TOTO'S LECHON MANOK: KUMAIN NA PO BA SILA?
Some of you may recall that my visit to The Philippines, a little over two years ago, was one of the true highlights of the whole EAT MY GLOBE tour. It was not just that the food was sensational, which it most certainly was, but also that the people were the same, astonishingly friendly and generous.
It helped that I already had a long if slightly tenuous association with the country. My Aunt Evelyn, who lives in New York, is from the Philippines and consequently, it turned out that I had a stack of hitherto unknown relatives in Manila, all of whom pulled out every stop to make sure that my time in the city was a memorable one. They proved well up to the task and I left, after an all too short week of stuffing myself on staggeringly good food, marking the country down as the first place I wanted to return.
I may not have kept my promise to go back yet, but I have somehow managed to find myself in the position of acquiring an even larger extended Filipino family. At least I will have once Sybil and I marry in a few weeks time. It will be a very quiet affair. Just me and a handful of my close friends and family along with Sybil and a hundred or so of her assorted Filipino relatives.
I am not sure if it is enshrined in law, but I am pretty certain that it is frowned upon for that many Filipinos to gather without a dead pig also being in attendance. So, along with the other food and drink at our nuptials, we will of course, be serving Lechon Baboy, the roast suckling pig which has become synonymous with the country’s cuisine.
Los Angeles has a huge Filipino population and, on Friday, Sybil and I set out to test the theory that a well reviewed restaurant, Toto’s Lechon Manok, made a suckling pig possibly worthy of feeding all our hungry friends and relatives. Although we knew that they were unlikely to have roasted a whole pig just because they knew we were coming, we assumed that the quality of their other pork dishes would tell us all we needed to know.
The tiny restaurant is located in a small strip mall in Cypress Hill and Sybil broke into Tagalog the moment we entered questioning the woman behind the glass counter about the dishes on show. There was, of course, Lecon Manok (roast chicken) and Pritong Isda (fried fish) along with bowls of lentil stew and that other Filipino staple, adobo. But they got scant notice once our attention was drawn towards two of the dishes I had loved so much on my visit to The Philippines, Lechon Kawali and Sisig.
Lechon Kawali is made by taking pork, usually belly and braising it with salt, pepper, garlic and sometimes bay leaves until tender. It is then cooled and deep-fried in chunks until the skin is crisp before being served with soy sauce and a vinegar dip. The end result is moist meat with amazing crackling skin. It is the perfect combination of crunchy, hot, sour and juicy.
Sisig was a dish I first encountered in the city where it was created, Angeles. I ate at Ailing Lucing’s small restaurant. She is “The Sisig Queen” and is credited with creating the dish which is now the must have with cold beer throughout the country. Originally, it was a way to use up left over bits of pig like the snout and ears. These were braised and shredded and then fried with onions, chilli and lots and lots of Calamansi lime juice to create a dish, which is ridiculously addictive. It came served on a sizzling platter and my dining companions and I fought over the crisp bits, which had stuck to the cast iron plate. Great fun and a great dish as well as being one of the best things I have ever encountered to serve with a nice cold one.
Sybil ordered and our meal was dispensed into white Styrofoam containers for us to take through into the empty dining room next to the take-out counter. Along with the Lechon Kawali and the Sisig, Sybil had spotted a large mound of chicken chicharón, so to make sure we had all possible food groups covered, she also balanced a large bag of crisp chicken skin on her tray as we made our way to our table.
I was concerned, when I saw our meal being spooned out from behind glass that the pork would be dry. But, the first bite of the Lechon Kawali reassured me that I was wrong. The meat was juicy and the skin had blistered up into the perfect crackling. The Iberian influence on Filipino cooking is noticeable with the use of vinegar as a companion to pork (just as the Portugese influence in Goa, was instrumental in the creation of Vindaloo) and the sharpness of the hot, sour dip cut through the fatty meat perfectly.
The Sisig too was excellent, if lacking the authenticity and theatre of its hometown equivalent. There was just enough of the pre-requisite chilli hit to confirm that while Filipino cuisine may be the least well known of South East Asia (some very respected food writers call it the most underrated ) it can still pack a whole heap of flavour.
We alternated eating large chunks of pork with shards of crunchy chicken skin until we both began to develop meat sweats and pushed the containers away with enough food remaining for at least one more meal. Not bad for $25. While I cleared away the debris from our table, Sybil returned to the counter and began to haggle with the owners for the delivery of one Lechon Baboy sometime in the near future. I don’t think they, the poor pig or I know quite what we are letting ourselves in for, but, at least now, when I finally do keep my promise to return to the Philippines, I shall have even more people to show me the best places to eat.
Oh, the picture at the end is a bowl of ice cream from Scoops Ice Cream, which we stopped for on the way home. Well you are forced to aren't you?
Maraming salamat. Sige po! Paalam