Knocking back a few pints of beer while chowing down on copious amounts of salty, greasy food is a time-honored tradition all over the world. The Spaniards came up with tapas or pinchos, the Koreans snack on anju, and we Filipinos have pulutan. A popular favorite in our country is sisig, which is comprised of a pig’s face that’s been chopped up and fried to perfection. Crispy, tangy, and meaty, it’s a perfect complement for beer’s natural earthy flavors. While its high fat and sodium content can make you dizzy and bloated, none of that matters once you’re three bottles in to drowning your frustrations with your douche ex in between mouthfuls of sizzling sisig.
The distinct, savory aroma wafting from that sizzling plate of sisig might make mouths water, but the recipe behind it could turn the stomach of the more squeamish among us. The first step involves taking a pig’s head (a real pig’s, not your ex’s) and boiling it until it’s tender. The hairs are then removed, with the fleshy portions chopped and then grilled or broiled. Finally, the whole lot is seasoned with salt, pepper, vinegar or calamansi juice before being fried with chopped onions, various types of sili, and chicken livers. Traditionally, sisig is topped with a raw egg which is gently cooked by the sizzling plate’s residual heat. Some eateries occasionally add ox brains, crushed pork cracklings, and even mayonnaise for added richness.
Pork may be the default protein of choice for whipping up sisig, but some adventurous cooks have also used exotic meats like ostrich, frog, and python. Vegetarians and pescetarians (along with practicing Catholics during the Lenten season) can also join in on the fun by going for a plate of squid, tuna, or tofu sisig.
Though it might be difficult to believe now, sisig was initially conceived as an austere cure for hangovers and nausea (and the vomiting that accompanied both). The dish’s name comes from “sisigan,” an old Tagalog word which means “to make it sour.” Its existence was first recorded in a Kapampangan dictionary back in 1732 by Diego Bergaño, a Spanish missionary who served as the parish priest for Mexico, Pampanga at the time. The Augustinian friar defined sisig as “a salad including green papaya or green guava eaten with a dressing of salt, pepper, garlic, and vinegar.” The dish’s inherent sourness was thought to suppress the urge to vomit, and was thus frequently administered to those suffering from dizziness (or from a night of overindulgence).
This acidic green salad eventually found its way to the dining table as an accompaniment to roasted meats, but it wasn’t until the American Occupation that sisig became recognized as an entrée in its own right. Back then, the US Air Force personnel were stationed at the Clark Base in Angeles City, Pampanga, and the commissaries in charge of preparing their food would dump unused pig heads into the garbage. Aghast at the waste of edible parts, nearby local residents offered to purchase the unwanted portions and were allowed to do so cheaply. They boiled the pig heads, sliced off the ears and jowls, and added these to the sour relish, thus making the prototype of the modern sisig.
The credit for the modern sisig that we enjoy today belongs to a little old lady who used to live by the railroad tracks. Lucia Cunanan, or “Aling Lucing” as she preferred to be called, retained the elements of the traditional Kapampangan dish (chopped meat cooked with a souring agent), but kicked things up a notch by grilling the boiled meat, chopping it up, frying it with pig brains and chicken livers, then serving it on a sizzling plate. The sourness from which the dish took its name no longer took center stage. In its place, the crunchiness of the pig ear cartilage with the creaminess of the liver and brains came to define a well-prepared plate of sisig. Aling Lucing’s creation catapulted the humble dish from a regional delicacy to a national sensation.
Aling Lucing’s sisig also revolutionized the Kapampangan dining culture. Kapampangan society used to shun humid, open-air canteens and preferred only fancy, air-conditioned restaurants, but the renown of her sizzling sisig piqued the curiosity of the wealthy. Celebrities, government officials, and heiresses all found themselves risking their lives (and their expensive cars) by trekking to “Crossing,” Aling Lucing’s food stall in the slums by the railroad. Now that customers focused on the food rather than on the ambience, other entrepreneurial cooks with very limited capital started converting garages and backyards into eating areas to showcase their specialty dishes. Popular Kapampangan eateries like Jojo’s and Razon’s were among those that flourished from that trend.
Sadly, Aling Lucing’s story does not have a happy ending. On April 16, 2008, the 80 year-old was found bludgeoned to death in her Angeles City home. The primary suspect was her own husband, then-85 year-old Victor Cunanan, but the investigation was inconclusive and the case remains unresolved to this day.
While Aling Lucing may be gone, her biggest culinary contribution seems to have taken on a life of its own. Angeles City is now known as the country’s Sisig Capital, a title that was solidified further back in 2003, when the city held its first Sadsaran Qng Angeles (Sisig Festival). The celebration featured a giant sizzling plate on which HRM students cooked up tons of sisig for the thousands of revelers, which included representatives from the Guinness Book of World Records.
Sisig is enjoying significant international acclaim. It’s included in CNNGo’s list of 50 delicious Filipino foods, a sentiment echoed by Anthony Bourdain himself after he sampled the fare at Aling Lucing’s. Tom Parker-Bowles, the food writer for Esquire UK (and the stepson of Prince Charles himself), also raved about sisig in an article he wrote for the said magazine, and even traveled all the way to Angeles City (a mere two days before his famous stepbrother’s wedding!) just to sample an authentic version of this Kapampangan specialty.
Nowadays, foreigners and Filipinos living abroad no longer have to travel hundreds of miles just to get their sisig fix. Maharlika, a joint that serves modern Filipino cuisine, recently opened in Manhattan, New York. While their specialties include Filipino fusion dishes like the Eggs Imelda (a riff on Eggs Florentine that sets a poached egg on a toasted pan de sal with taro leaves, coconut leaves, and prawns), their sizzling sisig is what draws the diners in. Described as “pig ears, snout, belly, cheek (cooked 3 times – boiled, grilled, sautéed) with onion, garlic, and lemon,” Maharlika’s sisig made waves in the multi-cultural city, even bagging the “Best New Food” award from Time Out New York, a leading food and entertainment guide in the Big Apple.
If hot, heavy sizzling plates aren’t your thing, you can always grab a sisig taco from Señor Sisig, a fusion food truck in San Francisco. The brainchild of two Kapampangan yuppies from Daly City, Señor Sisig combined all the good things about our favorite Filipino happy hour dish with the portability of Mexican taqueria dishes. Founders Evan Kidera and Gil Payumo based their sisig on an old family recipe, but made one key improvement. Instead of using a pig head, they marinate a pork shoulder for over twenty-four hours in a special blend of spices before charbroiling the meat to give it a succulent, juicy flavor. The resulting meat is then used as a filling for tacos, burritos, and nachos. And if you’re not a fan of pork, they also have chicken and tofu alternatives. Whatever your preference, the award-winning food truck is sure to have a sisig variant for you to enjoy.
Sisig might not be the most refined (or the healthiest) example of our local cuisine, but there is something uniquely and identifiably Filipino about it. Its origins reflect our heritage and culture, speaking volumes about how we Filipinos excel at taking something that others see as useless or disgusting and elevating it into a culinary phenomenon that is enjoyed and celebrated the world over. The little old lady from the railroad tracks would have been very proud indeed.
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Orejas, T. (16 April 2008). Woman who created native dish slain in Pampanga home. Philippine Daily Inquirer. Retrieved 24 July 2013.
Osi, C. (26 March 2009). Mind Feeds: Filipino Cuisine on US Television. Philippine Daily Inquirer. Retrieved 23 July 2013.