We’re in Cebu and I am having lunch with food entrepreneur Veronica Castillo at her restaurant 8Flix and Chill in Talisay City. I’m here to be educated on the nuances of the traditional Cebuano dish Tuslob-Buwa, a specialty of the establishment and something Veronica has spent a lot of time studying.
Veronica will be cooking the dish for me and she’s prepared everything she will need: a frying pan on top of a portable stove, her minced ingredients in small plates, soy sauce, and a bowl of pork oil. It’s like preparing a Japanese shabu-shabu hotpot, she suggests.
Veronica switches the stove on and first pours the oil without waiting for the pan to heat up. She follows the oil with onions and chili, and then puts in the most essential component—the pig’s brain. Finally, a sprinkling of soy sauce seals the deal. When cooked under maximum heat, the pig’s brain creates bubbles, which becomes part of the sauce where we dip the “puso,” or hanging rice. The way of consuming the rice has inspired the dish’s Cebuano name: tuslob means to dip, while buwa means bubbles. The bigger the bubbles, Veronica tells me, the more flavorful it is.
I’m Cebuano and this is only my third time to have Tuslob-Buwa. I never thought there is a strategy in eating it. Veronica instructs me to begin from the top of the plate across me and slide the puso towards my direction to enjoy the full load of the dip. This way, the majority of the ingredients will be resting on top of the rice.
“But it’s unusual to eat Tuslob Buwa at lunch,” she tells me. “We never eat it at lunch because it’s meant for late afternoon cravings until dawn the following day. It’s also meant for midnight, a heavy midnight snack. Like balut, it’s too early for it!”
Veronica traces the origin of Tuslob Buwa in Pasil, one of Cebu’s major fish and meat markets where vendors used to throw the pig’s brain away until a lady cook experimented and saw its business potential. She minced the pig’s brain and fried it for her customers.
After working in Dubai and Malaysia for five years, Veronica came home and searched for potential investments in 2018. “I tried almost all Tuslob Buwa stalls in Cebu, and none of them satisfied me because maybe they already had different flavors. Some add broth into the dip,” says the 25-year old entrepreneur. “This gave me an idea. I did not like any form of variations. I like it to stay true to the original, so I decided to start my own restaurant with Tuslob Buwa’s original taste.” For Veronica, the classic version should taste like sisig adobo.
In 2019, Veronica’s 8Flix was just in a humble shanty by the road in San Isidro, in Talisay City. Less than a year after, she was able to open another outlet in Rahman Street in Cebu City. “I felt there was a need to expand in Cebu City because most customers would travel —roughly 30 minutes—just to dine here. There’s probably a thousand Tuslob Buwa stalls in Cebu but customers would look for my version because the quality of the taste remains true to the original mix in Pasil,” Veronica says proudly.
Veronica grew up eating the Cebuano delicacy. She recalls being in her grandmother’s house in Mambaling and always allotting ten pesos so she can afford one whole order of the rice and savory sauce combo.
The Tuslob Buwa is currently having a moment in Cebu. In fact, the price of pig’s brain is now higher at the farmers’ market and there are days when the stores run out of the stuff. Making sure she has constant supply of pig’s brain remains to be the most challenging part of Veronica’s business. “I have experienced scarcity. I went to almost all markets in Cebu to buy pig’s brain and there was none available,” she says. “I did not have a choice but to close my restaurant for a day. That’s how high the demand for pig’s brain is right now.”
Tuslob Buwa is popular in Cebu but one can can also find it in Talisay’s neighboring areas like Minglanilla, Labangon, and Pardo. Of course, 8Flix has a lounge-like vibe which makes it more attractive to customers , especially those who like to sit and talk during lunchbreaks. Recently, it has also become a one-stop hub for Cebuano street food. People also go there for Proven (the proventriculus of the chicken), the Ginabot (fried ruffled fat), and Dynamite (stuffed long green chili peppers) among others. But Tuslob-Buwa remains the runaway bestseller. “We offer unlimited rounds,” says the personable Veronica.
All photos by Clint Holton Potestas