“This is sisig, the greatest pork hash — arguably greatest pork dish — on earth. Say the name with two flicks of the tongue, somewhere between a whisper and a hiss.” These were the exact words of Ligaya Mishan, a food columnist and contributor to The New York Times, a multi-awarded daily print published in New York City and one of the largest newspapers in the United States. The statement came earlier this year after a review of one of the popular snack bars that serves Filipino-traditional and inspired dishes in the Big Apple.
Savory, smoky, spicy, tangy, crunchy, melt-in-the-mouth, lip-smacking and if you may excuse this last word – fatty. That is how Filipinos best describe this monumental dish. I know some of you will cringe in hesitation by the mention of the last adjective but hey, what would you expect? It’s a pork dish! You fitness bomb and squeamish walking calorie-counter, you can walkout all you want because this one is not for you. And if the idea of devouring a splattering sizzling plate of minced meat bathing in its own lard will give your blood pressure the tendency to surge past the normal 120/80 or you are under protection by your religion, tradition or personal choice, by all means and with all due respect, you are excused. However, for those of you who might be interested but unfamiliar of sisig, all eyes and ears because here is a bit of history.
The name of the dish was derived from an old Tagalog word, “sisigan” which means “to turn sour or acidic”. The word was first compiled in a Kapampangan dictionary by Agustinian Fray Diego Bergaño way back in 1732. One would make wonder that during Spanish era, sisig actually pertained to a “healthy” green salad of unripe fruits marinated in a vinaigrette of combined citrus fruit juice or vinegar, salt and pepper. The inherent sourness or acidity of the dish was thought to have cured wooziness or the aftermath of overindulgence to alcohol as it restrains one’s urge to vomit. To fast forward a little bit, during the American Occupation, Clark Air Base in Angeles City, Pampanga became a military base of the U.S. Air Force. The servicemen who were taking charge of the food would just throw the unwanted pig heads and parts into the garbage. The locals living nearby, out of innovativeness and resourcefulness, offered to purchase the unused pig parts at a very cheap price. They would boil the heads until the meat still attached to the bone begin to disintegrate, and then chop up the ears and the cheeks into tiny pieces to be added to their soured salad relish giving birth to a dish from which the sisig that we have come to know today was patterned.
|What's in sisig that it characterizes Filipino ingenuity?|
That being “smoky” and “sizzling” was not characteristically the standard way the dish was supposed to be served, not before a kitchen mishap that may seem trivial for some but for every trained chefs served as an initiation rite that they need to surpass before becoming eligible to wear that symbolic toque. There was a certain Aling Lucing (Lucia Cunanan) who was boiling her pig head the usual way which she would serve for her customers in her carinderia (local eatery) by the railroad in a ghetto in Angeles City. If chance would have it, she forgot about the head and the water that supposed to soften the meat had dried up. She only realized the mistake when she smelled something burning in the kitchen. In order not to waste a big bulk of meat, she tried to rectify her error by chopping it into small pieces and mixing it with vinegar and onions. She then baptized the dish by the name, sisig. When she displayed the dish, she never expected that the customers would love it. Who would have realized that an unprecedented incident such as that would put her name in the Filipino culinary history being the “Sisig Queen”? Her revolutionary recreation of the dish had become a national phenomenon that people from all walks of life, even wealthy politicians and celebrities, were enthralled to the expense of rambling their way to now hailed as the “Sisig Capital of the Philippines” just to get to taste this accidental pork dish. Even Tom Parker-Bowles, food writer for Esquire UK, travelled all the way to Angeles City, Pampanga days before his stepbrother’s royal wedding just to try an authentic version of sisig which he later on raved in one of his articles in the said magazine. (Click here to read the story.) How history could gradually make twists of events of turning a once “curative” salad into a cholesterol-hyping dish that made an unsuspecting little lady a national icon and a worldwide sensation for that matter is truly far-fetched.
Unlike other dishes, sisig is not a usual family viand that is cooked on a daily basis though nowadays there are food chains and even high-end restaurants that regularly serve and specialize in preparing sisig. Besides, pig head parts are not always readily available and the preparation is tedious and quite a process as the meat undergoes three stages of cooking: boiling, to tenderize the meat; grilling, to intensify the flavors; and frying, for that added crunch. Through continuous reinvention and the passage of time sisig had been cooked and prepared in several ways – with or without onions, garnished with parsley or topped with cracklings, red or green chilies, pork or otherwise – but what makes it outright distinct from other pork dishes that even your meat-picky grandmother could never resist is the smoky aroma of splattering juicy minced meat served on a heavy burning metal plate atop with a freshly cracked whole egg. Sisig is not only a sought after pulutan (food to pair with alcoholic drink) that goes perfectly with a tall mug of ice-cold beer, it can also serve as filling to your favorite tacos and burritos. Sisig might not be the healthiest of the Filipino dishes but it certainly characterizes true Filipino creativity and ingenuity, and how out of survival, a culinary masterpiece would emerge that the world now glorifies.
Sizzling Pork Sisig
Number of Servings: 3 to 4
- 1 lb. pig head parts (combination of pig ears, cheeks and tongue)
- 1 lb. pork belly
- 1 lb. chicken liver
- 3 cups water
- 1 cup pineapple juice
- 1 tsp. salt
- 3 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 1 tsp. coarsely crushed peppercorns
- 3 pcs. bay leaves
- 4 tbsps. soy sauce
- 3 tbsps. vinegar
- 1 large white onion, minced
- 3 pcs. (or more) bird’s eye chilies or chili picante (long green chilies), minced
- 1-2 tbsps. butter or margarine
Toppings and garnish
- 3-5 pcs. calamansi limes (optional)
- Raw whole eggs
- Clean the pig parts and trim any visible hair on the skin.
- In a heavy-bottomed pot, combine the chicken liver, pig head parts and pork belly, pineapple juice, water, garlic, bay leaves, salt and peppercorns. Cover the pot and bring to a boil. Set to simmer for about one hour or until the pork is tender. (Note: Remove the chicken liver ahead of time once it is soft.) Drain the pork belly and parts. Set aside the broth for other use.
- Grill the pork and liver over live coal until brown and crispy. Alternatively, deep fry the pork and liver.
- Once grilled or fried, chop the pork and chicken liver into fine pieces. Add in the soy sauce, vinegar, onion and chilies. Thoroughly mix until all the ingredients are well-blended.
- Heat a metal plate or iron griddle pan. Melt the butter or margarine and then mix in the pork mixture. Remove the plate from heat. Crack one egg atop the sizzling sisig. Serve with calamansi if preferred. Enjoy!
TIPS FROM ENZ:
- If pig head parts are not readily available, you can use 100% pork belly.
- Other variations involve the use of beef, chicken, squid, fish or tofu as alternative.