Releasing the Kraken of Cracklings and Why Bai’s Boneless Lechon Belly is Worth Writing Home About

IMG_4290Reeling in from the holidays where the obvious gain in girth remain as evidence, one has to say that some calories were worth more time than others. Christmas is the longest holiday in the Philippines starting off in September and ending with the celebration of 3-Kings in January. There’s just too much indulgence with comfort food that we could actually remain comfortable with.

In extreme cases over the holidays, I shared the table with an old friend who I noted was staying away from the usual indulgence of food and alcohol only to reveal that he had a mild stroke a few weeks prior. Our appetite for food which is amplified along the spirit of festivities could definitely lead us to our end. However this plethora of rich food also brings with it a certain amount of distaste for it. Filipino food during the holidays seem to be biased towards the occasion that brings it to the table rather than the culinary ensemble itself when broken up into pieces. Christmas brings a stark contrast to most Filipino dining tables in a land of feast or famine where the former overwhelms us to forget most of the lean times that passed.

The christmas holidays brings out the pigs from all us in both a literal and figurative sense. During these times we find ourselves eating for the sake of eating. Feasting seems to be a social norm that is hard to pass. Of course when someone brings lechon, both the pig and its bringer seem to be the star! But what is the roasted pig fuss all about? As a matter of fact after one too many parties, I find myself absolutely sick of lechon; especially when we’ve had to contend with its left overs, two ways and two days after the party. Once after, the lean parts are slathered and fried in butter and the rest of it being served as pinaksiw – in which the uninitiated could find himself in absolute horror as he discovers the pig’s jaw complete with its teeth while the others in the same table are fighting over its brain!

Photo courtesy of Interaksyon
Photo courtesy of Interaksyon

I cannot say however that lechon, cannot be good. As a matter of fact, I’ve had some which are as good as good gets. Elar’s lechon seems to be as “good” as we could expect while an “authentic” Cebu Lechon could certainly spin an alternate angle from the roasters down south. Indeed the Cebuanos take lechon very seriously that they would make it a point to turn it into a regional source of pride and international acclaim as Anthony Bourdain experienced and approved. The Cebu lechon pride seemed so contagious that my sister in law’s husband who was assigned in Cebu for a time would go through the trouble of having the lechon flown into Manila via Philippine Airlines; Just so we could be educated!

The lechon was “that good”. It was served neat but highly seasoned with salt, pepper and lemon grass. The best part was the belly which seems to have concentrated and infused the meat with balanced and aromatic treatments. The best test was that the lechon did not need the “febre” or salsa/sauce. The leaner parts however, almost always tasted better when dipped in salt, pepper and vinegar. The experience was always bright, crisp and aromatic.
Push that down with an ice cold refreshing bottle of San Miguel (Pale Pilsen). Please…

JB Magsaysay's Bagnet Sisig
JB Magsaysay’s Bagnet Sisig

However given the romance, I’d venture to say that lechon is lechon. The search for the perfect crackling pig continues. It could come from the distant past Iberian memories brought to us by Señor Armas’ Cochinillo (God Bless his immortal soul); or they may come from North and South in more recent memoirs. Past or present, I would think to be well qualified.

The recent weeks had me partaking Pig’s Face from Pappus a few long blocks away to Ilocos Sur’s famous Vigan Bagnet which we recycled to high heavens as Bagnet Sisig along the beaches of Teppeng Cove. We had the lechon in standard dress, as well as a Northern Iteration of Cebu Lechon belly from La Union! These were all perfect pigs to the crackling, but what really sets something apart was a standout of what an excellent (in superlatives) pig is supposed to be!

As said, lechon is lechon and more about the occasion and the company that brought in its presence rather than the dish itself.

IMG_4286When I had Bai’s Boneless Lechon Belly, the pig was the occasion and not the coincident! So good that I had asked my friend Paul who drove all the way from Marikina into Alabang just to try it. Wrote about it, he did.

So good that I insisted on a December 25 delivery from Dexter Ding (The Proprietor of Bai’s), who by the twist of the arm delivered it himself to feed my foodie family in Alabang where it was served among cooks and Chef! My Kuya Herman just happened to be Executive Chef when he retired from the PGA as well as having been a chef at the Four Seasons.

My feedback was nothing short of an argument with Dexter soon after. As I wanted to decry Bai’s boneless belly as lechon for the many reasons we associate with lechon. There could be good lechon and very good lechon but Bai’s was an excellent Roasted Pork Belly worth writing home about.

1521649_10152878148733329_4280400752152885546_nWith this writing I am defying his appeal. As tested in proper conditions, I found the flavor complexly layered with sophisticated aromas of lemongrass with a gentle sweet kiss of anise coming from a well founded herbal base. Anise being precarious to use (if it was) as it could anesthetize the taste buds. While the saltiness of typical Cebu lechon could be clocked at 6.5 to a 7, Bai’s can be clocked at a 5.5 on a scale of 10. In contrast to a stark salty season that we associate with typical Cebu Lechon, Bai’s seems to have come from a delicately balanced and fragrant marinade.

