types of home made liempo), we decided to head westwards to the town of Balamban. The liempo cooked near the market of Balamban, a 1 hour drive from the outskirts of Cebu, is the inspiration for the current interest in “Balamban-style” liempo in Cebu City. It seemed only natural that we would seek out the original, or the likely source that spawned several unrelated businesses in the city.
We timed our leisurely drive through the scenic mountains to arrive in Balamban at around 11;15, just in time for the lunch time rush. It wasn’t difficult to find Kristian’s, the reputed “originator” of the stuffed Balamban liempo. Just head to the town market and seek out the huge cloud of smoke billowing and incredible aroma wafting from this modest, and nonedescript stall. With a total travel time of some 2.5-3.0 hours on the road and at the stall, and some PHP1,000 worth of gas or more, this excursion for the sole purpose of trying Balamban liempo was a bit extravagant, and expectations were understandably high.
Our first impression was that Kristian’s was clearly a local favorite. Cooking simultaneously on over the hot coals were at least 24 pieces of liempo and possibly as many as 24 whole chickens. Admittedly this was a Saturday, probably a fairly high demand day, but suffice it to say these guys were pushing product through their stall… Several folks were working the grills, and when asked if Kristian’s had been here a long time, they said yes, a very long time… but no estimate of years was given. They also claimed to be the first to stuff the liempo with herbs before grilling it. There is no way for me to confirm this, but I will say that if there is another original, Kristian’s was probably a pretty good proxy given its location near the market, the volume of food being cooked, and other sources pointing to Kristian’s as the epicenter of Balamban-style liempo.
We knew in advance that there was no place to sit and eat at Kristian’s, so we brought along cutlery and large cloth napkins from our hotel so we could consume what we bought that day. We selected two portions of liempo, and first one in this photo above, registered at 159F on the thermometer, almost smack on the 160F standard we were comparing against.
It weighed in at a heftier 467 grams and net of thermometer and packaging, this was roughly 450 grams net.
We purchased a second portion, and it weighed in at a slightly heavier 478 grams, or roughly 460 grams net. This had an internal temperature of exactly 160F. The average weight for the two portions was 455 grams, and assuming shrinkage of 28%, the estimated weight of uncooked pork was roughly 632 grams. At a price of PHP170, the effective cost of 1 kilo of cooked liempo, with bones, was PHP373, the lowest of all liempos tried in Cebu and Balamban.
Cut up, this liempo was fatty and unctuous, yet not “sumol” or unpleasantly fat. It was a light tan color, clearly fully cooked, it had herbs spread evenly among the pieces and it was very tasty. It was a bit on the salty side, and again I would have to guess it had vetsin, but the flavor was more smooth and balanced, without the sharp rawness of the stuffing in other examples from Cebu. The skin in this particular portion was NOT the crispest we had had. Some of the skin was moist and chewy rather than denture-cracking hard and crunchy. We ate this portion in the car, just meters from the Kristian stall. Three of us who tasted it, Mrs. MM and AT, were all pretty impressed. And happy we had made the journey to check out the original. But honestly, it’s a bit far and costly to trek to Balamban from Cebu, and despite good value and taste, I am not sure I would bother to make the trip for the sole purpose of eating liempo. If you happen to be in the vicinity, I would recommend a stop at this busy liempo purveyor.
Despite an abundance of green onions and other herbs, it is interesting to note that the herbs did NOT seem to overpower the meat, and instead complemented it. The bones in this portion were finger licking good. :)
Kristian’s Liempo (The Original? Liempo in the Heart of Balamban) Summary
Cost per portion: PHP170
Average Cooked Weight per portion (2 portions tried): 455 grams
Effective Cost per kilo of liempo: PHP373 (with bones)
Internal Temperature 5 minutes after coming off the flames (average of 2 portions): 159.5 F
Visible “Doneness”: Light khaki or brown color, seemed to be well cooked.
Skin: Deeper brown caramel color, marinade may have included soy sauce, skin was the least crisp of the four types of liempo we purchased, and a bit on the salty side.
Other: A genuine feel of authenticity, and provincial modesty. They were surprised to hear several in the city of Cebu had “adopted” their way of cooking things. They reiterated their stall was NOT affiliated with Balamban Liempo stalls in the city of Cebu.
