A grand celebration in the Philippines is incomplete without an irrational amount of food, and holding court in the center of it all is the glorious lechon. This culinary tradition may have been passed on to us by our Spanish colonizers, but over the centuries we have truly made our version of the spit-roasted whole pig our own. With the diversity of produce and flavor preferences all over the archipelago, there really is no one way of preparing lechon. Still, there are certain set expectations—the skin must be glistening and golden; the flesh moist, tender, and flavorful. Everything else—from the flavors to the condiments—is open to reinterpretation.
There are two dominant styles of lechon preparation— the Luzon lechon and the Visayas lechon, pertaining to two out of the three major island groups in the Philippines. The Luzon lechon is also more commonly known as lechon Tagalog, the cooking style that flourished in the capital and its surrounding provinces. It is usually unstuffed, its inside simply seasoned with salt and pepper, then sometimes drenched in a lime or cola-flavored carbonated drink perhaps to take the place of tamarind leaves which are less readily available. This also gives the skin its even caramelization and imparts its own distinct flavor to the skin and meat.
Devoid of herbs and aromatics, the punch of flavor of the lechon Tagalog comes from the sweet, tangy, and peppery liver sauce it is served with. The thick brown sauce really has a very distinct taste and texture. Its ingredients are often but not exclusively composed of vinegar, brown sugar, salt, pepper, mashed liver (or liver spread), breadcrumbs, garlic, and onion.
Lechon Visayas, on the other hand, has opted to pack the pig with stuffing made of various herbs and aromatics. What ends up inside depends on what is readily available. The most popular kind which has made its way around the country is the Cebu lechon with its stuffing of lemongrass, scallions, and garlic. Bacolod-style lechon is also rising in popularity and is almost the same as the Cebu version, if not for the addition of the citrus fruit batuan that imparts a lemony flavor.
In the northern part of the Philippines, they prefer lechon kawali or lechon de carajay (pertaining to the wok that it is cooked in) which are slabs of boiled and air-dried pork belly deep-fried in oil. In the Ilocos region, this is called bagnet and is readily available in the market or street side stalls already cooked, ready to be reheated and eaten at home. Enjoyed on its own or with rice, the preferred condiment alongside it is a spicy sukang Iloko (spiced Ilocos vinegar) or bagoong (fermented fish or shrimp paste).
There are more current innovations applied to roasting lechon that lechoneros claim to enhance the flavors and quality of the finished product. Some prefer certain kinds of charcoal for more even heat distribution, while others prefer certain fruit tree wood over others that imbue their own signature smoky flavors. Others have gotten more adventurous with the stuffing: some like to add chili for extra heat, others are mixing premium or exotic ingredients with their rice stuffing to make things interesting, and there are still those who like pushing the boundaries of what a lechon can be by stuffing it with other proteins, or even a bottle of beer. Whatever the reiteration, one thing is for sure: the lechon is a star.