My journey in barbecue began (as with most youngsters, I imagine) with my dad grilling for special family occasions. He brought this tradition to the U.S. when we immigrated over from the Philippines, and when he became too old to cook, I took over and grilled for the family in his place.
I began to research the art of grilling years ago, but it wasn’t until I picked up a book by barbecue master Steven Raichlen did I become interested in learning more about my own culture’s grilling traditions and recipes. In fact, he was the only author that I could find who even mentioned the term “Filipino Barbecue” in any mainstream American cookbook. Contacting him through his website, I shared with him what I knew, and we continue to be friends to this day.
His chronicles about world barbecue made me curious about my own culture, so back in 2009, I decided to do my very first barbecue crawl while on vacation in my hometown of Manila, in the Philippines. With Bing Tanalgo as my guide (she is one of the founding siblings of the famed Bacolod Chicken Inasal franchise back home), we went around the city and got to meet some very generous people, and taste their delicious food.
The tour began early afternoon, where Bing and her friends took me to Ulcing’s, a sprawling Cebu-style lechonan (place where they roast pigs, or lechon baboy) in Taguig City. We were greeted by owners Tess and her husband, and they showed us firsthand how their lechoneros (pit-masters) cooked the pigs by hand, as well as the bastes and stuffing they used to make them more flavorful and fragrant while roasting.
Ms. Tess was unbelievably kind and open to all my questions, and we were even treated to a special lunch. We were served cochinillo (a roasted young pig, also known as lechon de leche), along with the ubiquitous puso steamed rice bundles. As the guests of honor, we were given the prized first cut of the pig, its crispy ear. Hailing from Cebu, Ms. Tess told us about the history of their family business; how lechon was actually Spanish in origin, and that there is even a sign landmark somewhere in Manila that describes this in detail. She also said her mother had an extra finger on one hand, which gave her the skills of making good lechon.
And in typical Cebuano fashion, there was no dipping sauce on our table, not even the standard Mang Tomas, liver-based sauce used in Manila. Cebuano-style lechon is so good that it needs NO dipping sauce, we were all reminded.
Bing also told me that Ulcing’s is so highly-regarded in Manila that it doesn’t publicly advertise at all, relying solely on word-of-mouth. It has even served all of the Philippines’ most recent presidents.
After a delicious lunch, we then headed to one of her family’s stores, a Bacolod Chicken Inasal restaurant. The city of Bacolod is the home of the famous “Chicken Inasal,” a style of native chicken barbecue unique to the Visayas, or the central part of the Philippines. It’s so good that dozens of independent franchises have spread throughout the country over the past 15 years, based solely on its taste. She had me try skewered chicken quarters and chicken tails, then we were off to our final stop, the “Market! Market!” complex located at Bonifacio Global City in Metro Manila.
“Market! Market!” is an outdoor food complex where foods, sweets, and other regional goodies from all over the country can be purchased locally, and is behind a multi-story mall that puts most American malls here to shame. It also borders the uber-chic Serendra community across the street. Unlike the rest of Manila, this district was unbelievably wealthy, where Dunkin’ Donuts served their donuts on a plate with a fork, and seeing uniformed housemaids walking their owners’ dogs was not out of the ordinary.
Luckily, I had my sights set squarely on grilling, otherwise I would’ve gotten lost in this wonderland.
We walked around and looked at the various roast chicken stands, and I even tried a pork barbecue stick or two. Bing suggested I try the local sisig (the famous Kapampangan bar food appetizer made up of diced pig jowls and ears that’s sautéed with onions and topped with ground pork rinds, a raw egg, and mayonnaise) sold from a nearby stand, and it was indeed delicious.
She toured me around the surrounding malls, before we finally called it a day. I was scheduled to fly back to California the following evening, so this was great way to end my vacation.
The next morning, Bing generously had her driver drop off a new book on Filipino cooking for me, as well as a whole lechon manok (roast chicken), complete with a lemongrass stalk folded neatly inside it. I took copious notes on this method, literally dissecting the bird and its stuffing like a scientist, before eating it.
On the way to the airport that night, I saw countless roadside stands, obscure hole-in-the-wall diners, and even mainstream restaurants advertising their grilled-item menus to hungry passersby travelling the road.
There was definitely plenty more barbecue adventures to be had here, and there was no way I was going to be hungry afterwards.