Sawsawan Bible deconstructs the ingredients with which you douse your dish.
Japanese restaurants have condiment caddies offering soy sauce, gari, and shichimi; American diners have caddies with salt, pepper ketchup; while the caddies of Filipino restaurants differ based on the specialty of the place. They often are comprised of local household staples, with exceptions depending on the region or dish, but there is no universal sawsawan combination because, where’s the fun in that? So today, we break down the sawsawan of the Negros Occidental native dish: inasal.
Colloquially known as Bacolod chicken due to its geographical origins, inasal is a grilled chicken that is so celebrated nationwide its popularity has made Mang Inasal one of the fastest growing fast food chains in the Philippines.
Inasal is marinated in a combination of calamansi, pepper, vinegar (usually sinamak, or vinegar infused with garlic, siling labuyo, peppercorn, langkawas and/or ginger, an sometimes onions), and atsuete, while inasalans offer sawsawan caddies that usually contains the same things, only with soy sauce replacing the pepper.
A sawsawan dish is as personal as your wardrobe choices and there is no one way to mix it, just like there is no one perfect recipe for sinamak (read more on sinamak below). Though some may argue that they’ve discovered the perfect formula for consuming inasal, it all chalks up to preference. Just for fun (so you can keep your judgy judgement to yourself, judgers), we asked Mang Inasal founder Injap Sia how he likes his inasal.
He tells us that he prefers a 1:1 ratio of vinegar to soy sauce, with 1 calamansi and 1 sili. He slices the sili once for a little bit of spice in his sauce, and does not use the atsuete oil, though he knows many people love to douse their rice in it.
The brown sauce that is almost black as hair (our hair, at least) is one of the greatest influences from Chinese trade relations. It has become such a staple in local cuisine that it is the main ingredient of our defacto national dish, and we tend completely forget that it isn’t even from the Philippines. The salty, pungent sauce made from fermented soy beans has such a distinct flavor that its use transforms the flavors of your inasal bite.
The Ilonggo version of spiced vinegar, sinamak has a vinegar base (usually palm, coconut, or cane vinegar, also known as sukang iloko), with siling labuyo, peppercorns, garlic, langkawas or wild ginger (which could be substituted for ginger, though some recipes call for both) and maybe onion if you’re feeling it. Not readily available in Manila groceries, sinamak could easily be made at home. Just slice the langkawas and/or ginger and place it in a clean bottle with all the other dry ingredients, pour the vinegar over it, and let it sit for at least 2 days. The longer it sits, the stronger the infused flavors, so some wait weeks before they even touch their infusion.
Literally translating to wild chili, the narrow, red, and small siling labuyo packs a mean punch. And by “mean”, it is one of the spicier chilis with a Scoville rating of 80,000-10,000, hotter than jalapeño, cayenne, and tabasco peppers (which translates to: pretty damn hot). Some people smash siling labuyo in their sawsawan dish to release the spice, while others slice several sili to let its hot juices flow and flood. The more you cut into it, the more spice comes out!
Our local lime, the petit calamansi may not be as sour as its foreign cousins but it has a fragrance that teases our nostrils with excitement, and a unique sweet taste that makes our tastebuds sing. Some inasal-eaters slice cuts into their chicken and pour the calamansi directly onto the meat (like you would a lemon slice over fried fish), while others squeeze it into their sawsawan dish. Heck, some even do both for good, asim measure.
A sawsawan ingredient unique to inasal, atsuete oil (achiote in Spanish; annatto in English) is a dark orange, thick oil that comes in bottles with dropper caps, presumably because most restaurants would rather you not immediately clog your arteries and die on their floors. Also called “chicken oil”, atsuete oil is called such since it is composed of chicken drippings from skin and fat. It is possible to make an atsuete oil without chicken drippings for a longer shelf life, though inasal aficionados may argue that that just ain’t right!