Sunday, July 22, 2012

To Die For

It caters probably to the basest, most primitive and animalistic of of our appetites and hearkens back to the time when man before he learned to cultivate and harvest plants, when he was first and foremost a hunter and predator.  I am, of course, alluding to here to our craving and taste for roasted or broiled meat and in the case of most people in this country, our predilection for that requisite centerpiece of Pinoy party fare and the epitome of Filipino gastronomic delights - the lechon de leche or the roasted suckling pig.

For most Filipinos the term lechon may be the colloquial and generic term for all manner of roasted pig irregardless of the size and I have seen them come in all sizes from small piglets barely half a dozen kilos in weight to real heavyweights that would put a baby carabao or water buffalo to shame.  But the word is actually derived from leche which is Spanish for milk. Thus the term lechon de leche is actually a redundancy yet, in local parlance, it is used to distinguish piglets prepared for roasting which should be ideally between two to six weeks of age from their larger or older kin.

Real lechon, to be the culinary delight it is meant to be, must cooked to perfection, its skin dark and crisp, the meat tenderly moist and juicy.  This is something that is actually easier to do with the real suckling pig than with the full grown variety of the same animal since a young piglet has plenty of collagen in its meat which makes it juicily tender and it has still to develop the robust muscle fibers that, in an adult pig, can toughen the flesh.

In many countries particularly in Western Europe and the United States (roasted pig is actually part of the cuisine of many countries), the entire pig carcass is often marinated with a brine solution flavored with a variety of herbs, condiments and spices to enhance flavor.  Some pigs are also stuffed prior to roasting with a selection of aromatics and fruits plus an infinite selection of more spices and herbs depending upon regional taste preferences.

Yet the best lechon for me are still those prepared the traditional way here which is with just a thorough and generous rubbing of salt inside the body cavities and stuffing no more substantial than a tight bundle or two of fresh lemon grass sealed and sewn within the abdomen.  The pig is then impaled on a long wooden spit, legs fore and aft tied down with moistened hemp strips, and then slowly roasted over a bed of hot, glowing wood charcoal.  The spit is constantly rotated to insure even cooking until the skin is a deep, crackling golden brown which could take two hours or more depending on the size of the pig.

I have been to countless parties and gatherings here in Lianga where lechon de leche is the main dish and it always remains the perennial food favorite as well as the delectable taste treat to beat.  When it is brought to the dinner table still hot and steaming delicious aromas  from the roasting pit, guests' nostrils start sniffing appreciatively and there is always an ill disguised rush to be the first to get servings from the most delectable parts.

The crispy skin that crackles in the mouth and titillates the taste buds, of course, is the lechon's raison d'ĂȘtre.  Nothing dampens a party more and turns off hungry guests than a roasted pig with tough, under-cooked and springy skin. Then underneath the skin is the soft, savory meat still glistening from the juices coaxed out by the roasting process.  That medley of flavors and textures, the slight saltiness that in no way overpowering the tender oomph and fresh meaty goodness, perfectly complements the crunchy goodness of the palis or skin.

Never mind the cholesterol and the health warnings from doctors and health experts.  The lechon de leche, as a mouthwatering delicacy and ultimate comfort food, remains the taste experience to die for.  Figuratively, of course.

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