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Lechón in Manilla

Perhaps nowhere in the canvas of Filipino food is there a dish more representative of the 300 years of Spanish colonization in the Philippines than in lechón. While it's found in other parts of the world, the origins of lechón are of Spanish heritage. We had our first at a "lechón party," where a $70 pig fed 15 of us.

Lechón (or Lechón de Leche) is a whole suckling pig that has been seasoned and slow-roasted. There are many different versions even within the Philippines, but the most famous and universally revered is the Cebu Lechon, from the island province of Cebu, whose primary flavoring components are it's stuffing of lemongrass, black peppercorns, and star anise. Once prepped and stuffed, it is then roasted on a hand-cranked spit for the better part of a day. For a few pesos, local kids will gladly take ownership of the crank for a few hours. Regardless of who does the turning, the result is a mystical display of food both impossibly crisp (the skin) and meltingly succulent (the everything else).

Like Christmas morning...

As the skin renders its fat, it dries up and hardens around the pig. Beneath the skin, as the meat cooks and contracts around the bones, it leaves a space between skin and meat that creates a convection environment, not unlike that of a stove, which is a large part of the reason why the meat is so moist. If you've ever been for an afternoon walk in the middle of winter, the day after a snow storm, when the sun is high in the sky and there's a thin layer of ice over the previous day's snowfall, the skin on a lechón shields the succulent meat in the same manner the veil of ice protects the purities of day-old snow.

That is until you break it off and cut it up into bite size pieces.

Lechón usually comes with a liver gravy. It's made in the same fashion as a turkey gravy, or any other protein-based gravy; thickening agent, water, and rendered fat drippings. The tradition of using the animal's liver gives the gravy a rich, unique flavor, and is one of the ways in which Filipino culture has been making use of the animal in its entirity for centuries. Another is found in Paksiw na Lechón, a dish made from the leftovers. Bones, head, tail, skin (if there's any left), and any other part of the lechón that wasn't eaten the previous day get thrown together and cooked with vinegar and the leftover gravy. Paksiw is the name given to stews made with vinegar and the lechón version is typically consumed for breakfast the day after.

The lemongrass after it was removed from the lechón.

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