I was rather amused by reader comments and reactions to the previous post on pigs, pork and cheeks. Some readers asked the very loaded question of where to find the best lechon in the country. Itâ€™s a subject that I have explored a bit, but not nearly enough, and thus I donâ€™t have an easy answer. Since itâ€™s Friday and most folks are a bit more relaxed, let me first take you through my thinking process before I describe the best lechon everâ€¦
In Marketmanâ€™s often opinionated opinion, the best lechon must excel on two critical fronts:
Skin â€“ Thin to medium thickness skin that is crisp as thin brittle, caramelized flavors, salty, smooth and glistening. As you remove it from the lechon, only a thin layer of fat clings to the back of the skin and when put up to the sun or a strong light, you may even be able to see through it, albeit a blurâ€¦ When you bite it, it cracks, and the crunch, flavor, fat and texture all attack your palate, and if you were blindfolded, any self-respecting Pinoy would know exactly what was placed in their mouth.
Meat â€“ the meat would be tasty and somewhat salty, a perfect foil for the liver sauce if you had it. Alternatively, it would have been sufficiently well flavored from spices tucked into the lechonâ€™s stomach â€“ spices which differ from town to town. In some cases, there is no sauce at all. The fat to meat ratio must not be too skewed in favor of fat, as it is a real turn off to be cutting through the equivalent of pig cellulite. The ribs of a perfect lechon should possess the most incredible flavor, partially due to their strategic location near the stuffing and the salt.
In order to excelâ€¦ you need to explore the following:
The Pig â€“ The desired size and therefore ageâ€¦ too small and you have lots of thin epidermis but no meat whatsoeverâ€¦ too big and it feels like literally eating a hog. I think a 15-18 kilo live weight piggy is about right, perhaps about 1.5-2.0 months old or so (just slightly older than the piglets in the photograph up top). I suspect there is also a long discussion to be had on the breed or type of pig and I am not qualified to delve further into that except to say that I like the idea of a nice clean scrubbed down little pink pig! (Update, as of September 2008, I now believe a 28-30 kilo pig is ideal — terrific skin, meaty, but not overly fatty.)
The Preparation – I imagine that how the pig is slaughtered and prepared does make a big difference in the end product. The pigâ€™s skin needs to be cleaned thoroughly, the innards removed surgically and cleanly and the stomach sewed back up to ensure that the herbs placed inside stay put. There is also a proper method for putting the pig on a bamboo spit to keep turning it constantly once the cooking begins.
The Seasoning – Everyone guards their seasoning secrets like they were bars of gold. Some say coconut water or Sprite/7Up brushed on the skin. You can see how this would promote a nice caramelized effect on the epidermis. Others say good sea salt, sampaloc leaves, tanglad, even knorr seasoning stuffed into the stomach cavity. It always somewhat annoys me when folks donâ€™t share their recipes unless they are in it for business and they think it gives them a competitive edgeâ€¦ itâ€™s not like most people cook lechon more than once or twice a year on their ownâ€¦
The Roasting â€“ The roasting pit, the location of charcoal on the sides rather than under the pig, the type of charcoal, the aromatics, if any, all play a critical role. A pan to catch any dripping fat is sometimes filled with water for the dual purpose of catching the fat without itâ€™s bursting into flames and providing moisture that rises with the hot flames. Adjustable heights and thus distance from the flames is imperative. The slow and constant turn is also part of the traditionâ€¦ this ensure an even browning, but more importantly, a natural basting of the pig as the juices and oils swirl around. Some decent lechons can be made in an oven, but the traditional outdoor preparation is the only way to go, as far as I am concerned.
The Serving â€“ In my opinion, the only way to eat lechon is within 10-15 minutes of coming off of the fire. Any longer than that and you have seriously compromised this legendary delicacy! Allot at least 15-18 square inches of skin for each guest and your meat should then be sufficient unless they are eating like pigsâ€¦heehee.
Marketman believes that 95-97% of all lechons consumed today are sub-standard. Nasty view, I know, but let me explain why. As I write above, any lechon older than 15 minutes is one notch down in the ratingsâ€¦therefore any lechon delivered to your home that has been wrapped up for hours has lost a lot of its potential oomph. The skin starts to wrinkle, the fat coagulates, the juices sag to the bottom of the pig. This applies to commercial lechons that sit there for several hours out in the open when sold in markets or groceries in those glass cases. Because of this treatment, vendors tend to OVERSALT so that the flavor jars your memory and you instantly think, yum, itâ€™s lechon. Filipinos are so conditioned to see â€œlechonâ€ and they immediately assume â€œfestive mealâ€ and frankly, many donâ€™t care that it isnâ€™t that hot or fresh because whatever the reason for having the lechon is reason enough to feel good about the mealâ€¦does that make sense? To me, an old lechon should be make paksiw. I actually like paksiw better than a substandard lechon.
Last year before the holidays I had planned to try and make my own lechons so that I could put the ultimate post on them. But to do it properly I would have to spend an arm and a leg and not be assured of the proper results. So, I decided to seek counsel from some family friends who I consider to have some of the best lechons I have ever tasted, period. This family has a weekend home where guests are often invited. At a typical lunch where lechon is to be served, at least 3 pigs are prepared for say a dozen guests. The pigs are selected the day before, they are cleaned and scrubbed an immaculate pink in the wee hours of the morning by their own staff and stuffed and spiced with their secret mixture of herbs and aromatics. The pigs are then roasted for about 2-3 hours depending on size in a specially designed lechon pit (covered with a roof in case it drizzles) and the timing is planned to coincide with the start of the meal. Once ready, the pigs are placed in huge platters (often staggered in cooking by 10-15 minutes so they arrive in succession) and guests are immediately summoned to start lunch with basically as much skin as they can handle. With steam still rising out of the rear end of the lechon, you take timid small squares of skin until you let go and cut humongous swaths of epidermis and realize this is truly a good thing. These friends have the finest lechon skin I have ever tasted. And part of the reason is that you are eating off of the fire. Frankly, I rarely get much meat at these meals because I am so overwhelmed with the stunning skin. They serve their lechon with liver sauce and or patis and calamasi on the side. Delicious. And I wouldnâ€™t even attempt to replicate it myself.
But when we arenâ€™t at this spectacular home with spectacular lechon, I do occasionally order lechons for special occasions, staff or office parties and the big question is always, from where? In Manila, we rely on a place called Lechon Family which does a Cebu style lechon and even if the skin is an hour old, it manages to retain some crisp and the meat is well-flavored. I have my driver standing by so that it is taken off of the flames and put into the back of the car and rushed home. In Cebu, the office has one of its suki lechoneros and the result, if eaten shortly after it is delivered, isnâ€™t bad either. Better yet, the ribs, in Cebu are the best I have ever eaten. So yes, I have gotten you this far in the post and I donâ€™t have a great answer to the burning question, who does the best lechon. Perhaps for the benefit of readers, you can all leave your comments or opinions on where you have recently eaten some great lechon so that we have a combined resource to refer to the next time we need some of that national favoriteâ€¦roasted pig!