Lechon – Would You Like That Pig Whole?
If I had to name a dish that defines my Peace Corps experience it would likely be lechon. For Filipinos that eat pork, lechon is the food of celebration! It’s what you serve at weddings, parties, holidays, birthdays, welcomings and despedidas. Lechon is a delicacy, a specialty, an expertise. The island of Cebu, where I currently reside, is known nation wide as having the best lechon. Wealthy Filipinos literally fly in lechon from Cebu to their parties.
For the typical American, on the other hand, the sight of a whole roasted pig can be a bit unnerving. Western culture generally disguises animals by keeping any identifiable body parts off the table. Feet, heads and eyes usually are not in grocery display cases and have to be specially requested from the butcher. Whole fish and shrimp are even rare. A whole pig is not easily misidentified.
Lechon never really bothered me from a visual standpoint, but it did intimidate me. Often at these events I was asked to go through the buffet line first…how does one approach a whole pig?! With a knife. Aggressively. After a few parties I adapted. Frankly, I love lechon. I have learned how to push my way into a line of lechon swarming Filipinos and get the best parts! Ribs. In fact, I recently said out loud after eating some lechon “that is the best pig skin I’ve ever had!”, that was a phrase I never expected to say.
Method of Preparation:
1. Pick out your pig! In order to properly cook lechon there is a weight limit. You cannot cook a pig much over 40kilos otherwise the deepest cuts of meat will never fully cook without burning the skin.
2. Slaughter pig. Though I have never been present for this part of the process, and never intend to be, I have a pretty good idea of how this happens. The pig must be bled out without damaging its physical structure. The point of lechon is to present a beautiful whole pig on the table. Therefore the pig is bled via a slit in the neck. The only time I have actually purchased my own lechon, when my mother visited the Philippines, I picked out my pig, sent it love and thanks for its life and left. Though I am a meat eater, I don’t particularly like the dirty work. I don’t even kill spiders in general.
3. Clean pig via large cut in stomach. Remove hair on skin with razor blade.
4. Rub body cavity with salt. Place lemongrass, onion leaves, onion and garlic inside the body cavity and sew up.
5. Place pig on spit for cooking.
6. Slowly turn the spit over hot coals until meat is cooked evenly. The time depends on the size of the pig, but takes many hours. Be careful not to burn the skin, but make it a crispy, golden texture.
7. Remove spit and serve HOT on platter adorned with a banana leaf!
Method of Eating Lechon:
1. Follow the swarm of people.
2. First break off a piece of the crispy skin. This is one of the most favored parts. When fresh, it’s crunchy and delicious, even bacon-esque. Although I do love this part of lechon, I limit myself to a small piece. Let’s be real, it’s basically all fat. Not even basically, it’s all fat.
3. Use a knife and your fork to pull out some pieces of juicy, tender meat from various parts of the pig. I find the rump to be a safe bet. More meat, less fat.
4. As the pig is carved and the ribs are exposed, grab some! Fast! They are, by many, considered the best part. Because they are so close to the body cavity filled with and spices they have a strong, savory flavor.
5. Well, by now your plate should be full of lechon, rice, bam-i, humba, escaviche, empanadas, fresh mango and banana. It’s time to eat! If available you can put some banana catsup or sweet chili sauce on the side of your lechon and indulge yourself in the pleasure of food.
6. As more parts of the pig are picked over some adventerous eaters will begin taking the ears and tail and so on. After everyone has finished eating, the host will often bag any leftover pieces to send home with guests as a gift such as the head and legs.
The Philippines is about family, community and togetherness. Food is a huge part of that experience. So eat together and love together. LECHON!