Sisig Sans Sizzling
Sisig used to be one of my least favorite dishes, mainly because I thought it tried so hard to embody many flavors at once that it often failed. Even the name sounded mediocre. During birthday parties, I would cringe when friends ordered sisig and I’d be forced to sample. Not that there were many choices – we were high school students—broke high school students at that.
In college, however, I came across this place near UST which served sisig – the crispy, tasty, the not-quite-there kind. After sampling it a couples of times, I bravely declared, it was the “one true sisig” to beat.
Yet on recent trip to Angeles city, I was made to face the harsh truth – that there is no “one true sisig’’ — but at least 20!
Last weekend, I participated in the annual Sisig Fiesta of Angeles City, Pampanga organized by the Department of Tourism as part of the month-long Flavors of the Philippines nationwide festivities this April.
Sisig Fiesta opened with a sisig creation demonstration by two renowned gastronomists: fusion cuisine master Chef Sau Del Rosario, and Kapampangan heritage chef Aching Lilian Borromero.
I learned from Aching Lilian the original sisig wasn’t the sizzling kind as we know it with the egg, soy sauce and the kalamansi. The original sisig is sour and almost like kilawin (ceviche), tangy, and very tasty. It is not oily or burnt, and is amply spicy. In fact, Aching Lilian shared that sisig was not originally all-meat, but infused with fruits, herbs and leafy vegetables like pako (fiddleferns).
FROM VEGGIE TO MEAT-BASED TO SIZZLING TO STARDOM
The term ‘sisig’ could be to traced to as early as 1732, in the Kapampangan dictionary written by Spanish friar Fra Diego Bergaño, which meant “sliced into long shreds and pieces,” close to mincing or julienning. ”Sisig” was thus the process, and not the food.
Colonial Kapampangans would enjoy their sisig with mangga and other vegetables doused in vinegar. One fact remains true however, that sisig, from the start, has always been a pulutan.
The entry of what we now know as the classic sisig marked the transition of sisig from purely veggies, to meat-based. From then on, the vegetable sisig was forgotten. During the American occupation, airmen and navy men from Subic and Clark Airbase would consume vast amounts of pork, but disposed of the heads. Angeles residents would buy the discarded pork heads at a very low price and would whip up pork sisig from pig ears and faces.
In the 1970s, sisig reached national prominence when Lucia “Aling Lucing” Cunanan grilled and sizzled sisig. It instantly became a hit across the country, and people began flocking to Pampanga to the “mother of sizzling sisig.” Aling Lucing’s sisig gave prominence to Angeles City that was slowly becoming the culinary capital of the Philippines.
CHEF SAU’S VERSION
Next, I sampled Chef Sau’s “Avant-Garde” sisig, a modern take on the classic sisig. It was very flavorful, hearty, and tasty. It’s unlike any sisig I have ever tasted growing up. Chef Sau’s creation consisted of seared lean portions of pork and pork brain, seasoned with light vinegar, and finally, topped with poached egg and small strips of green mango. It was slightly tangy and sour but very spicy and true to its name, it carries sisig forward to greater potentials in the culinary world.
TWO DOWN, 20 TO GO…
I continued on to the second half of the program showcasing 20 other variants of sisig, which ranged from the ordinary to the exotic. The repertoire of the Kapampangan favorite was overwhelming – there was tinapa sisig, balut sisig, lechon sisig, sisig asan (fish), shrimp sisig, laing sisig, sisig tugak (frog), sisig ensalada, sisig pizza and nachos n’ sisig in cheese, chicken sisig, beef and pork sisig, tuna, and salmon, and I managed to try all of them, but my most, most favorite was tinapa sisig because I’ve always been drawn to smoky flavors.
Indeed, there is a sisig for every kind of palate and any kind of fan; and that’s just in Pampanga! Imagine other places in the country inventing their own sisig! Renowned chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain has in fact featured the Philippine sisig at least twice in his shows – one was Aling Lucing’s in Angeles City, and the most recent one in his show “Parts Unknown” where he enjoyed a plateful in the streets of Malate. “Nothing could come between me and my sisig,’’ Bourdain declared.
It’s often difficult to totally bring homestyle goodness of food from the countryside to the urban jungle—this I always believe after sampling different dishes from restaurants in Manila which became famous first in the provinces such as Ted’s batchoy, Razon’s halo-halo, or Chic Boys Cebu lechon. So if you’re going to discover the real flavor of a dish, get to its roots, go back to where it came from – just like what I did during my Angeles City trip. There is nothing like relishing the original sisig right where it was conceived, refined, polished and finally served in perfection.