The big story at the launch of “Big Bite! The Northern Food Festival” was about sisig, that chopped pork and liver dish of Pampanga.
Sisig is equated with the province even as it has traveled the length of the archipelago, so that most bars or restaurants serving Filipino food has it on the menu.
But even if sisig is the featured dish of the three-day festival on Oct. 17-19, and the venue is at Marquee Mall in Angeles, Pampanga, as important are the specialties of the participating northern provinces of Bulacan, Cagayan, Nueva Ecija, Tarlac, Ilocos, Pangasinan and the Cordilleras.
It is sisig, however, that dominated the talk that launch. And Angeles City Mayor Ed Pamintuan got us curious when he asked if we knew who made the sisig “sizzling,” so to speak.
I always thought it was Aling Lucing (Lucita Cunanan), the woman who supposedly made it famous, serving it at her stall near the old railroad tracks in Angeles.
It is pork thrice cooked: first boiled, then grilled, then finally sizzled.
No, Pamintuan said, it was his brother, Benedict, who was given the recipe by Aling Lucing and who thought of placing the final product on a sizzling plate to keep it hot at his restaurant, Benedict’s, in Sta. Mesa, Manila. Unfortunately, Benedict died much too young but sisig continues to sizzle everywhere.
Other Pampangos reminded me that sisig actually began as slices of pickled fruit, as described in the 17th-century dictionary written by Fray Diego Berbano. It evolved into pig’s ears and tails boiled, then chopped and soured in vinegar, eaten by expectant mothers because it supposedly would give excellent bones to their babies.
Onstage, sisig was cooked two ways—traditional and adapted.
The traditional way was by chef Emelita Wong Galang of EWG Culinary Arts Studio, the first culinary school established in northern Luzon, who showed how the boiled and then grilled pork (cheek, especially) is chopped, mixed in with chopped onions and liver, then seasoned with vinegar and calamansi juice, spiced with chopped siling labuyo (bird’s eye chili).
The adapted recipe was by chef Sau del Rosario, a cabalen or Pampango, who is executive chef of F1 Hotel in Bonifacio Global City. He made a tuna sisig that he seasoned with salt, pepper and chili powder, then pan-seared to produce a steak.
Another version, much more seasoned this time with soy sauce, vinegar and chili, was encased in ravioli. One can scoff and pronounce that tuna can’t be sisig, but then sisig has also mutated into other versions—served with egg, with mayonnaise, or in crisp cups of wonton, the way it was done that day.
Getting it right
For every Flipino gathering, there is always food. But for a Pampango, Pamintuan said, taste and the right way of cooking are paramount. His fellow cabalen gladly go into the kitchen to instruct the cook, even if he/ she is only a guest, on how to make a dish better.
So, as expected, the launch of “Big Bite” had delicious fare like kare-kare with matching bagoong (shrimp paste), lechon kawali (or if you want to be Ilocano, chicharon), pako salad and Ilocos empanada. A living example of a discerning Pampango foodie is Claude Tayag who instructed the cook to make the egg in the empanada well-done.
The rice served in banana packets was supposedly cooked binulo-style or in a bamboo, the way the Aetas of Central Luzon do it. What is a feast without sweets, so there was cassava cake, palitaw and canonigo.
There was also a sampling of street food that will be found at the festival like strawberry in taho from the Baguio farms, and binatog, or boiled corn with grated coconut, a childhood favorite that reminded me of afternoons spent waiting for the sound of a particular bell that announced the presence of the vendor in our neighborhood.
I suppose other childhood favorites will be found in the street food section of the festival. There will be several tents outside the mall with over a hundred vendors.
Food art will likewise be exhibited in huge installations by Leeroy New of the Pampanga Arts Guild, who will fashion in styrofoam a Cordillera bulol (rice god) covered with brown rice; the Bojeador Lighthouse of Ilocos Norte covered with tobacco leaves; a fishing net with dried fish to symbolize Cagayan Valley; and a Christmas lantern covered with pastillas wrappers.
New and another artist, Mikai Rodrigo, will do an edible landscape display. Cooking demos are scheduled with Sandy Daza and Sharwin Tee, both of Lifestyle Network.
The fiesta atmosphere will be enhanced with marching bands, street dancers and fireworks. But while the general public is invited, Ayala Land VP and head of operations and support services Rowena Tomeldan said that this festival is a community event as well, a way by which the mall contributes to the cultural life of the Angeles City neighborhood.
At the launch of “Big Bite! The Northern Food Festival,” sisig in various versions (chicken, bangus) will be cooked, displayed and eaten for three days. Anthony Bourdain is said to have declared sisig as the best pork dish in the world. If he wants some, he can come over.