Lechonera, Guavate, Puerto Rico.
"...Y un poco de... de..."
My Spanish language skills non-existent two Novembers ago, I pinch a bit of skin on my forearm and point at it.
The lady who filled my styrofoam-divided to-go box with fried plantains, blood sausage and yellow rice with pigeon peas at Lechonera Los Pinos, turned away from me and said something towards the man butchering the primal cuts of lechon. The butcher looked over at me and held up a golden piece of crispy pork skin about the size of my hand.
In my to-go box the skin went, and the butcher thwak-thwaked some cuts of roasted pork and that followed with some ribs. After we paid, then Julien, Natalia and I picked up some utensils and slid into a booth next to the dancefloor. The band started a pleading love song, and an older couple took their invitation.
For three Pinays visiting Puerto Rico for the first time and with a rental car, the island's lechon capitol, Guavate, was a must-visit destination. Was the Puerto Rican lechon similar to the Filipino one?
Two Lechon, Both Delicious
Lechon, all over the Latin world, means whole roasted pig.
This begs the question, is the Philippines part of the Latin world? Are we indeed the 'Lost Latinos' as Filipno American comedian Rex Navarrete has joked? Be the judges, Filipinos, and let us know your opinion in the comments section at the end or on Facebook or Twitter!
Alexandra told us the traditional Puerto Rican way of lechon:
"You find the pig, tie him by his hind legs to a tree branch and slit his throat. This way all the blood is drained quickly. The pig is then gutted, and the intestines are cleaned out to make morcilla. I am fuzzy on what other organs are kept, but I'm almost positive that's all you keep. Oh, and some of the blood, obviously. To make blood sausage.
"The pig is skinned. The big outer layer is what goes so you get rid of any skin lacerations & hair follicles."
As for their family, Alexandra told us that they enjoy lechon at the lechonera, and when at home, instead they cook a pernil, roasted pork shoulder. Owing to the size, pernil is easier to manage for many home cooks... but it doesn't come without its special challenges if you aren't paying attention, apparently.
"One xmas we didn't get the pernil until the day of, and in the rush, my Dad grabbed a pork leg that still had hair on it. So my mom unwraps the thing and now she has to try to shave it and we're all laughing out butts off because my mom's in the kitchen with gloves and a disposable Gillette [razor] trying to shave this damn pork. Anyway, what ends up happening, is my mom has to just take the skin off which sucks because the skin is everyone's favorite part."
The reason for the season(ing).
The lechon cooking procedure to this point sounds very similar as one might find in many provinces of the Philippines. After the outer layer of the skin is off our fine swine, what's a Puerto Rican-style lechon seasoned with and how is it prepared? Answered Alexandra:
"[It's] rubbed with seasonings (primarily garlic, salt, sofrito [green bell peppers, onion, garlic, culantro and ajies dulces (small sweet chili peppers)], achiote [Puerto Rican annatto oil]) and slow cooked for a long ass time over an open flame... I would assume that because it's huge, marinades are skipped in favor of basting the thing while it's roasting. It's a giant secret as to what's in it, but be assured: lots of garlic & sofrito. Sofrito is a secret ingredient mixture of a whole bunch of herbs with garlic, salt, pepper, recao/culantro & oregano."
Here's where the lechon puertorriqueño and Filipino diverge paths, in the seasonings. Filipino lechon might be flavored with seasonings like lemongrass, star anise, garlic, bay leaves, and even 7-Up or Sprite for glazing.
Like the Filipino lechon, the pig is the magnificent star of the puertorriqueño Christmas holiday feast table, deserving of a Dream Team of complimentary dishes and condiments made lovingly by friends, family and local vendors. Continued Alexandra:
"Mom makes the pernil [roasted pork leg] and the potato salad [potato, mayo, hardboiled egg, apple, onion, pimento peppers]. Her sister makes the rice (every year I ask for arroz congrí [stewed rice with black bean and little chunks of pork] and she makes it because it's my absolute fave). My cousin Marie makes the macaroni salad (and the drinks!).
