I searched through nearly 20 different Filipino cookbooks (many of them still on the shelves at the bookstores) and did not find a single recipe or “how to instructions” for cooking a lechon. Doesn’t that seem odd? Well, not really, I suppose, because how many people are really going to attempt to make lechon at home? It still seems somewhat bizarre, considering that so many folks love lechon, how few of us must know how to cook it at all. Do we just assume we will order this dish at restaurants or specialist purveyors? That we shall rely on hired lechoneros to come for the day to roast a whole pig? Hmmm… So a few weeks ago, I decided that LECHON was going to be my food obsession for the next 6 months or so. Not only was I going to figure out how they slaughtered the young pigs, I wanted to build my own experimental lechonan or place to cook the lechon, and try out several different recipes for lechon until I found the ultimate “Marketman Lechon.” So strap on your cholesterol counters, this is the first chapter in Marketman’s “Lechon Chronicles.”
A lot of the material I gather, discover, glean and record from this planned half-year lechon experiment will be saved for a chapter in a mythical Marketman cookbook dedicated to pork or more narrowly perhaps, just lechon and all of its reincarnations (think fried lechon, sinigang na lechon, dinuguan, paksiw na lechon, and sisig na lechon). So you guys get the highlights, but not all of the “secrets” just yet. :) The plan was to design and build a custom made lechonan, then over the next 6 months, cook 1 lechon a month or so until we arrive at a (hopefully) terrific lechon recipe in time for the Christmas holidays… If six experimental lechons aren’t enough, we may have to keep going and going and going… :) I quickly found that this topic would snowball way beyond anything I could have imagined, and I am so swamped with lechon tidbits that I am slowly beginning to wonder if I will be successful in this quest to come close to perfection on the lechon front. To give you an example, here are some ways to get the skin crisp and yummy — brush with 7Up, just use olive oil, a can of condensed milk, coconut water, sweet soy sauce, gin, brush with water using a mop, spray with water, rub with salt, brine before cooking, start with high heat and reduce the heat, slow cook on low heat then end with high heat, etc. Confused? :(
I once spent a morning with a live little piggy from arrival, to slaughter, cleaning and prepping for the flames. I have some 8-10 pages of notes on that experience alone, and nearly 100 photographs. But I think that many of the photographs are too graphic for this blog and several readers might faint if they saw them. Suffice it to say, the pigs are treated very nicely and as humanely as possible before they are killed for one of the country’s favorite special occasion dishes. The pigs were cute, but I am not a vegetarian, so I live with the reality that I must eat another living being on a regular basis, and sleep soundly nonetheless. The detailed slaughter description will thus be omitted until a book, so you have to assume you are starting with a clean, prepped pig. As for the lechonan itself, I decided to design our own. No rocket science here, you just want to be able to roast a whole animal over a hot flame and remain protected from the environment and elements (sun and rain), the smoke and heat of the fire, etc. What I designed was an 8 foot by 6 foot pit, which should have a depth of about 18 inches (ours is adjustable until we nail the recipe) from the roasting stick or bamboo pole to the coals. On one side of this pit, we designed a 2 foot by 6 foot barbecue grill for chops, chicken parts, fish, etc. and we ordered the cast iron grills from a restaurant supply store in Cebu; you can imagine how huch stuff you can grill on 12 square feet of grill space! Probably more than most inihaw style restaurants! The grills hadn’t arrived when we rushed to use the semi-finished lechonan in these photos, but I will do a follow up post when the lechonan is completed.
When I first arrived in Cebu last Tuesday, the concrete for the lechonan had just been poured the day before. But I noticed the cement walls were simply too high. So the pit was quickly filled with mud/soil followed by 2 inches of dry construction grade sand and the depth inside the pit was reduced to about 18 inches. The main pit was large enough to simultaneously cook two lechons, up to say 30-35 kilos each. The grill on the side, which had a much higher “floor” at around 6 inches below the grill, will eventually provide about 12 square feet of cooking surface. The reason I placed sand at the base of the pit is so that any dripping oils would not pool on a cement base and ignite, charring the pig. Also, the sand reflects the heat up effectively, I think. The sides of the lechonan partially protect the “driver” or the dude who spins the bamboo pole for hours on end from the heat generated by the coals, and the walls prevent breezes from easily dissipating the heat from the coals. The makeshift galvanized iron roof keeps the pig dry, particularly when an unexpected DOWNPOUR hits just after you have started to roast the pig, as it did here!
I was so excited to see the partially finished pit, that I asked if we could take it for a “fat run” two days later. I wanted to cook a lechon for the construction crew who had been working on renovating our office nearby, and the office crew as well. I wasn’t planning to include this maiden roast as part of the Lechon Chronicles, but the results of our first attempt were pretty good, so I will describe our first experiment in the posts ahead…