MORE PIG THAN POSSIBLE WITH MY FILIPINO RELATIVES
Can I just say, for the record that I love being married? Not just because the blessed and very patient Sybil puts up with my many Bengali quirks, but also because it means I have inherited a huge number of Filipino in laws.
When I say huge number I really mean it. I have discovered that Sybil has a seemingly endless stream of cousins, aunties, uncles and assorted relatives and also seems to be discovering new ones all the time. They are all, to put it quite frankly, mad as a box of ferrets but, at the same time they are also funny, hospitable and so obsessed with food that I can forgive them their eccentricities as easily as Sybil forgives mine.
This last weekend was a long weekend here in the Good Ol’ US of Stateside. Something called Labor Day, which quite apart from proving that Americans cannot spell is also ironic given just how under fire the working man is in this country built on hard labour (that’s better) and enterprise.
It was also a weekend that marked the end of an era, as Sybil’s mum had chosen the date to move permanently back to the Philippines from the US.It’s a long old journey from NYC to Manila and she wisely chose to break her journey in the City of Angels, giving her the chance to visit with her daughter and favourite (and for favourite read only) son in law.
We met her in the morning at LAX and immediately headed towards West Covina, an area of LA county some 15 miles East of Downtown. It has a large Filipino community and Sybil’s Auntie Minda has lived there for many years. It was the perfect opportunity for Syb’s Mum and sister to catch up after a few years and what better way for Filipinos to do that than over lunch?
As we pulled into the parking lot of local Filipino restaurant, Salo Salo, Sybil’s relatives were already jabbering away to each other in Ilocano, the language of their original region of the Philippines. Sybil warned them and me that we should not over do things as this was only one of two lunches we had planned that day.
That useful fact did not seem to matter to anyone, least of all Sybil herself. As soon as we got sight of the menu, she was ordering enough dishes to make even sitting at a table meant for six a tight squeeze. The food began to arrive soon afterwards and it was as good as I had been anticipating. Man it was good.
I have become quite a fan of Filipino cooking in the last few years and the EAT MY GLOBE visit to Manila only served to confirm that it is about so much more than pork, deep frying and deep frying pork. That being said, when it comes to God’s good swine, there are few people on this planet who know how to prepare it better than your Filipino. First up was the “Crispy Meat Platter”. I normally wince when I hear the word “crispy” but I can forgive it if it refers to dishes like the ones placed on our table.
The platter was the size of a small dinghy and contained huge chunks of crispy pata (pork shank that has been braised and then, yep, deep fried) Lechon Kawali, pork ribs and, just in case we thought they had only pigs on their mind, some sensational fried chicken. In fact I thought it was all sensational and my elderly in laws seemed to be in definite agreement.
Sybil’s mum is in her mid 70’s and her aunt in her early 80’s. Their advanced age does not seem to have impeded their appetite any and, more than once, I was beaten to the prime piece of crackled skin by one of them suddenly rediscovering lightning speed in Battle Pig.
Despite her warnings, Sybil was not disgracing herself either. As well as attacking the meat platter with the sort of gusto I had not seen from her since we were last in a jewelry store, she had also ordered more dishes in the form of Fresh Lumpia Ubod (stuffed with hearts of palm) Seafood Pancit and my own favourite Filipino dish of all, Sizzling Sisig.
For those of you who are not in the know, Sisig originates from the city of Angeles in the Pampanga region of the Philippines. On my visit there, I was taken to the small roadside restaurant where the dish was created as the perfect “Pulutan” or food to be eaten when drinking. It was originally made with the discarded bits of the pig, which were fried up with chili and lots of kalamansi lime juice before being served on a sizzling cast iron platter.
The version at Salo Salo was not, I am sure made out of the hooves, lips and assholes of Brer Pig, but still reminded me of why it is was one of the favourite tastes of my whole trip.
We waddled back to our car after lunch, all having ignored the advice not to fill our boots. It made the drive south to Chula Vista a little uncomfortable, all the more so because the volume of cars had slowed the freeway traffic to a crawl. A journey that should take little over an hour took well over three. It did however give everybody the chance to catch up and discuss a topic of great import. For the record, this was about the best way to slaughter a goat or pig. Apparently, in the Philippines, this is done by getting the poor animal pissed and then slitting its throat. Lovely.
Sybil has even more relatives in Chula Vista and they had taken the opportunity to invite all of her mother’s cousins, nieces and nephews over for a party. By the time we arrived, Sybil’s uncle had a house filled with people and a table filled with food. This being a celebration, there was, of course a whole Lechon Baboy (or roasted pig to you and me), which had already been pillaged of most of its crisp skin by the awaiting crowd.
There were more dishes to sample than just the lechon, however. There were stuffed Bangus fish, Caldereta, Garlic Rice and Kilawin, (a dish of raw goat marinated in vinegar, ginger and garlic) as well as big bowls of vegetables, tripe soup and trays of bibingka. It was all a bit much for me and while the others tore into the feast ( managing to do this and to talk at the tops of their voices at the same time) I pulled my fetching new hat down over my head and began to snore contentedly on a nearby sofa.
Sybil woke me up a short while later as I was having a lovely dream about Zantac. It was time for us to move on to our third meal of the day with friends in Chula Vista. We left her mum and aunty where they were to catch up with the hordes of relatives, while we headed off to freshen up at our hotel and run out to supper.
When I knew we would be staying overnight in Chula Vista, I asked my new chum, Chef Marcella Vallodolid (host of The Food Network’s popular Mexican Made Easy show) for some recommendations. She sent me a mail with a handful of choices and when I saw that one of them “Aqui Es Texcoco” specialized in Barbacoa de Barrego (mutton BBQ) I thought it might make a change from all the pork we had consumed.
It certainly did and, despite thinking half an hour before that I would never need to eat food ever again, the smells of grilling meat in the restaurant had me devouring more than my fair share as our order arrived at the table. Of particular note were the quesadilla filled with huitlacoche (corn smut) and the lamb brain tacos, which came to life when doused with lime juice. It was good enough for us all to think that we might need to return soon to explore more of the Mexican cuisine on offer.
This visit however had been all about the Filipinos rather than the Mexicans. It had been all about my newly acquired, barking mad but really rather wonderful family, and of course, it had been all about the pig an animal that deserves our unwavering respect and that can never find itself in better hands after death than those of a Pinoy.
Did I mention that I love being married?