Crisp, glistening pork skin that cracks to reveal juicy, succulent meat within, seasoned with homegrown spices and herbs–such defines the cult and allure of the Filipino lechon. Born of the forges of Filipino kitchens, the whole roasted pig we know today was a re-imagining by our ancestors to suit our ever-delicate palates.
And as I stood before the gastronomical vision before me, helping myself to another serving, I was regaled by the thoughts of one man whose search for pig-roasting techniques has taken him even to the fields of various provinces, only to realize that the secrets of the art were hidden right under his nose.
Incredibly flavorful lechon
Sabroso Lechon was born in 2008 through the efforts of lechoneros Charlie and Manolo. And their quaint, idyllic spot on the corner of busy E. Rodriguez and Tomas Morato in Quezon City is but a contradiction to the treasures found inside. When I entered their abode, a few tables were set, a few old-time photographs were upon the walls, and a whole pig sat happy and steaming right alongside a quote on calories.
Charlie Sabroso recounted how he scoured the world for different methods of roasting pig, even showing videos of how it’s done in other countries, and how they ended the search for their perfect lechon in our very own land.
“We finally went to Cebu as well as the nearby Negros provinces. The Philippines still has the best lechon in the world,” Charlie concluded.
My first bite of Sabroso was a burst of savory essences. Salty, flavorful elements fought for my attention as the evenly-cooked skin crumbled into a crunch when I bit into it. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out that the fresh steam I saw and the crackling I devoured was cooked more than four hours ago.
“Our herb-stuffed stitched-belly lechon should stay hot for three to four hours, and we make sure that the skin will stay crispy for the whole day. We may not have the smoothest skin, but we sure have the tastiest,” said Charlie. Regularly, they have lechon delivered to Tagaytay and Alabang, and their customers would remark that the pig is still hot to the touch even after six hours of travel time. To nearby cities, they even deliver as a kilo minimum of newly-roasted lechon to those with a hankering for it.
To many health-conscious gourmands, the words “freerange” and “native” might ring a bell, and the lechons at Sabroso are labeled as both.
“The lechon is still a lechon–fatty, rich and calorie-filled. There’s no such thing as a healthy lechon. But being free-range and of a native breed, our lechon delivers flavors that were achieved using age-old growing techniques without the aid of modified feeds and other enhancers.” He discovered in his dealings with many native pig-growers that what you feed the pig would affect the outcome of your lechon.
He had the lechonero slice the lechon down the abdomen, and I saw a simple bunch of herbs inside –fresh lemongrass and crushed local batuan or binukaw, a relative of the mangosteen, which they source from Western Visayas. These herbs, according to Charlie, make up the sour and tangy aroma that seeps into the seams of the lechon, that sauces are no longer necessary.
Yuletide fare for all seasons
To many Filipinos, the lechon is a sign of opulence and luxury, served only on special occasions for very special guests. For any meal or buffet, it would be the highlight, the pièce de résistance. That’s why there’s no better time to serve the roasted pig than during Christmas, when the whole family gets together. In recent Decembers, they had to maintain the quality and service even in peak season.
In recent years, Sabroso has earned a following among lechon-lovers merely by word-of-mouth and the help of blogs. Sabroso’s regular customers include politicians, actors, businessmen and big organizations and agencies that move in the same circle of people with sophisticated tastes. In the end, however, it’s the quality that speaks for itself.
“The product is 50 percent. The other 50 percent is the buying experience the customer has with it. If a customer has eaten our lechon, he or she would look for none other.”
When I asked him if he had plans to expand, he seemed too sure about his answer. “I’ve been offered plans to expand by businessmen and mall-owners. I automatically turn them down, because I have no immediate plans to expand. We think it’s wise to focus on product development and customer service.”
In the future, though, he plans to build other outlets in southern or eastern Metro Manila, to serve the growing number of customers of Sabroso.
Before I left his store filled with food and stories, I asked him what the final secret is to his lechon. He said, “To me, there is no secret to the lechon. The secret is the pig itself. If you have the right pig, you have a good lechon.” I guess it’s the elephant in the room, or in this case, the pig.