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So I am sure all of these purveyors have their respective fans. But stepping back from one or the other purveyor, what we tried to do was taste all of them at around the same time. We checked the internal temperatures, weight and compared prices. We took extensive photos for you to see snapshots of the process and products themselves. And we have OUR OPINION of which ones we liked the most and the least. If you are really a liempo disciple, I suggest you make your own rounds with an open mind so you can find the liempo that best suits your tastes. Before I give my rankings, I must first say that you have to look at this within a certain context. These are roadside vendors for whom the only main criteria is the liempo that they sell to you… not the signage, physical location and interiors, sanitary conditions or legitimacy of licenses or health requirements, not advertising, etc. We simply based our review on the meat that we tasted, check doneness, weighed and compared prices for value, and were in sync with our personal views of what we liked and disliked, here is our collective summary:
1. Kristian’s Liempo came out on top, without assuming the onerous drive and cost to get there. These guys smacked of a more authentic and real food experience. They had impressive volume, possibly the highest of all four liempos we tried. They had a huge following of regulars. The two portions we tried were perfectly cooked, with an internal temperature of 159.5 on average, though I understand we could have just been mighty lucky, and consistency has yet to be proven. The meat wasn’t pink or undercooked at all, and the meat was juicy and tender. So tender in fact it makes me wonder what ingredient or process they used to achieve that degree of tenderness. The flavor was strong but not overwhelming. You didn’t even seek the vinegar, except to neutralize the obvious fat content. It was the best value, offering the largest pieces and the lowest effective cost per kilo. The skin did not wow us. Salt and MSG were used with a slightly heavy hand.
2. If we couldn’t be bothered to drive or take a bus to Balamban, Kusina ni Nasing’s Liempo would have been a very close second choice practically tied for first place. The main issue here is that the pieces we got were overcooked and as a result, dry. We liked the way the herbs were layered into the liempo, in a less uptight manner. The portions were photgenic on the grill and appetizing to me, and the method of preparation ensured that the meat was likely to be fully cooked. The herbs and fat melted together to provide a delicious basting liquid. The skin was very good. The short bamboo sticks a distraction, and probably a cause of drier than usual meat. With their main street frontage, they seemed to have a large volume of customers, and despite the small sizes of the portions and the relatively higher prices, this still squeaked up above the others we tried. My suggestion for an even better version of this? Ask the cook/vendor which liempos are fully cooked. Then ask him/her which are the “next in line”… Bring a thermometer with you and test the second group of liempos, buying the ones that register roughly 156-157F when taken immediately off the heat. About 5 minutes later, these should have internal temperatures of roughly 160-161F.
3. While not actually a variation of Balamban Liempo, the Mr. Liempo we tried, without the stuffing, and with fewer herbs and spices tasted pretty good and provided a cleaner, less distracted mouthfull of pork goodness. This was a fairly solid piece of roasted liempo, with delicious skin and tasty meat. Paired nicely with the spicy vinegar they provided. No bells and whistles, smaller portions and a reasonable mid-level price at a highly convenient high-traffic location. This could be a go to “default” fast food purchase.
4. Coming in fourth was the liempo from “Balamban Liempo”. Concerned that I should perhaps try yet another portion of this vendor just to have another data point, we headed to their new Salinas drive branch which I thought was going to open on May 6th. When we got to their new location, just after noon on Saturday, May 8th, we noticed it hadn’t opened yet, despite a tarpaulin out front announcing it was opening on May 8th. We passed by again later that evening and it still wasn’t open. I understand from their website that it might have opened the next day. So we had visited three different Balamban Liempo outlets, but only purchased three different portions of liempo from their location near Coco Mall. My biggest concern with this vendor was the apparently grossly undercooked meat. The color and texture of the meat was alarming, the meat thermometer registered a low internal temperature, and the reaction of our crew to the cut meat was to avoid it in favor of several other options. Next, the meat we got on this occasion didn’t seem to be a piece of liempo, though that may just be bad luck, but we didn’t have the same bad luck on all of our other purchases. Finally, the same off-taste that I experienced the first time I tasted this is still present, likely due to the crammed (predominantly green onion) stuffing that does not appear to get enough heat to cook it through. Maybe I am personally just biased to the green onion flavor, particularly if paired with a little sugar, as in hopia baboy. But oddly, I did not have the same negative flavor response to other liempos using similar ingredients. The skin of the latest portion we tried was very good. The seasoning was not overly salty. This wasn’t the most expensive liempo but it wasn’t the cheapest either. And unfortunately, given the experience the first time around, and the highly unsatisfactory piece of meat we got on this second round at the vendor, I am less inclined to return with so many other reasonable choices available.
Phew. I think that was by far the longest post I have ever written. And it included the most pictures. Maybe I should have broken this down into four separate posts, and a summary post. Stay tuned for the post on 5 types of liempo we made on our own. But give me time to recover and watch more election returns. :)