Bai’s brings you the best part of the lechon and takes it up several notches up and in different directions with its approach in flavor and sophistication. The mouth feel can be described as firm but tender enough not to lodge grain and sinew; there was none. The skin was a prefect crackling that dissolves in mastication. There was a presence of fat, but none that congealed into pasty lard. It is what lechon “could be” and they’ve done it.

1779717_847309875290255_1312557169512172377_nThis is not something you should wait on line for at a buffet! I believe it deserves a better place. Perhaps even in smaller portions to be shared on a dinner date with a bottle of wine. The preparation and care involved in bringing this pig to plate can satisfy even the most discerning epicurean. It’s gourmet lechon if there was such a thing?

Well, at least now there is!

“Metro Manila” – (The Film): Anything but Cliché

To a jaded moviegoer who thinks he has seen it all, “Metro Manila” offers a compelling reason for viewers to revisit Philippine cinema. I was recently invited for the press screening of “Metro Manila” last Tuesday August 13, at “The Block” in SM North Edsa. “Metro Manila” was directed by the UK’s Academy Award nominee Sean Ellis whose recent renown came from other critically films such as “Cashback” and “The Broken”. The film stars Jake Macapagal, Althea Vega and John Arcilla to name a few. Prior to the press viewing the film has managed to bag the “Audience Award” in the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. With such credible accolades, expectations run high; especially for one who had to drive unexpectedly for 50 kilometers and back just to see the film.

The title and tagline: “Metro Manila” – Desperate Men Take Desperate Measures, trite and cliché as it may seem reveals very little about the film’s content. It may even be setting itself up for possible disappointment. The movie poster depicts the silhouette of a man wearing a Kevlar helmet, shotgun in one hand and metal case in the other. There is a backdrop of a woman (the obvious love interest). I thought I was about to see a Filipino action movie. While cliché seems to be the order of the day, here is another one: “Do not judge a book by its cover!”

The film begins with a situational for the characters’ beginnings under a tranquil and majestic visual landscape of the Rice Terraces. It starts in the highland rice farms of Banaue where the couple with their two children struggles to survive, only to be caught up in a vicious cycle of rural poverty. They make a move to the city with everything they have in hopes of better fortunes in Metro Manila. The decision is shortly followed by a series of unfortunate events. Starting with a stalled jeepney that foreshadows the rest of the film in poetic portrayal. While in the jeep over to Manila his daughter finds a shiny coin and hands it to his father; a symbol of luck and hope despite the difficult circumstances. The first few moments in the film almost seemed draggy and perhaps it was meant to be so. I asked myself: “Where is the writer / director going with this?” Upon the family’s arrival in Manila, the film changes its tempo to a choppy and frantic pace. The family desperately walks through the mad crowds of Quaipo’s Feast of Nazareno. The viewer is bombarded by a flurried chaotic congestion. It is visually overwhelming yet carefully premeditated. It is a visually eloquent film, stark and crisp to its brutal details. You could swear that the director is a photographer who also has mastery in the medium of “moving pictures”.

Beyond the visuals, we have a story well told. An innocent and unassuming provincial couple that is pushed into a hostile environment by circumstance makes for characters we can all sympathize with. To make a long story short without spoiling it (as there is great danger), the couple falls into a vicious cycle where the man as a last resort finds a job as an armed personnel for an armored vehicle and the woman out of desperation to feed her child is pushed into prostitution. While this may all seem quite typical, the other characters in the story do so well in making a simple scenario deep and complex (Credit to John Arcilla and Miles Canapi). With such naïve and unassuming characters played by Jake Macapagal and Althea Vega, it makes the viewer ask about people and their intentions. Are people generally good or evil? Is there any hope within the thick slurry of social degradation? Is there any redemption from the typical scenarios that ensnare the common man and woman in poverty? The story is rendered in indelicate rhetoric and delivery that punctuates the desperation with further insult and debasement. The viewer in his sympathy says prayers in breaths hoping for some breakthrough and relief from the bitter and naked realities of city life. While this is no action movie, the film spares no details in moments of brutal violence.

The story does however have its undulations of hope and happiness: enough for the viewers to press on with the characters. This however is interrupted by a thickening plot. There is an escalation of complex twists. The story was never predictable. It is progressively involving. While watching, I lost any sense of when and how it was going to end. I was clinging only to hope in honest desperation yet resolved in accepting the tragedies of reality. A tragedy it might have been at dismissal, but who am I to spoil it? Having seen the film, I could only urge the reader to unravel the clever plot by himself. The story is really that good.

