Cebu lechon has come a long way since the early days when people would buy from lechon stalls in Talisay City every Sunday. In the last 15 years or so, anyone born and raised in Cebu has likely noticed how restaurants like Zubuchon, Rico’s Lechon, and House of Lechon have helped make this most revered of all pig dishes more accessible to tourists, with Cebu lechon now available at malls, the airport, and even air-shipped to Manila.
These restaurants have also experimented with their own versions of Cebu lechon. Aside from whole roasted lechon, they offer variations: lechon sisig, lechon belly, spicy lechon, the list goes on. Creativity has now become a factor in the “whose Cebu lechon is the best” debate.
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Of course this wasn’t always the case. In the 1980s, I recall my father would buy a kilo of lechon every Sunday at the square by the gates of St. Joseph the Patriarch Parish in Mabolo, in tandem with a jar of fresh coconut juice. These lechon stalls could be found near churches like those in Lilo-an and Talisay City, areas that were located far from the wet market.
These days, despite lechon’s easy availability in malls and restaurants, old-timer lechon stalls are still very much around, and appreciated by Cebuanos. For example, at Alejo’s Lechon inside a public market in Labangon, customers still queue for the lechon only served at 3 pm daily.
Families still flock to the beach in Talisay City where lechon stalls open only every Sunday. “I grew up in Talisay, and I remember my family driving to the town proper near the church where lechon was sold on Sunday mornings. Back then, they didn’t sell the lechon by the kilo but by the portion. You just pointed at the part of the pig you wanted and haggled for the price,” says Chef Myke “Tatung” Sarthou who just opened Talisay The Garden Café in Quezon City, named after his hometown. “Talisay lechon is flavorful, no need for sarsa—just suka or atchara, and you’re good to go. It also does not have lemongrass, just a whole lot of spring onions and garlic with a tiny hint of star anise. The stuffing served as a vegetable side of sorts.”
Sarthou recalls eating lechon with puso (hanging rice) and kinilaw (raw fish in vinegar). “Each stall was family run, and each one took pride in his own version of the lechon. Today, some of the lechoneros have been selling in Talisay for over 50 years. The business has been passed on from one generation to another.”
Up north, in Bogo City, customers have to place orders on Saturdays for the next day’s delivery at the market. Louella Alix, author of the book, Hikay: the Culinary Heritage of Cebu, remembers how her grandmother used to pass by the market to buy adobo and claim her order after hearing mass on a Sunday morning. “It’s a tradition that every Sunday, we eat something special. What is more special to the Cebuano than the inasal?” Alix states.
“I think the inasal of Cebu is the most delicious because we add some aromas to it,” Alix remarks. FYI: Cebuanos, according to food writer Elena Peña, used to call lechon "inasal," which meant "cooked over fire."
“We’re aromatic people," continues Alix. "When you open the belly, you can smell the bundle of lemongrass, the bundle of spring onions and Bermuda onions, cloves, black pepper. When they seal it, the meat sips them. The smell is enticing enough.” Alix also notes that different parts of the island flavor lechon in different ways. In Car-Car City, the lechons there have epazote, a type of Mexican tea leaf, aside from the usual ingredients. What she tasted in the mountains of Barangay Tap-Tap was also different. The lechons there have wild mint that sprouts everywhere. A small eatery was built next to the area where the lechoneros prepare and roast the pig.
According to Alix, the evolution of the lechon embodies the diversity of taste in Cebu, a necessary and inevitable part of any cuisine’s development. However, she admits that if she had to choose, she still prefers the traditional way of slow roasting the pig. “If it ain’t broke," she says, "why fix it?”