La Loma Street in Quezon City, (Metro Manila) Philippines was not really on the agenda for the adventure / photowalk of the day, but when once we found it, it would have been foolish to pass up the opportunity especially since I had never seen it before. There are times when I find myself rediscovering Manila from a completely different perspective, but there are days when it is an absolute thrill to play tourist and discover places of the city I have only heard about in stories, by reputation, or even worse, from foreigners who seem to know my hometown better than I do!
Since it was still quiet early in the morning, the lechonerias, or roasted pig stores, were just lining up the freshly roasted lechons outside. It was the perfect timing to photograph, since there were no crowds to battle and in some cases, not much traffic yet either so I could stand in the middle of the road for certain shots. As usual, I make my companions cringe whenever I opt to shoot from the middle of the road, or annoy drivers. As long as I get the shot I want, I’ll stand just about anywhere or on anything!
Lechon is the vernacular word for roasted pig, and no feast or celebration is complete without it. Each region in the Philippines will claim the have the best version of it, with all sorts of secret ingredients and roasting methods, but the fact of the matter is that the lechon occupies the place of honor in Filipino culture and is considered to be the national dish. The tradition of lechon is not native to the Philippines and is one of the many traditions we adopted as a Spanish colony. Hence, you will find lechon in all former Spanish colonies throughout Latin America as well.
It is only in the rural areas now that families will roast their own pig. There are countless numbers of names that have become signature household names for lechon and it boils down to your budget and in many cases, regional pride. You don’t always have to buy the entire pig, and when you buy from the countless lechon outlets throughout the city you can buy the meat by the kilo.
How does the lechon reach its various destination? Well, traditionally it was carried over with the same pole it was roasted on. Here in the metropolitan areas, there are delivery carts and jeeps but the delivery carts or kareton is quickly becoming a thing of the past. I was fortunate enough to encounter one – and only one on the entire lechon street – and grinned at the thought of whoever the clever soul was who designed that push cart. It had grooves attached to the front and back of the cart so the long bamboo poles with the lechon could be placed comfortably on it, without any part of the pig touching the metal and remaining relatively safe above ground. I did note, however, that there was no protective cover on top, so if it rains along the way or the kareton pusher gets stuck behind several cars with exhaust fumes, the recipient will end up with additional (unwanted) flavours!
The jury is still out as to whether crispy skin or soft crackling is the measure of the perfect lechon. In any case, for presentation’s sake, the whole lechon must be shiny and flawless. I have known families and event managers who have sent back entire lechons simply because it was delivered with a crack of imperfection on the side. To me the skin has to be crispy to perfection and resemble thick potato chips that crumble effortlessly in your mouth. This is no easy feat to achieve because it all depends on the speed it is roasted at and the distance from the coals. Some claim it also depends on the layers of fat inside. There are over 7700 islands in the Philippine archipelago and there are at least 5000 ways to roast a lechon depending on whether you are a coastal, metropolitan, rural or mountain dweller!
The Philippine lechon is traditionally roasted on bamboo poles for several hours, but for mass production like what you find in La Loma, larger rotisseries have been set up with mechanised iron bars. One such place we looked in on had no customers yet and we were granted permission to look in on the roasting station. The heat was an assault to the senses and I wondered what such temperatures would do to the camera. Let’s just say that a lechonero (roaster) would not be on the top of my list of ideal jobs. The coals have to be just right to achieve the right crispiness of the skin and tenderness of the meat. The rotation speed is also meticulously supervised. The lechonero wore no gloves as he shovelled the coals, no mask over his nose and mouth to limit the fumes inhaled, and best (worst?) of all, he was shirtless. OK, perhaps beads of perspiration are the secret ingredient to a good lechon…
The annual La Loma Lechon Festival is held some time in May. During this time the lechons are paraded in the street on specially designed lechon floats, certainly something to witness if you are in that part of town!
Click here to see the complete set of photographs that accompany this article.