Few places are as deeply associated with a particular dish as Cebu is with lechon, whole pig stuffed with lemongrass, onions and garlic, skewered on a bamboo pole, and roasted over live coals (although puritans insist on calling it inasal, the regional term for the cooking process). While most Cebuanos can name a go-to place for lechon in a heartbeat, they’re also quick to add that there are other local specialties worth trying in the coastal city besides its famous spit-roasted pig, once declared by Anthony Bourdain as the “Best. Pig. Ever”. Most fans insist that you have it free of sauces that only tend to complicate and confuse the flavors. It’s best with puso, they say, rice cooked in a heart-shaped woven casing of coconut fronds that you can eat with one hand.
That locals have such strongly held opinions about what to eat and where, often getting into lively discussions over who does what best, is a telltale sign of the rich and vibrant food culture. Another is the fact that by sheer patronage, establishments like Kuya J, whose menu reads like the greatest hits of the Filipino cookbook, can grow from a humble roadside eatery along Orchid Street in the Capitol area, to a nationwide chain with over a hundred outlets in just a few years. And yet another is that despite a spate of recent openings — including fine-dining restaurants like Enye by Chele Gonzalez of Manila’s Gallery Vask — people seem to profess a charming fealty to certain restaurants for certain cravings. Even during humid days, for instance, you might find office executives — women in black shift dresses and men in crisp, buttoned-up shirts — file out of taxis and sweat it out at a branch of Kusina ni Nasing for a lunch of grilled pork belly.
The proof is in the parrotfish
“Our Cebuano food is really simple,” says Julita “Lita” Urbina, a local culinary icon who founded the Laguna Group of Companies, a food empire that, like Kuya J, grew out of a small, home-cooked food business. “The preparation is generally not as elaborate as in Tagalog cuisine. Take the tinola soup — or tinowa or tuwa in Cebu. In Luzon we add sliced green papaya and ginger, and flavor it with patis (fish sauce). In Cebu, it’s just tomatoes and onions.” Over 30 years ago, Lita and her husband Ricardo, a military doctor, relocated to Cebu from Laguna, bringing with them the cooking traditions of Southern Tagalog.
She opened an eatery called Mother’s Best out of their garage to augment the family income. Thanks to her sharp perspective of an outsider looking in, a kind of sixth sense for what truly appeals, her flagship restaurant, Laguna Café, has stayed a local institution and a regular Sunday stop for families for over two decades. Her latest venture is the bright, airy and thoroughly modern Parilya, in the city’s new commercial hub called Il Corso at the sprawling and shiny seaside City di Mare complex. Parilya showcases years of expertise in local fare — soups like tinola featuring the catch of the day, grilled fish and meat and a variety of kinilaw, including a regional specialty called sinuglaw, a nifty combination of both grilled pork and seafood kinilaw.
A concentration of curiosities
To define the cuisine, the government takes a cue from the land. “Geography defines the fate of our cuisine,” offers Boboi Costas, the provincial tourism officer, before explaining how the long and narrow island, with a mountain range in the middle running north to south, enjoys quick access to both seafood and fresh produce from the highlands. “Our food is simple because it is always fresh, there’s no need to add spices to preserve it.”
As tourism officer he travels all around the island frequently, his curiosity often taking him beyond small towns and into remote villages, sourcing produce and food items from communities and promoting these in Cebu City. “We’ve tapped a farming community in Bogo in northern Cebu which produces goat cheeses, and the torta (a pastry with fermented coconut wine baked in a clay furnace) from Argao,” he says, “and now both are served in hotels like Radisson Blu, Golden Prince Hotel and Parklane Hotel.” The hope is for the public to develop a greater appetite for what might otherwise be considered rather exotic, and for that demand to help guarantee continued production of heritage delicacies.
Official promotion of homegrown goodies reflects both the sense of pride and ingenuity the province has always been known for. The provincial government now champions bibingka (rice cakes) made from millet from the town of Asturias, and coffee grown and roasted in Tuburan. “We food-mapped our 44 towns, and these are only a few of the food items we’ve identified,” Boboi adds, hinting that they’ve just barely scratched the surface, and that an inexhaustible list of regional delicacies awaits the more adventurous foodies.
Mixing it up at the market
Other food advocates are more outward-looking but no less invested. Michael Karlo Lim is a 20-something entrepreneur for who blogs about food as The Hamburgero, the name another portmanteau of hamburger and the Cebuano word hambugero, or egotist. “Although we’ve always been a melting pot, what has changed in recent years is that Cebu has become more accommodating of other cultures,” he says. Karlo is also a partner at the phenomenally successful Sugbo Mercado, a weekend food market that gives culinary startups a venue to test the waters, including those that come in from neighboring islands, with their unique offerings. “And our food is always evolving. You can have puso sliced down the middle and stuffed with meat, and even flavored puso.”
Sugbo Mercado pitches tent in two locations every Friday to Sunday, one at the IT Park in Lahug and another at the Cebu Business Park along Ayala Access Road. It features a wide variety of food concepts, many of them traditional dishes with a twist. You only need to look around the stalls to see how increasingly inventive local food entrepreneurs have become — bite-sized silvanas on a short popsicle stick because of course that makes the crumbly, buttery dessert easier to eat! — and how appreciative the large crowds are by the way they flock to the market right when it opens at 6pm.
As in all dynamic cities, Cebu’s current dining scene can also seem mercurial. Except here, the rate of innovation is tempered with a conservative core. Case in point: the lechon belly. Why wait to be invited to a pig roast when you can get your lechon fix in this abbreviated form? This new form is pork belly stuffed with spices, rolled and tied with twine, and roasted over hot coals. Because it is a smaller surface area, the prized skin cooks more evenly, and the flavor from the spices is more pronounced on the meat, unlike traditional whole pigs, where some parts may not turn out as tasty as the others. Even purists would find it hard to find fault with this democratized, flavor-packed lechon variation.
If Cebuano cuisine has so far eluded neat definition, we’ll leave it at this: take an already rich culinary heritage (it is, after all, the country’s oldest city), throw in a whole new menu of curious finds from everywhere around the island and top if off with a generous dose of new offerings inspired by world cuisine — it’s a surefire recipe for a memorable food trip, and it’s exactly what you’ll find in Cebu.
This story first appeared in the December 2017 issue of Smile magazine.