There’s no denying how much we Filipinos love our pork, more so during the holiday season when the centerpiece of our table is the glistening slab of whole roasted lechon, or its more modest form, “bellychon.”
But if one social media post about a plant-based pork alternative going viral is anything to go by, Filipinos might finally be ready (or, at least, ready to try) to trade their lechon for a healthier, no-meat alternative.
Last week, a man who calls himself “Chef Elpi, RN” described on Facebook how his vegan restaurant in General Santos City had to close after the prolonged lockdown, and an investor for a planned small vegan restaurant in Sampaloc, Manila, had backed out.
Chef Elpi wrote that a friend had told him the Philippines is not ready for him, that he’s not appreciated here both as a nurse and innovator/advocate.
Undeterred and unwilling to give up on his dream, Chef Elpi instead bought a stainless steel cart and a small freezer to start his own Elpi Vellychon Haus: “The World’s First Plant-based Belly Roll (That Looks And Mimics The Traditional One).” He set up shop in, of all places, La Loma, Quezon City, near the famous row of lechon shops.
Start from scratch
“I don’t know if I will make it. I just want it so badly. Even if I have to start at the bottom again, do everything from scratch… Even if magmukha akong katawa-tawa,” he wrote.
As of this writing, the post has gotten 19,000 likes and 6,500 shares, with at least 2,000 inquiries and (mostly positive) comments from netizens inspired by his determination. He has also attracted resellers from as far as Pampanga and Baguio.
When we tried to place an order after reading the post, we were told they had run out of the belly roll and would restock in two days. We love our pork as much as the next Pinoy, but we were curious.
The photos in the post looked exactly like a real pork belly roll, bright red (a tad too red, we might add), tied with butcher’s strings, with a bunch of lemongrass at the center.
When our frozen order (P595/roll at 730-750 g) arrived two days later, via Grab, it looked exactly as in the photos. The label listed the following as ingredients: water, corn, wheat, soy beans, cassava, atsuete, salt, sugar, black pepper, garlic, lemongrass and food coloring.
It’s advised to thaw the roll in the refrigerator for 5-8 hours, or at room temperature for up to two hours, before cooking. It can be fried in oil or baked. We chose to air-fry, at 200C, after lightly brushing the outer part with some olive oil.
After 25 minutes, the crisp and earthy scent of the lemongrass filled the kitchen. The roll was ready.
It was easy to cut through the roll. The outer layer (skin part) was crispy, didn’t crumble and kept its integrity under the blade of our knife. Under the “skin” was a thin, gelatinous layer meant to mimic the fat part of the pork. The flesh part also looked like the real deal, with long grains of muscle-like tissues.
The skin crackled under our teeth, and for that alone, it captured exactly what most of us like in lechon. The entire bite also had the mouth feel akin to the real deal—minus the ooze of deadly, if yummy, fatty juices.
It smelled faintly of the lemongrass, but rather disappointingly, not much else. In his Facebook page, Chef Elpi writes that the roll is deliberately bland, to allow customers to add their own seasonings.
We tried dipping it in toyo-mansi (the recommended condiment), but found that we preferred it with Mang Tomas Siga—a cop-out, we know, since the latter is spicy and flavor-packed (and high in sodium and sugar).
The Vellychon is about 4-5 servings per roll, at 337 calories/serving, though its sodium content is rather high at 949 mg/serving and sugar is 4 g/serving. It can be delivered precooked, at P695 (tel. 0965-0354482, 0949-1625567).
So would we trade our crispy, juicy, delicious pork bellychon in favor of a plant-based alternative?
Let’s be clear: the roll is not the real thing. But if you, or your parents or loved ones, are among those who have been advised by their doctor to keep away from red meat—especially this Noche Buena—this Vellychon is something to consider, so you won’t feel left out. The skin alone closely approximates the real deal.