"At my house we also serve macaroni salad (macaroni, mayo, onion, ham, pimento peppers), arroz con habichuelas which in this case is brown rice stewed with beans, not white rice with beans on top. Sometimes there's tostones. There is ALWAYS morcilla (blood sausage), but I don't know if you'd count that as part of the lechon because it's technically...part of the lechon.... :D
"My mom will always make gravy when we make pernil (pork leg) at home, and there's usually enough fat drippings in the pan that people will use that as well."
(Not) Just Desserts.
Is that it? OF COURSE NOT! What about Puerto Rican desserts (postres)? Wrote Alexandra:
"[C]ousin Paquita brings the dessert, sometimes it's flan but there's also tres leches (angel food cake soaked in sweet milk & topped with whipped cream), candied rice with raisins (me and my cousin Lulu ONLY like it when it's freshly made so it's still warm but it's supposed to be eaten cold), tembleque [coconut gelatin]."
"Our neighbor Irma has been making the rice and tembleque for a few years, she sells that stuff at xmastime out of her house. She also sells pasteles (basically an alcapurria you boil: A mash of plantain and/or root vegetables with a filling of seasoned meat or rice. That gets folded into a rectangular shape [and wrapped] in a plantain leaf and [then a second time further] wrapped up in butcher paper and secured with twine. You're supposed to throw a whole bunch of them into a boiling pot of water and eat when they're done.)"
The leaf, she told me later seals everything in, while the butcher paper holds everything together when it's boiled.
'We Three Kings of Orient Are'? Are you calling me an ORIENTAL!?!?
This hand carved Three Kings figurine set, sold beside a Nativity scene in an Old San Juan souvenir shop window inspired this post. Kings Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar turn the spit, ready the knife and serenade the swine, the preeminent dish on the Puerto Rican and Filipino holiday feast menu. Upon seeing it, I understood that Three Kings' Day or the Epiphany in Puerto Rico and perhaps other Latin countries equaled or perhaps rivaled Christmas itself. Three Kings is the 'official' end of Christmas, as January 6 is the twelfth day following Christmas.
We were still curious.
A cab driver in San Juan explained that Christians are to see the Magi as examples for ourselves, traveling a long distance -- even through foreign lands -- just to search for and to revere Baby Jesus.
The parish pastor of my mother's church in Florida echoed these sentiments last Sunday. During his homily, Father added that the kings were Gentiles (non-Jews), and they were foreigners, outsiders from the East... [dramatic pause]
"They were ORIENTALS."
Hol' up. Did Father just call me an Oriental?
I'll reserve judgement on that for now. Still difficult for me to hear the word "Oriental" as referring to a human being and not cringing, especially during a religious celebration. Anyway.
Many Puerto Rican homes observe Three Kings, with the children making ready a cradle of a shoebox or basket that the children would fill with grass and leave under their beds the night of January 5. The kids would also include a glass of water for the Magi, in the hopes that the water would be gone and the shoebox would contain some presents from the Magi.
"Well, I don't know, it seemed more real to me to believe in them [the Three Kings, who reportedly were from various places in Africa, the Middle East and Asia] than Sandy Claws," wrote Alexandra. "I know as a child I didn't have this consciousness pero like it was these figures who looked like me and my fam."
Postscript. Black Nazarene
Relatedly Filipinos celebrate the Feast of the Black Nazarene. Yes, BLACK JESUS is celebrated on January 9. So there's definitely something to identifying more closely with a higher being that looks more like you.
Corrections added to this post on January 9, 2015, clarify that Alexandra's family makes the pernil, not a full lechon, themselves; the name of her cousin Lulu and the method of making tembleque. Our apologies to Alexandra and thanks again.
Photos taken by Natalia Roxas and Sarahlynn Pablo. Photos edited by Natalia Roxas.