• Tender sweet skewers and tangy grilled barbecue meat are Filipino favourites. Served with rice, atchara and sawsawan. (Sydney Cebu Lechon)Source: Sydney Cebu Lechon
Spring and summer in Australia is barbecue time. But for Filipinos, ihaw (to grill or barbecue) is a way of life all year round.
Maida Pineda

5 Oct 2021 - 2:52 PM  UPDATED 6 Oct 2021 - 12:32 PM

When you visit the Philippines, you are bound to find someone chargrilling on every street corner. They usually have a pamaypay, a heart-shaped, handwoven fan made of anahaw palm. They fan the flame of the grill until the charcoals achieve an amber colour. Then they set skewered meats on the grill. In between checking the meat and fanning the flame, they catch up on the latest neighbourhood news. Then using a brush, they glisten the meat with a marinade or oil. 

These grilled meat skewers are known as ihaw-ihaw. Filipinos use any meat, but pork is the most popular. They usually eat meat skewers with rice and atchara (pickled grated green papaya).

However, inihaw, the noun of ihaw and which means grilled or barbecued food more generally, is not limited to the street corner. Go island hopping and your boatman will likely have a grill in his boat, ready to cook the day's catch. 

Filipinos have adapted many cooking techniques from Spanish colonisers and Chinese traders, but chargrilling is the most traditional.

Will Mahusay, the owner of Filipino restaurant Sydney Cebu Lechon, explains, "Ihaw is a way to cook or grill over charcoal. For me, it is very traditional. When someone says, 'ihaw-ihaw' [grilled meat on skewers] I think of street food. I'm always thinking of people grilling over fire as opposed to gas stove or your convection oven at home."

Every afternoon, you'll find meat skewers grilled and sold on the streets in the Philippines.

Mahusay explains that there are similarities between ihaw-ihaw and Malaysian or Indonesian grilled satay skewers, but the difference lies in how the sauces are used.

"With satay, they drizzle peanut sauce over that. Ours, we don't really have a sauce that we drizzle over. But we have a sawsawan, which we dip it in. Of course, sawsawan (a dipping sauce) is a prominent pairing of anything that's grilled or anything that's roasted."

"There's no other way to eat inihaw but to serve it hot off the grill." 

He says that sauces with acidity, like soy sauce mixed with vinegar, go well with pork. But Filipinos also like to dip their barbecued seafood and chicken too. 

Mahusay's family has been in the business of roasting lechon baboy (a whole pig) since 1991. Lechon baboy involves slow-roasting a pig for at least 30 people. There are several varieties of this dish. Cebu lechon is a version in which the pig's cavity is stuffed with lemongrass, garlic, black peppercorns, star anise and salt, giving it a distinct flavour and aroma. It doesn't need rich, liver lechon sauce to accompany it.

Cebu lechon, the Filipino whole roasted suckling pig that draws crowds across Sydney
So famed is the Cebu version of lechon, it's not uncommon to fly a whole pig from Cebu to Manila, but we've got a version right here. Be prepared to queue at Sydney Cebu Lechon.

Barbecuing lechon is labour intensive. You need at least three hours to roast it over hot coals. But this is what makes it the centrepiece of every Filipino party. For smaller parties, a lechon belly (a deboned pork belly) feeds up to 10 people.

Succulent pork belly stuffed with lemongrass, garlic, salt, pepper and star anise, and slow cooked over charcoal.

A less grand but just as flavourful treat is lechon manok. In the Philippines, you'll find this tasty roast chicken sold along the road usually by two famous names: Andok's and Baliwag Lechon Manok. Sydney Cebu Lechon restaurant also makes lechon manok and lechon baka, which have a similar brine and marinade as the lechon baboy. 

Australians have discovered the deliciously sweet, tangy, umami flavour of Sydney Cebu Lechon's pork barbecue skewers. Mahusay reveals his secret is marinating the pork in a vinegar-soy mixture until it soaks up the soy and vinegar. He also brushes the meat with a special sauce as he grills it. "I mix my banana ketchup with my own homemade banana paste that I puree. I mix in dark soy, or sometimes hoisin, or a dash of patis (fish sauce)." These pork skewers are usually sold out by 6pm on Sunday evenings. 

Barkada Pinoy's grilled small pork intestines fresh off the grill.

Filipinos don't like to waste animal parts. Apart from grilling liempo (pork belly), they also like to grill pork and chicken intestines. They utilise chicken blood and chicken feet. These are usually paired with an ice-cold San Miguel beer or a quick street-side snack. For adventurous eaters in Australia, Barkada Pinoy Streetfood in Melbourne offers grilled pork intestines. 

However, the trick to enjoying inihaw is to eat fresh off the grill. Regina Meehan of caterer Hoy Pinoy has been holding inihaw pop-up events across Australia and New Zealand since 2013. 

Melbourne-based catering service Hoy Pinoy features ihaw-ihaw.

Her team makes inihaw na baboy (grilled pork), inihaw na liempo (pork belly) and inihaw na manok (grilled chicken). Meehan says, "There's no other way to eat inihaw but to serve it hot off the grill." 

Whether you want to star the lechon baboy at your next party, or the festive pork barbecue skewers or dare to pair your chilled beer with grilled pork intestines, this summer is the best time to sample grilled Filipino dishes.  

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