No celebration in the province, at least in ours, is complete without a whole lechon in the middle of the main table. Fiesta, weddings, baptism, graduation, vacations, etc. It’s the centerpiece of the feast. City friends who are visiting are often amused at the sight of a perfectly roasted whole pig hogging (pun intended) the gastronomic limelight. Lechon is among the recipes closest to the (cholesterol-saturated) hearts of Filipinos, just like adobo. Ask any Pinoy if he/she knows what lechon is, and he/she will most certainly answer “yes” — probably accompanied by a Mona Lisa-esque smile; hard to define, a smile that borders on wickedness and food-lust.
So, what is lechon? Lechon, or litson in Filipino (or, I suppose, in any Philippine dialect) is basically a roasted pig. The skin of a perfect lechon is crispy, yet it melts in your mouth after the initial bite. The better part is the belly, where the secret herbs and spices come in close contact with the meat.
Lechon, they say, is a Spanish term for “suckling pig”, but I’m not really so sure. Let’s ask those who are fluent in Spanish, perhaps one of our regulars like Hill, if that’s true. But I do know that “leche” is “milk” in Spanish (and I learned that from school, mind you, not when I’d hear someone say: “Ahhh, leche!“). So “suckling pig” sounds just right.
Lechon is basically a noun. When you say “lechon”, it usually means a roasted pig (also called “lechon baboy”; baboy means pig). It’s not a lechon, in my book, unless it’s roasted whole (even if you slice it whichever way you like after roasting). In a highly mechanized world, ruled by the Transformers and the rotisseri, a human touch is still best in roasting lechon. Mano-a-mano. A man gently turning over (or shall I say, rolling) the whole pig over moderate-heat charcoal (photo courtesy of Wikipedia). It takes so much patience, even for us spectators, impatiently waiting for the entire process to end. It’s an art — constantly changing the position/distance of the charcoal and the speed of the rotation to achieve a uniform golden-brown crispiness. No machine can match that.
On the other hand, when you use “lechon” as a prefix, it usually denotes the manner of cooking — roasting. “Lechon baka” is roasted calf. Then there’s the ubiquitous “litson manok“, which is roasted chicken (also known as the chicken inasal). Get the drift? Good. You now know some Filipino words. Let’s have a pop quiz.
You now know what “lechon” means. Let’s learn another Filipino word: “kawali“. In Filipino, “kawali” means a frying pan. What is “lechon kawali” then? Roasted frying pan? It’s not as easy as it looks, er, sounds. “Lechon kawali” is still a pig, but it’s boiled then fried in a pan. It’s not roasted. I don’t know why they call this “lechon”.
Then there’s “pritchon”. Charlie’s Pritchon™ (note the trademark) which, according to its website, is fried lechon or “pritong biik” wrapped in pita wedges and served with different kinds of sauce. This is one of our favorites in events such as parties and blessings, and it’s convenient because it comes with a crew who chops and wraps the pritchon, pretty much like your Peking duck. Check the telephone numbers and other contact details at its website.
Going back to “lechon” as a prefix: it also tells you the origin of the lechon or the recipe/manner of cooking it. I must say the best lechon is “lechon Cebu“, something that Anthony Bourdain agrees with (In his words: “It can now be said that of all the whole roasted pigs I’ve had all over the world, the slow roasted lechon I had on Cebu was the best.”). This could mean lechon that is roasted in Cebu (it’s actually cheaper to ship, by plane, a lechon from Cebu than to buy the same weight-class in Manila). It could also mean cooked with the same ingredients and recipe as that in Cebu (or any Visayan variants, for that matter). But try buying a lechon-Cebu here in Metro Manila and compare it with a lechon-Cebu from Cebu. It’s just not the same.
You’ll also have a rough idea on the regional affiliation of a person simply by looking at how he/she eats litson. Those from Visayas and Mindanao generally dip their litson in a vinegar-garlic sauce. Those from up north, or Luzon, generally dip their litson in gravy or some other lechon sauce.
That’s it. I’m shutting up. You can now eat your lechon. Another great reason to go back and visit Pinas.