To be devoid of the glare that comes with mainstream stardom is a good thing. It makes for more authentic and believable characters. Combined with skillful writing and directing, this makes for a very engaging and effective story that is progressively and absolutely engaging. With such dramatic performance these actors are worthy of even deeper respect. It is a film that does not sugarcoat poverty, as we would usually have it, but exposes its brutal and naked realities in visual and dramatic poetry. It is a story that is saturated with social relevance yet does not fail to engage its audience in crisp artistic drama. A copy of this film is making it to my shelf for posterity.

Still Les Miserable Over Argo

It’s been more than a week since the Oscars and more than a couple of weeks since I’ve seen two of some of the most talked about movies of the year. Two weeks, and I am Still Les Miserable over Argo.

Having seen both Les Mis and Argo, I would’ve thought that Les Mis would’ve won the Academy Award for Best Picture. This is not to discount that Argo was a fine film, as it really was, but looking at both from the angle of “making the most out of a medium” the aspect would have to favor Les Mis. While readers would dismiss this blog as being biased for Victor Hugo, I would like to posit my opinions in both praises and criticism for Argo.
For those who haven’t seen Argo a synopsis of the movie could be found here:
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1024648/synopsis

Argo was a good story told on film and would rank to be one of the finest examples of “story telling”. Argo proves that it is very hard to ruin a really good story, especially if it is one from history that remained untold. Cinematography was rendered in style and feel that made you think that you were watching a film from that period (circa 1979).

Perhaps some of its minor flaws are pointed out due to its sincere efforts to be “era-correct”. These efforts noted were the use of a warm tones for the entire film and the non-high-tech cinematographic techniques such as the hand zoom-ins from aerials. There seems to be an effort to portray cinematographic techniques available during the time. There was even a scene where the camera focused on a picture of Lee Majors on a wall. These images purposefully draw us into a particular point in time. Some of the throw-offs however were:
The use of Blue LED lights in one of the robots seen on a set. Blue LEDs were not popularly used till late.
The wipers on the Canadian Ambassador’s car used one of those floppy rubber types which didn’t come into popular use till the late 90’s to early 2000s

Speaking about cars… I was also thrown off by the appearance of a yellow Pontiac Firebird in the beginning of the movie. You would think that the protagonist would’ve used such a car, it turns out that he didn’t. Cars play an important role in movies as they are often used to develop the characters of leading men. In this case the yellow Firebird was just a scene-stealing fluke. These minor flukes are enough to throw off the “suspension of disbelief”.
In fairness I would have to say that we saw Ben Affleck at his best, as an actor or maybe even as a director. He successfully disappeared into his role as a kind-hearted CIA operative. Remembering the classic singly dimensioned Ben Affleck in “The Town”, he was able to reinvent himself in Argo. Do I believe it was good enough for the award? “I don’t know”… So Alan Arkin says: “Argo F#¢* yourself!”

In contrast, “Les Miserable” in my opinion represents the best of what film could do to an already great classic story, even-more-so one of the best-loved musicals of all time. Having seen Les Mis twice on Broadway, once as a High-School student and another time in College. I was somewhat familiar with the story but even more familiar with many of the songs. Seeing a show on Broadway tends to be more of a musical experience rather than anything else. It was a cultural experience that is less on the story but more on the performance.

Seeing Les Mis on film adds a strong visual element from what is usually missed on stage. Film complements the entire story by painting scenes that are difficult or impossible to portray on stage. Even if you had the best seats in the house, you can never have the multitude of literal perspectives and angles that cameras could give. The stage could never display the poetic illusions that film could give in terms of scale, colors and effects.
By adding strong visual elements, stories are better understood and the totality of the experience is enhanced by a ten-fold. In all honestly, I never understood the story behind Les Mis until I saw the movie. Scenes, which were confusing on stage, were clarified on film. These instances were especially true when scenes required apparitions. The story was replete with them.

As far as performances are concerned the movie never failed as well. All the actors played roles where you didn’t see a Singing Gladiator, an Australian Drover or a Sex Slave that wears Prada. All three of them dissolved into their characters. Most of all, everyone was drawn into a visual and musical experience that makes you forget the world for at least a few hours. Everyone was gripped by the experience. All eyes were glued to the screen; everyone seemed almost captured by the music. Best of all, the audience was sympathetic to the all the characters and equally absorbed within the greater context of the narrative. It was a profoundly human experience that bridged across time and cultures.

Isn’t that what a great movie is all about? Aren’t we supposed to award great works of arts as so? I believe that the Oscars are more about the politics and actors rather than the human and cultural achievement brought about by the medium of film. It begs us to question the legacy of cultural and artistic value that we will leave behind. If that is what Hollywood is selling, then I have to say: “Argo F#¢* yourself too!” As for now, I’ll remain Les Miserable over Argo.