The Art of Ihaw-ihaw

I grew up in Nueva Ecija, spent about 4.5 years in Quezon City for my college years, and now I live in Pampanga—a stone’s throw away from Clark and Angeles City. You could say that I live in the nexus of the interconnected cities and provinces, and because I do, I get to observe (and enjoy) the fruits of the Culinary Capital of the Philippines more easily because of easy access to San Fernando, Angeles City, Magalang, and beyond. Pampanga needs no extensive introduction. As the Culinary Capital, the province is synonymous with gastronomic delights, and people come to our province with the expectation of encountering dishes that are unique or at least uncommon in Metro Manila or in other provinces.

Pampanga does not disappoint, in this case—especially when it comes to the fine art of ihaw.

The art of ihaw or grilling is omnipresent in all regions, and each city, town, community and household has its own take on what constitutes the best ihaw or “ihaw-ihaw.” Where I originally came from, lean cuts of pork are sliced to bite-sized pieces and marinated at least overnight with patis or soy sauce, lots of calamansi juice, a bit of MSG magic and sometimes ketchup or brown/white sugar to sweeten the deal. Street hawkers would use food color to turn skewered pork barbecue red or orange, to make them more appetizing to customers.  

Where I live now, you can find barbecue joints and ambulant, grilling vendors every 100 meters or so. There has never been shortage of ihaw-ihaw in our city of Mabalacat. It was something we all missed during the 2020 lockdown, as the LGU banned the majority of sidewalk vendors for some months. They only returned fully this year, and we see their return as a sign also that the city is regaining its former economic health.

Read more here: My Top Comfort Foods in Pampanga

My mother’s recipe was largely a secret until I observed how she did it one random evening when she was preparing maybe six kilos of meat for Noche Buena. She used only a few ingredients, but she used them well. Her chicken barbecue marinade was patis, calamansi juice and a large quantity of sugar, and the time she needed to make sure that everything soaked in perfectly was an entire week in the fridge. After a week, the meat was absolutely flavorful, and drenched with mind-bending goodness-to the bone! While I hated grilling chicken because the meat was temperamental and I often ended up burning the skin, I loved eating chicken barbecue after hours of hard labor on the grill. I personally believe that the Filipino appreciation for fast food meat began with grilled meat. Grilled meat is luscious, salty, and savory—genuinely langhap-sarap sans the insane price. It takes a lot of time to prepare ihaw, but it offers not just a dash of goodness to any meal—it defines the entire meal for the individual or the family. Naturally saucy and savory fast food products like Jollibee’s honey beef rice and of course, Mang Inasal’s pecho or paa, all try to approximate (or imitate) the flavors, warmth and memories associated with homecooked ihaw meals.

Filipino Food Culture and the Diaspora

Food is something that comes pre-packed with any culture. When Filipinos migrate, they bring with them not just the language, their domestic practices but also the home country’s cuisine. It’s only in recent years that entrepreneurs in other countries have risked their time and capital to present a variety of Filipino dishes, from Cebu lechon to street-style isaw and ihaw-ihaw, to consumers that included non-Filipinos. Loy Madrigal, owner of Cebu Litson & Grill in New Orleans rightly sums up how flavor is conveyed in many Filipino dishes—with the marinade, comprising of basic ingredients like vinegar, garlic, ginger and soy sauce.

The Riverfront Times also featured a “popular Filipino pop-up” in St. Louis, Missouri. This time the Filipino food business, aptly called the Fattened Caf, offered Filipino-style longganisa and barbecue creations to an international enclave. According to owner Charlene Lopez Young, the Fattened Caf had a Biblical origin (the story of the prodigal son) and they fused the parable with the idea of coming together for a feast (very Filipino/Asian, indeed) and the local/universal taste for barbecues in St. Louis. What’s interesting about the Fattened Caf story was that it took more than just introducing ihaw-ihaw and longganisa to their community to get it going. The husband-and-wife team grew their brand gradually over the years by establishing their cuisine’s presence and identity in farmers markets and other events around St. Louis.

Read more here: Kakanin: The “stomach-fillers” of Filipino desserts (Part 1)

We can say the same of the handful of food entrepreneurs in the Netherlands, like Rhea and Dennis Rogacion, who have managed to bring flavors like ube to locals. The Lacorum family in the Hague established the Nordrick Asian Grill and Salads this year to bring inihaw/ihaw-ihaw to locals. This restaurant offers seafoods, pork, and charcoal-grilled chicken, as well as other street food items.

The exportation of Filipino food culture is synonymous with the diaspora, and truly, we should be seeing more Filipino food abroad, because there is an estimated 2.2 million Filipinos in the diaspora at any time.

