MANILA, Philippines – If there are still lingering doubts that lechon is indeed the national dish of the Philippines, Dedet de la Fuente should put a delicious end to this sinful debate.
De la Fuente is the woman behind Pepita’s Kitchen, whose “lechon degustacion” dinners are among the most-awaited events for foodies in Metro Manila.
Last Saturday, de la Fuente again opened her Magallanes Village home for a lechon feast – a 14-course culinary affair highlighted by four different kinds of lechon de leche.
De la Fuente has certainly come a long way since taking up a class three years ago from Chef Reggie Aspiras that promised to teach participants “how to cook the crunchiest lechon de leche at home.”
“It’s so catchy so I wanted (to take it),” de la Fuente explained, adding that she called up on a Friday to sign up for a class scheduled the following Monday. And since Aspiras won’t teach unless there are at least six participants, de la Fuente also enrolled her yaya, who now serves as her “master litsonera.”
During the class, they were also told that there’s a two-month waiting list for the custom-built pugon oven for the lechon. De la Fuente recalled calling up to order one during the class and, in a stroke of luck, there was an oven that was immediately available, which she got the next day.
“So I got it and that started it,” she said, adding that she would invite her friends over to test her experiments with this popular dish. The first thing she tried was to stuff it with binagoongan rice, which drew praises from her friends. Her next attempt was a sisig rice stuffing.
She also entered the lechon with binagoongan at the Ultimate Taste Test 4.0, organized by the blog Awesome Planet, where it got high marks from the consumers.
“The secret of Pepita's Lechon is that they use native lechon de leche. Plus, they are pugon-baked, which makes it really yummy because the meat is juicy and absorbs the flavor well,” the website said of de la Fuente’s lechon.
As for the concept of the lechon degustacion, Spanky Enriquez, who helps de la Fuente in marketing, said the idea came from Chef Claude Tayag’s five-ways lechon, which he serves at Bale Datung in Pampanga.
“Dedet’s a big fan of Claude Tayag,” Enriquez said. “So when Dedet wanted to have dinners here, she patterned it after Bale Datung but she went overboard and it became 14 courses.”
So what exactly goes on during a lechon degustacion?
The 14 courses may seem quite intimidating at first but many of the dishes are actually light. For instance, the dinner started with two pates served with crackers and bread that’s shaped like a small lechon. One pate was made from bihod or fish eggs (Pinoy Caviar), while the other was made from balut (Pinoy Pate). The balut pate had a creamier consistency and a grey color, compared to the dark brown bihod, which was a better approximation of liver in terms of taste and texture. But both worked well as a spread and also showed de la Fuente’s penchant for experimenting with local food.
The third course was a balut salpicao. Despite the more upscale presentation, balut remains an acquired taste even for self-confessed foodies. But I loved it, being a fan of balut. The salpicao could use a bit more garlic but that didn’t bother me as much and I would have gladly asked for seconds but then we’re only at course No. 3.
The waiters then came out with a platter of Rellenong Bulaklak, which turned out to be deep-fried squash flowers stuffed with kesong puti and anchovies. It could have been crunchier but it’s a delicious snack item that you could just pop in your mouth and appreciate the subtle flavors.
Course No. 5 was the intriguingly named “Eto Naiba.” Enriquez said this is because this was the only healthy thing on the menu. This was actually the salad course. De la Fuente explained that the salad is based on what’s available at the moment. So when she saw some fresh mangosteen at the market, she used it to make the vinaigrette. She also added micro beets, which she first saw at the markets. Apart from the greens, she included diced mango, longan and melon, which added a tropical sweetness to the salad.
Then it was time for the first lechon de leche. Everyone excitedly gathered around the roasted pig, seduced by the skin’s crackle as it was being opened up. The first lechon, dubbed the German, was stuffed with whole garlic bulbs, marbled potatoes and lemongrass. De la Fuente advised to mash the potatoes and the garlic together and eat with the lechon. This was my favorite of the night with the garlic flavor piercing through the meat, particularly the belly part. And the skin was just so crispy that you just got to have it. This was so good that I actually went back for more – even if there were three pigs more waiting to be served.
The lechon courses were divided by several palate cleansers including a citrus sorbet and a reinterpretation of the usual achara, this time using saba bananas.
Lechon No. 2 was stuffed with laing rice, which was made with gata (coconut milk) and taro (gabi) leaves. The trick, de la Fuente said, was to stuff the rice when it is not yet thoroughly cooked. The drippings from the lechon also added to the rice flavor. Although laing is usually spicy, this was quite mild.
The next lechon, a fairly new flavor, dubbed the Spanish Manilena, had a stuffing inspired by the paella with slices of Spanish chorizo and flavored with crab fat (aligue) – a cholesterol nightmare on a plate. But the flavors also combined very well and many gave this a thumbs’ up. Moreover, the dish looked really appetizing – and it was.
The final lechon for the night was French-inspired as it was stuffed with rice mixed with truffle oil and mushrooms. As the entrancing aroma was released when the pig was opened up, the guests were primed to pick this as their favorite. Indeed, the rice developed a certain creaminess that’s almost akin to risotto and paired very well with the crunchy lechon skin and the tender meat.
In general, the lechons were obviously roasted to perfection and like the best of them didn’t really need any additional sauce to make it tasty. No wonder that many of the country’s elite are making their orders for de la Fuente’s lechon.
With the dinner finally winding down, the waiters came out with a “Cholesterol Sweeper,” which turned out to be the humble champorado served in a shot glass. I’m not sure how this will cleanse the body but the chocolate taste certainly served as a palate cleanser.
Up next is the intriguing “Gayuma ni Pepita,” which turned out to be butterbeer, inspired by the Harry Potter books, which was made by de la Fuente’s daughter Lileya. The drink, which was topped with foam, had a sweet butterscotch taste.
The dinner’s finale was probably as sinful as the roasted pigs – a huge serving of suman topped with just about every native sweet you can imagine, from yema to pastillas de leche, pastillas de ube and Choc-nut bars to sweetened langka and diced ripe mango with latik served on the side. Surprisingly, the sweetness wasn’t as cloying as I thought but it was definitely filling.
The 14-course dinner took around three hours to finish – and despite all that cholesterol, one can’t help but dream of trying de la Fuente’s other lechon flavors. After all, she now has 10 all in all, including a Christmas lechon, stuffed with rice made with chestnuts and ham.
We're waiting for the next lechon degustacion already.
For more information, you can check the “Lechon Degustacion at Pepita's Kitchen” page on Facebook.