Filipino Hog Roasts Are Next Level
All photos by the author.

Filipino Hog Roasts Are Next Level

The La Loma neighbourhood of Manila is famous for lechon—a spit-roasted, herb-stuffed, suckling pig cooked over charcoal and considered by many as the national dish of the Philippines.
July 15, 2016, 11:00am

It's the kind of walk you do when you're self-consciously trying to look relaxed and also a little bit threatening—a tough act to pull off at the best of times, let alone after being ripped-off by an extortionate airport taxi in the sweltering Manila smog.

I'm in La Loma, a suburb of the Philippines capital, where I've arrived to stay in an Airbnb flat. The host, Joyce, is a sweet woman in her 50s who opens the cage that encases her front door to reveal a blue plaque on the wall in authoritarian blue, bearing the name and police badge of her late husband.

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Back out on the streets, I see families living in shop doorways and phone credit being sold through hatches covered in wire mesh. All I find to eat on my first evening here is Chinese noodle shop.

I should have known that no seafood soup, priced at the equivalent of $3, would be good. The noodles are soft and chewy but the "seafood" is actually reconstituted fish protein in an array of neon colours. And to think I was streets away from what is arguably the world's most famous pig roasting district.

Lechon, a spit-roasted whole hog produced in the La Loma neighbourhood of Manila. All photos by the author.

Because La Loma is famous for lechon—the national dish of the Philippines. A spit-roasted, herb-stuffed, suckling pig cooked over charcoal, it is served at fiestas, family celebrations, and Christmas. As the people here say: if you have a party and there's no lechon, it's not a proper party.

Eighty percent of the lechon eaten in Manila comes from La Loma. There are 13 shops selling 500 whole pigs a week, according to William Chua, owner of Ping Ping Lechon. The roast hogs are displayed on their spits: mouths snarled and pole-pegged, sunburn-red skin glowing beneath a shop light. A cleaver-wielding butcher stands ready to slice herb-fragranced flesh.

Ping Ping Lechon restaurant, Manila.

Joe Torres, a Filipino journalist, and his wife and daughter offer to take me for a taste.

"This is our national dish," says Torres as a waitress serves us a plate of skin-crisped pork, along with dishes of rice and pak choi. The roast meat smell made my mouth water.

The smell seems to stretch back in time, I imagine fiesta after fiesta, celebrations of marriage and war flying back through generations. A thousand years of slashed porcine throats, drained blood, and blistered flesh hanging over fires that warned bad spirits away.

The lechon is served with two sauces—a dark gravy and a small bowl of vinegar bobbing with chunks of red onion. Chopstick plucked, the meat glistens in the bright light and its caramel-crisped skin gives way to tender, flowing flavour. It is the best pork I ever tasted.

William Chua, owner of Ping Ping Lechon.

And as Chua explains, you can't have perfectly crispy skin without a well-bred, healthy hog.

"No matter what you do, if your pig is unhealthy than crispiness is impossible," he says. "Filipinos like pork salty and spicy. So we stuff the pigs with salt, lemongrass, white pepper, a little ground black pepper, and onion leafs and then we braise the skin with soy sauce—it's very simple."

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La Loma became famous for lechon because of its cockpit arena. It's the oldest in the country, having hosted fights for 112 years.

Ping Ping staff preparing lechon.

"Cock breeders don't eat chicken because they think it will bring them bad luck," explained Chua. "Instead they eat lechon. It's also eaten as a thanksgiving and as a sign of bountiful blessings."

Perfect after a big win at the cock fight, then.

Lechon businesses began springing up around the cockpit in the 1940s. Chua's parents were one of the first to start catering to the spectators' love of the delicacy.

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Lechon served with rice and soup.

"We are still a family business," he explained. "My mother is still alive and she still makes all the important decisions. Many prominent personalities came to witness the cock fights, so different entrepreneurs went there to sell snacks and food including lechon, it proved popular and people started opening lechon stores nearby."

A man sitting nearby—daytime sozzled, with a few friends at a table covered with beer cans and a plate of chicaron bituka (deep fried pig's intestine)—suddenly chimes in: "I don't know why we like lechon so much."

"I suppose it's because it's our tradition," replies Chua. "On every occasion, you have to have lechon on the table, it's not just important, it's part of the occasion."