Lechon. The mere mention of the word will make a Filipino weak at the knees.
The tradition of spit-roasting whole suckling pigs is an inheritance from the Spanish conquistadors (lechon is the Spanish word for suckling pig), who ruled over the Philippines for over 300 years, but the former Spanish colony has made lechon wholly its own.
Today, no Filipino party, or fiesta, is complete without a centrepiece lechon and its addictive combination of crisp, glistening skin, unctuous fat and tender, flavoursome meat.
When Fred and Fely Mahusay migrated to Australia in 1987, there was little to no Filipino food, let alone lechon, a specialty of their regional home, Cebu. So they began experimenting for family and friends. “They were homesick,” says their son Will. “Food was their way to connect back to [the] motherland.”
Over the years, requests grew for their authentic take on suckling pig. Eventually, demand surpassed their off-hours operation, so they quit their jobs and registered Sydney Cebu Lechon as a company. It’s now celebrating 27 years in business.
“It can now be said that of all the whole-roasted pigs I’ve had all over the world, the slow-roasted lechon I had in Cebu was the best,” declared Bourdain.
The late Anthony Bourdain himself was a notorious pork aficionado. When a Philippines-focused episode of No Reservations aired in 2009, it became a seminal piece of television for both lechon and Filipino food on a whole.
“It can now be said that of all the whole-roasted pigs I’ve had all over the world, the slow-roasted lechon I had in Cebu was the best,” declared Bourdain. “This puts the standings in the Hierarchy of Pork as follows: No. 1. Philippines. No. 2. Bali. No. 3. Puerto Rico.”
The verdict sent waves of euphoria throughout the country, where ardent fans long felt local food had been overlooked on the global stage. It also settled the regional debate (or fuelled the fire) about the country’s superlative lechon. These days, it’s not uncommon to fly a whole pig from Cebu to, say, Manila, the capital, for a special event.
About five years ago, Will joined the much-loved brand to lend his ageing parents a hand. “I don’t think people realise the amount of effort that goes into the product,” says Will. “It’s an art, as well as very labour intensive – just think about those whole pigs!”
While Fred still oversees his famed pork, Will’s first move was to a new supplier from southern NSW with organic, free-range pigs. Each suckling babe weighs around 19-24 kilograms, but different specifications can be ordered by request.
A secret blend of aromatics – Will reveals a partial list of shallots, star anise, chilli, garlic and lemongrass – are stuffed inside the carcass, which is sewn up and then roasted over a hand-built charcoal oven for three to four hours. “Imagine all the fresh produce, simmering and marinating from inside, and seeping into the meat,” he says. “It’s an explosion of aromatics.” Salt is also rubbed onto the skin to produce the ultra-crackled effect signature to the dish.
Sydney Cebu Lechon, the city’s oldest purveyor and without contest one of its best, receives orders for eight to 12 whole suckling pigs per weekend, as well as scores of rolled boneless pork belly, a newer and more compact rendition of lechon.
Earlier this year, Will also kicked off a monthly lechon pop-up out the back of his Blacktown production space with support from the local council to use the adjoining park. “Our customers are traditionally Filipino, but we wanted to introduce lechon to a mainstream audience.”
Word has caught on quick. The August event sold out by midday, with Sydneysiders travelling over an hour for a taste.
23-year-olds Steven and Jordan heard about the event on Facebook. “We’re going to the Philippines in December and thought we’d try some local food before we go.” Apparently, the pull of succulent pork was strong for the food festival first-timers.
A secret blend of aromatics – Will reveals a partial list of shallots, star anise, chilli, garlic and lemongrass – are stuffed inside the carcass.
Meanwhile, Allen and Dylan journeyed from Hornsby. “I heard that Cebu-style lechon is better than usual lechon – juicier,” says Allen, who grew up in the Philippines.
“A lot of our Australian friends like me are really curious about Filipino food, but have no idea what it is. It’s the one Asian cuisine that’s still undiscovered in Australia,” Dylan says.
In September, Will moved the event to a more central location in Marrickville and says he’ll experiment with different sites into the future. The next Sydney Cebu Lechon stand will be at Pasko Filipino at Tumbalong Park, Darling Harbour on November 10 and 11.
When patrons were told there could be an hour-plus delay at the August event, their dedication was unwavering. “It’s lechon," yelled someone from the crowd. "We’re willing to wait!”
Chewy layers of cashew meringue are sandwiched with a rum-spiked buttercream to create this traditional Filipino dessert.