01 February 2008

Lechon (or, How to Commit Suicide by Deep Frying)

Lechon Kawali

One of the most iconic traditional pinoy dishes is lechon, the spit-roasted pig. Sadly, I have neither a whole pig, large skewer, nor a large fire, not to mention the wherewithal to clean, season, and skewer a whole pig. Which is why I opted for lechon kawali, the indoor version that involves boiling, drying, and deep-frying pork belly.
It's a celebration of fat. Making it helps you realize it's basically a bacon slab deliberately cooked in such a way so the thick layer of fat under the skin doesn't melt away. You want that fat. You need that fat. It's good eating, that fat. Looking at lechon kawali is looking at a chunk of boiled, deep-fried fat that's been seasoned with a touch of meat.

This is atypical Filipino family party food, but my mom never made it at home. And now I know why. My soon-to-be mother-in-law taught me her simplified method that replaces frying with a turbo broiler, but since I don't have a one I had to mix and match various methods.

You will need...

3-4 lbs. pork belly, cut into strips
salt & pepper
cane vinegar (sukang maasim)
a large pot
a lot of piping hot oil for frying
acceptance of your own mortality
a splatter shield
a draining station (paper towels, or a slotted baking sheet set over paper towels, etc.)

Cut the pork belly into long strips, about 1 - 1 1/2" wide. Season with salt and pepper. Boil for about an hour, until the meat is tender and the layer of fat has swollen considerably. Remove the strips and let dry on paper towels for at least one hour.

The proper post-boiling step as taken from the terrific book Memories of Philippine Kitchens...

"3. While simmering the pork, preheat the oven to 400. Using tongs, transfer the pork to a roasting pan fitted with a wire rack, pat the pork dry with paper towels, and brush on both sides with vinegar. Transfer to the oven and roast for 20 to 30 minutes to dry, turning onces with tongs. Remove from oven and keep in a cool place to dry for another 4 hours."

Then fry the pieces about 6-7 minutes until the skin is crispy all the way through. Set aside to drain and cool.

Now, I'm making a point of referencing and quoting because that isn't what I did.

Following the boil, I gave the strips several pat downs, cut them into large chunks, and popped them into the freezer for about ten minutes while I heated the oil. Despite the vast majority of recipes I looked up -- you know, the recipes based on generations of experience -- recommending to dry the pork for a prolonged period, I went with the one recipe that said one hour of air drying would do the trick. Yeah, not so much.

Quick and dirty science lesson if you've never thought about why hot oil goes batshit crazy when water is introduced: water and oil do not mix (clearly I am a genius). When molecules of water are surrounded on all sides by hot oil, the water instantaneously boils. The resulting vapor then goes racing up towards the surface and looks around to see there's a microwave and a floor and my face within reach, and explodes like so much nitroglycerin.

Of course, I knew this and figured all the drying was for this exact reason. But, damnit, I wanted lechon kawali NOW!

Well, it seems pig fat does a reasonable job of holding a lot of water. I'm going to estimate that the top of my microwave is about three and a half feet above the stove. Scorching vegetable oil exploding through a splatter shield and above the microwave might possibly be the scariest thing I've witnessed in person.

Anyway, be sure to fry the pieces until they are crispy and don't give under a little pressure from tongs. Lechon sauce would be nice (like Mang Tomas "All Purpose Sauce"), but Camille simply likes to drizzle some vinegar over it. The crispy, rich fat and the lean meat, combined with the acid saltiness of the vinegar makes for some addicting, life-affirming food.
Paksiw Na Lechon

And it doesn't stop. No, the real beauty of lechon is the leftovers can be cooked into a completely different dish. Most Filipino restaurants are casual turo turo joints, which means "point point." But when I'm in line with my tray, staring down at my choices, I'm always looking for one thing: paksiw na lechon. (As for the Filipino trend of doubling up on words... don't don't ask.)

Using vinegar, soy sauce, brown sugar, and a whole lot of "All Purpose Sauce" to stew the meat and reverse all that drying and deep frying, paksiw na lechon is more hearty and savory. It's absolutely required to have rice on the side to soak up the juices (not that any Filipino would be caught dead eating this without a side of rice). Unlike lechon kawali, the meat takes center stage. The pork flavor really comes to the fore with the sweet and tangy stew, the richness of the fat working more as a balancing counterpoint.

I used a recipe from pinoycook.net which basically calls for letting the meat break down in the stew, then adding All Purpose Sauce (which, by the way, is used for all purposes lechon, but nothing else) to smooth things out. In restaurants, it's usually fairly thick, but this preparation is runnier, more in line with most stews.
Salty, sweet, savory. I love this stuff.


Connie said...

Hi. Actually, you remove a lot of the fat in lechon kawali by cooking it in a convection oven (or its smaller brother, the turbo boiler). Make sure that the pork rests on a rack so that the fat falls off. In case you're interested, here is the link.

Thy Tran said...

Thanks for a great post! I laughed, I learned, I licked my lips. Appreciate the real tips along with your humor. Unfortunately I don't have time to make (or, more to the point, dry!) lechon today, but it's definitely on my list for a future feast. BTW, I was looking through Amy Besa's book just now, too. Love her.

Francisco Magdaraog said...

Thanks for comment, Thy! Glad you found my post.