One of the most convincing arguments that Filipinos have mastered the roast pig, or lechon, is its skin: brick red and so immensely crunchy it crackles between your teeth like you were chewing glass. Other cultures are known for their own versions of roast pig—the Cantonese suckling pig siu yuk, and whole hog barbecue in the Carolinas come to mind—but Filipinos have managed to raise the standard so high that in 2009, no less a worldly traveler than Anthony Bourdain proclaimed lechon the best pig ever
It’s high praise for something where preparation and cooking is a straightforward, albeit time-consuming process. Pigs are butchered, their hair singed or scalded off, and their bellies slit open and stuffed with a bouquet of herbs and seasonings like leeks, garlic, salt, and lemongrass. The skin is often rubbed with coconut water, soy sauce, or milk before the pig is roasted on a spit over coals for up to five hours.
Once the lechon is ready to eat, the skin is scored and usually served with a portion of the meat, although it’s best to eat the skin separately. The tastiest parts of lechon are arguably the ribs and the belly, where fat is plentiful and the flavor more concentrated.
Although lechon isn’t the only national dish in the Philippines, it may be the most celebrated—especially around Christmastime. Throughout the year, various lechon festivals are held in cities and towns throughout the archipelago, with competitors entering with punny names like Pigtoria’s Secret and Manny Porkquiao. Multiple lechon restaurants and businesses also proliferate, with some so famous that their lechons are flown across the country for weddings and christenings. Each region in the Philippines has its own style and flavor of lechon, but the reigning champion is arguably the southern Philippine city of Cebu (where Bourdain tasted sampled his sample).
Although Cebu may be a strong contender for lechon capital of the Philippines, the historic capital has long been the La Loma district in Metro Manila, where the lechon business was almost singlehandedly jumpstarted by Tomas De Los Reyes, more commonly known as Mang (“Mister”) Tomas. In the 1950s, Mang Tomas sold pork meat outside his house, which was located near the then-popular La Loma Cockpit Arena. Eventually, Mang Tomas began cooking lechon for the celebrating cockfight winners—owners of fallen chickens ate the losers instead—and soon, the flavor of his roast pig began to draw more than just cockfight attendees.
The popularity of Mang Tomas’s lechon and his sweet, savory pig liver-based gravy led to a boom in lechon businesses in La Loma. Mang Tomas’ business still continues to ply its trade there, although his gravy is now available in bottled form (minus the liver) and sold around the world. It’s that gravy—or a close approximation—that many lechon eaters have grown up with, and the sauce has covered up the blandness and chewiness of many an inferior lechon. It’s also used to make a quick version of lechon paksiw, a garlicky stew made of leftover lechon that is fantastic with rice.