Alex G. Paman’s second article is about his first journey to the wonderful island of Cebu. There he enjoys a large variety of local grilled seafood and meats as seen through the eyes of an American who’s cultural heritage brings him to the homeland of his parents.
Despite visiting the island of Cebu back in 2006 to attend a friend’s wedding, it wasn’t until 2011 when I was actually able to do my first “official” barbecue crawl there. As with any research, I asked a local (in this case, my friend Anne, who was the head nurse of the sprawling Plantation Bay beach resort) to tour me around and take me to all the haunts I had read about on the Internet.
Cebu is perhaps most known as the place where the famous explorer Ferdinand Magellan was slain by a local chieftain named Lapu-Lapu. The very spot where he was killed has actually been turned into a landmark, complete with monuments and souvenirs. Cebu City is the oldest city in the country, and is also labeled as “the Queen City of the South.” It’s every bit as metropolitan and commercially successful as Manila up north, but not quite the same amount of traffic.
But as it pertains to barbecue, the island is known for three things: Puso (or hanging rice), Lechon Baboy (roast pig), and Larsians (the epicenter of grilled foods). I asked my friend Anne to take me to as many spots as possible on my itinerary, and it began mid-morning at an obscure roadside shack where Puso was being made.
Puso is a staple in virtually all barbecue meals. Simply put, it’s a woven palm-leaf receptacle where raw rice grains are inserted, then boiled for several hours. The rice expands to fill the receptacle’s form. When served to the diner, it’s simply slit open and eaten, the leaves giving it a fragrant smell. Also known as “hanging rice” (because it’s literally hung from the eaves of vendors’ stalls when being sold), eating rice cooked in this manner serves two purposes: 1) the receptacle can be carried conveniently from place to place using its leaf handle, and 2) it remains sterile until opened.
Anne and I approached a small shack, where we saw a group of people weaving the palm fronds to make the container. Anne introduced me to them (I don’t speak Cebuano at all, only Tagalog), and told them what I was researching. A woman kindly showed me the steps from beginning to end: from picking the thin palm leaves, to weaving them into containers like a master origami expert, and then boiling them in hot water for several hours. This woman also said that they use different types of rice inside, to vary the flavor.
After taking several dozen pictures, I thanked them and left. We took a quick detour through Cebu’s famous market (which was filled with blocks upon blocks of dried seafood), then proceeded to the world famous Larsian’s barbecue complex. I wanted to taste first-hand what the fuss was truly about.
Larsians is a warehouse-style building that contains several stalls of independent grill vendors. It was early afternoon when we arrived, and luckily, it wasn’t packed to the gills like it would be around dinnertime. There were only a few grill jockeys cooking, so I picked the stall that had the most appetizing dishes, and literally ordered one of each protein to be grilled. I chose skewered pork, chicken, stuffed squid, sausages (both longganisa and chorizo), and Spanish Mackerel steaks. We took our seats at an open table and donned our plastic gloves. After about 10 long minutes or so, our meal finally came, along with the obligatory puso.
I tasted each of the meats, and to be honest, I was a bit disappointed. Now keep in mind that, even though I am Filipino and was born there, I grew up in the U.S. and am an American-trained griller. Perhaps the taste back home is a bit different than mine, and it is truly a personal preference. For me, I found the foods only average, because EVERYTHING was slathered in a water-thin red sauce, preventing me from tasting the meat itself. This sauce wasn’t quite the usual thick banana ketchup baste found in Manila-style dishes, but something more watery. We paid our lunch and headed to our final stop in this crawl, the Cebuano standard called Sutukil.
Sutukil is a term that is the contraction of three methods Cebuanos use to cook seafood: “Su” stands for “sugba” (to grill), “tu” is short for “tula” (to stew), and “kil” is for “kilawin” (to eat raw). Sutukils are seafood restaurants where patrons pick the specific fish or shellfish that they want to eat, and then tell the workers how they want it cooked. In Manila, this is called a “dampa.” Of course, I had them grill my selections. They served us prawns (which are so large that they actually butterflied the tails open), grilled oyster and a type of local small conch, and grilled fish. All were good and tasty, although they served the oyster with no juice or topping.
I did come across a curious creature there called a Mantis Shrimp, a crustacean notorious for slicing the fingers of divers foolish enough to catch them by hand. They had to keep them separate from each other in small plastic bottles, otherwise they’d attack each other. Much to my dismay, I was told they were normally fried, not grilled.
By that time, it was already a full day of adventure, so my friend Anne dropped me off at the resort. We didn’t even have time to visit a “lechonan” (place where they roasted pigs), so that would have to wait another day. That night, however, I was curious about the grilled seafood they served at my resort, so I ordered their famous Salo-salo Platter for dinner. It consisted mostly of grilled shellfish (slipper lobster, mussels, shrimp, and scallops minced in their shells), and they were quite delicious. But as with most grilled seafood in the Philippines (with the exception of perhaps tuna), the foods were plain and seasoned only with salt and pepper.
This was my first barbecue adventure in Cebu, and it was quite memorable. Plantation Bay (where I stayed), located on Mactan Island just outside of Cebu, is definitely a world-class beach resort that everyone should visit someday.
In researching world barbecue, there is so much to learn that it’s nearly impossible to cover everything. But the fun, especially in this field, is in the tasting.