I meet many barbecue and grilling aficionados in my travels. I became friends with Alex Paman, a Filipino American, while competing in a NorCal contest. I was intrigued by Alex’s stories of Filipino barbecue which has an equally rich tradition in the Philippines as barbecue in the US. When Alex returned from vacation recently, I asked him to share his barbecue trip to the Philippines. Here’s Alex’s story . . .
A Primer on Filipino Barbecue on the island of Cebu, by Alex G. Paman
Unlike its Thai, Vietnamese, or Korean counterparts, Filipino cuisine has yet to hit the culinary mainstream in the United States. Foods that immediately come to mind in describing its dishes range from the stereotypical adobo (pork or chicken simmered in vinegar and soy sauce), lumpia (eggrolls), and pancit (noodle dishes), to the more exotic dinuguan (chocolate meat) and balut (fermented duck eggs).
But even more remote is any reference to native Filipino barbecue, a staple in every native fiesta or celebration. Known regionally as inihaw (on the island of Luzon) or sinugba (in the central Visayas), “Pinoy” –style barbecue generally refers to the grilling of meats over charcoal. Eaten with pickled greens over rice with a spiced vinegar dipping sauce, it is available on every street corner and commercial establishment throughout the country.
A recent vacation to the island of Cebu (in the central, or Visayan, part of the Philippines) prompted me to do some research on my birthplace’s native barbecue, and I would like to share with you what I’ve discovered.
Much like the rest of the country, grilled food in Cebu is a staple in all eateries. Barbecued pork, chicken, sausages, and seafood are the most popular items, ranging from steaks, roast chicken or its component parts, to chorizo balls, tuna jaws and bellies, and squid stuffed with onions and tomatoes.
Cebu is also one of two epicenters of barbecue in the Philippines. Not only is it considered the home of the best roast pig in the archipelago (so good in fact that the meat needs no dipping sauce at all), it is also the home to the famous Larsians complex. Larsians is warehouse building composed of dozens of home-style barbecue stalls, where families can sit down and order their meals from their favorite grill vendors.
The typical Larsians meal is served with so-called hanging rice or “puso,” a woven palm frond package that the rice is cooked in. Steaming the rice in a fragrant, self-contained package keeps it warm and sterile until torn open, and makes it easier to pack or transport while travelling. While the grilled pork sticks, steaks, and seafood are typically basted with a banana ketchup-based sauce, the dipping sauce is composed of coconut vinegar that’s spiced with various aromatics.
The other epicenter of barbecue in the Philippines is also located in the Central Visayas, this time in Bacolod City. The Manokan Country complex is home to the region’s contribution to world barbecue, Chicken Inasal. Marinated in coconut vinegar and various aromatics, Chicken Inasal is considered so delicious that dozens of local franchises have been created around its unique taste.
Chicken Inasal also has a sweeter version, called Chicken Inato, which is popular in other parts of the Visayas.
But perhaps closest to the American definition of barbecue (low and slow cooking) is native Lechon Baboy, or roast pig. Anthony Bourdain’s bold proclamation that it is “the best pork he’d ever tasted” instantly promoted this dish to the culinary world stage, a sentiment Filipinos already held for decades. Stuffed with lemongrass and other regional aromatics, native pigs are carefully roasted by hand using bamboo sticks for several hours, making talented grill jockeys (called lechoneros) a highly sought-after commodity.
Also unique to Cebu are two dishes that have gained popularity over the past decade. Lechon Belly is a skin-on pork belly that’s roasted over coals like a whole pig, but stuffed with a fiery mixture of lemongrass, green onions, and Thai Bird Chilies.
The other dish is Sinuglaw, a native ceviche (raw fish cooked with citrus acid and vinegar, and flavored with spices) combined with strips of grilled pork.
One place I was particularly interested in visiting was a branch of Zubuchon, a roast pig franchise run by Joel Binamira (aka “Marketman” in his online blog) whose pork Anthony Bourdain bravely declared as the best he’d ever tasted in his No Reservations show.
I wanted to see what the fuss was about, so a friend of mine took me there for lunch. Despite glowing testaments of how good the food was on numerous blogs; I was surprised to find that my friends who lived in Cebu actually preferred other franchises.
We ordered pork belly, pickled sides, and rice. The appetizer consisted of roasted peanuts and chicharon (pork rinds), while the pickled sides were mango, green papaya, and jicama. And what was the verdict of the pork? While it was definitely unique and flavorful, it tasted greasy to me, which was unusual, considering the meat is insulated under the skin during the roasting process.
Doing a barbecue crawl in Cebu to get a representative sampling of the local barbecue culture was almost impossible to do, given that there is a grill-master on every street corner and mall food court. But I was able to hit the major landmarks, and the food was every bit as delicious as advertised. There’s so much here that’s the same, and yet different, from American-style low and slow barbecue.