Describe Cebuano cuisine in one word. You can’t. The thing is, Cebuano cuisine is not only diverse, it is continuously evolving. And the minimalist appearance of most Cebuano dishes can be deceiving.
Take Cebu lechon, for instance. To the uninitiated, lechon is just that: roasted pig. What the untrained eye doesn’t see is the meticulous process Cebu lechon goes through from preparation to roasting to serving that takes at least half a day.
On the other hand, Cebuano food might take some getting used to. But once you do, we’re pretty sure you’ll get rewarded with an unforgettable gustatory experience. To get you started on your culinary journey, check out seven of Cebu’s iconic dishes.
Cebuano lechon baboy is arguably the best in the country, if not the world. The argument among Cebuanos really is which lechon in Cebu is the best: the ones from Carcar, from Talisay, or the “branded” ones in the city? In the end, what matters is that you have flavorful Cebu lechon on your plate.
So what makes Cebu lechon more delicious than, say, the “bland” lechon up north that demands bottles of tangy pork liver sauce called sarsa?
The secret is in the right mix of spices, and Cebuanos want their lechon well-seasoned from head to tail, from bone to skin. Handfuls of salt are mixed with different spices such as onions, garlic, peppercorns, bay leaves, anise, scallions, and, depending on the recipe, lemongrass.
The mixture is then stuffed into the pig’s cavernous belly that’s been sliced open, then sewn shut with abaca string. Next, the pig is skewered with a bamboo pole and left to dry at an angle in open air for hours to drain the stuffed carcass of excess fluids before roasting. During the roasting stage over open embers of coal or firewood, sugar from coconut water or soda is continually glazed on the pig’s skin to give it that distinct crisp and flavor.
Ever wondered what happens to all that offal that’s removed from lechon-ready pigs? Most of them end up in a pork blood stew called dinuguan, Cebuano-style.
Dinuguan is a popular Filipino dish, but what makes Cebuano-style dinuguan different is instead of using pork meat like its Luzon counterpart, it uses offal. The crunch and texture that offal gives simply takes dinuguan to another level.
Cebu’s balbacua is said to have been introduced by the Spaniards. The reason, as conventional wisdom would have it, is that balbacua supposedly comes from the Spanish word barbacoa.
But not so fast: barbacoa is a way of cooking meat slowly, and the technique didn’t originate from Spain but from South America. Further, “barbecue” comes from the word barbacoa, and since Cebuano balbacua is a stew, its name turns out to be a misnomer. And so we can ask: did balbacua really come from Spain? Who knows.
One thing we’re sure of is that balbacua is one tasty yet underrated dish. It takes hours to prepare and cook. Boiling the oxtail, knuckles, knees and beef skin to tender perfection with spices, peanuts and black beans thrown in for texture and flavor results in a thick, delicious Cebuano stew. No wonder that along with the lechon, the balbacua is a favorite during traditional celebrations.
Named because of its heart shape, puso offers a glimpse of Cebu’s Southeast Asian culinary heritage. Popular in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia, this rice “dumpling” boiled in a pouch woven from coconut palm fronds is called “ketupat.” Since the weaving of the pouch and puso consumption are closely linked to traditional ceremonies, puso isn’t just any staple.
So the next time you hold the puso in your hands, know that the puso is a cultural symbol that Cebuanos as well as our Southeast Asian neighbors hold dear. And may we add that puso goes perfectly well with lechon, dinuguan, balbacua, tuslob buwa, pungko-pungko and linarang.
The sour slightly spicy broth linarang is the byword these days, thanks to a television series that featured the Cebuano dish alongside other street food. Although some say that linarang is an old recipe, it was only at the start of the new millennium that the dish gained a cult following, particularly among those who stayed up late, either in search of a hot broth after a night of drinking, or after long hours of work.
And for that, we owe the broth’s popularity to the linarang vendors just outside of Pasil Fish Market, the ones who would wake up just past midnight to get their hands on the freshest catch that have just been unloaded from the docks. In their makeshift stalls, they would sauté garlic, onions and tomatoes in woks, add snakehead fish, parrot fish, eel, stingray or whatever is available, then let simmer with water. For that distinctive sour flavor, green mangoes or tamarind is thrown in along with chilies.
Soon after linarang stalls started cropping up all over the metropolis, and the rest is Cebuano culinary history.
Long after the larangan tables have emptied in the morning, another set of makeshift stalls would emerge mid-afternoon along the narrow streets of Pasil. Regulars would start milling around the wok and wait for their tuslob buwa.
Tuslob means to dip, while buwa means bubble, referring to the frothy mix of sautéed garlic, onions, liver, and, yes, pig’s brains, which are then seasoned with fermented shrimp, salt and pepper. What is dipped into the hot, thick, bubbly stew is hanging rice or puso.
But there’s a catch: a quick meal of tuslob buwa in Pasil is a communal affair, which means you take a dip at your own risk. This perhaps added more to tuslob buwa’s appeal, and soon enough, tuslob buwa joints with more sanitized offerings started popping out everywhere, although many disappeared just as quickly.
Once called “the everyman’s buffet,” pungko-pungko is as quotidian as Cebuano street food gets.
You can tell it’s a pungko-pungko place whenever you’ll find low tables and chairs with rectangular plastic boxes on top. In these boxes are “finger food” items fried to a crisp: lumpia taugi (mung bean sprouts), longganisa (native sausage), pork chop, buwad pusit (dried squid), pork liver, pork brain, and, the star of the table, ginabot (mesentery). One gets some vinegar infused with chopped white onions as dipping sauce, while everything is wolfed down with puso.
Among the older pungko-pungko places could be found in Lahug and along a street across the Redemptorist Church, but many can be found in areas near schools and commercial areas to cater to students and the working class.
Back in the day, one would eat pungko-pungko food at some side street while squatting, hence the term “pungko,” or to sit on one’s heels. These days, however, you can even have a pungko-pungko box delivered at your doorstep.