Australian personality Chris Urbano of Maputing Cooking writes in his book The World of Filipino Cooking: Food and Fun in the Philippines that perhaps, the quick assimilation of Filipino workers abroad and the “lack of consensus of what are [the] national dishes” are the reasons why Filipino ways of cooking haven’t caught on. I have an alternate theory, though. While Filipinos are unmatched in their passion for cooking, the majority of migrant workers leave the country not to establish food trucks and other food businesses abroad, but to work to send money back home. Filipino labor is exported because it fulfills the needs of wealthier countries. It’s not like an average OFW is intent on establishing a restaurant where he/she is going. Cases like the Fattened Caf and Cebu Litson & Grill are not typical of the migrant Filipino experience.

Urbano continues to write: “…So the last factor is around whether there is now a sufficient cadre of passionate chefs, restauranteurs and advocates packaging and marketing the food for new audiences.”

Again, it’s not as simple as that. There are many food advocates (just check YouTube or Instagram) and even professional chefs who can easily serve in countries like the US, UK and European territories, but in order to present Filipino food the way Urbano is thinking, there has to be sufficient capital and a critical mass of like-minded entrepreneurs championing the food culture in the first place. The class disparity is apparent, and it’s there to stay because of globalization and how globalization is affecting countries like the Philippines.

Back to the Streets—and the Home

Interestingly enough, Doreen Fernandez writes of ihaw-ihaw as a lifestyle. In her essay Balut to Barbecue: Philippine Streetfood, she states that:

“Street food in the Philippines is not only a convenience for those without time to cook, or an economic phenomenon that flourishes during hard times. It is a lifestyle. Nineteenth century prints, paintings and accounts of the Spanish era by foreign travelers, pay notice to the wayside vendors of carabao’s milk, rice cakes, and fruits.”

What I like about Doreen’s take on barbecue culture in the country is that she acknowledges that it’s literally close to home (because it’s a lifestyle, yes?)the concept of pag-iihaw or ihaw-ihaw isjust outside the door,’ perhaps a little too close to the street for comfort, but it’s still inextricably tied to the Filipino abode. One cannot imagine ihaw-ihaw without the image of dining room or living room attached to it, because these are the spots in the house where Filipinos park their plastic Tupperware containers or stainless-steel basins of seasoned or marinated fish, chicken or pork before grilling – in addition to the kitchen counter, of course.  According to Doreen, the concept of what barbecue was in the 1950s evolved during the economic contraction of the seventies.

“Skewered chicken and pork barbecue are a special feature of the afternoon-to-evening shifts. In the 1950s only chicken leg, thighs and breasts, and pork chunks used to be barbecued. In the economic crisis of the 70s, however, almost every part of the pig and chicken came to be used: pigs’ ears and intestines, chicken wings, necks, feet, heads, tails, combs, even intestines, meticulously cleaned and looped on thin skewers.”

The conventional (and now classic) street names of these odd ends and trimmings were also born at the time when Filipinos adjusted their collective palates to accommodate the new ingredients for barbecuing. Some of the amusing terms that refer to barbecued street food include adidas (for chicken’s feet), PAL (once used to refer to chicken wings, but have now been lost in common usage), Walkman (pig’s ears—in Pampanga these are simply called tenga or balingit), helmet (may still be in use in some areas, but chicken’s combs are no longer sold exclusively as combs—the more complete ulo is more common) and IUD (for chicken’s intestines—has already fell out of usage as isaw is easier to pronounce, but it’s interesting that street food would have such a sophisticated name—intrauterine device).

Nowadays, skewered barbecues are a mainstay of our diet. We personally buy ihaw-ihaw at least once a week, and we relish the luxury of having a vast array of choices whenever we feel like having grilled something in the evening. We visit any of the nearby food strips that are easy to spot because of characteristic white smoke emanating from extremely busy grills.

And as we select the fare for the evening, we watch as the hot charcoals render the meats luscious and awesome—our kind of sustenance for another day.

References:

Baehr, C. (2021). Popular Filipino Pop-Up Fattened Caf Launches Sausage Brand in Area Grocery Stores. Retrieved 6 August 2021, from https://www.riverfronttimes.com/foodblog/2021/07/09/popular-filipino-pop-up-fattened-caf-launches-sausage-brand-in-area-grocery-stores

Balod, H. (2021). In the Netherlands, Filipino food businesses flourish through the pandemic. Retrieved 6 August 2021, from https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/lifestyle/food/797485/filipino-food-is-alive-and-well-in-the-netherlands/story/

D’Addono, B. (2021). Cebu Litson & Grill serves Filipino food on the West Bank. Retrieved 6 August 2021, from https://www.nola.com/gambit/food_drink/article_2743da90-e412-11eb-be29-fbad368c4b94.html

Fernandez, D. (1994). Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture (1st ed., p. 3, 9). Mandaluyong: Anvil.

Urbano, C. (2018). The world of Filipino cooking (p. 14). Tuttle.


Marius D. Carlos, Jr.

Marius D. Carlos, Jr. is a storyteller, essayist, and journalist. He is an independent researcher focused on transnational capitalism, neocolonialism, empire, and pop culture. Contact him for writing projects. Visit Marius’ profile on MindsMeWe, and Twitter. Email Marius: marius@voxpopuliph.com.

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