It has been six years since I last was here. Here is Cebu, my home. It is one of the many islands that make up the archipelago of the Philippines. And though an island, the capital (also named Cebu) bustles like any other cosmopolitan city with shops, restaurants, malls and highrises bursting at the seams.
Fortunately some parts of Cebu is still what it was when I was growing up, pristine beaches with rich marine life- sea turtles, schools of fishes in rainbow colors and luminescent corrals. Further inland rugged and verdant mountains traverse the island from north to south.
Coming home is an event friends and family celebrate with a gathering and always, always with food. You are lavished and nursed back from homesickness with the things you had missed. They start with breakfast. Fresh cut sweet pineapples, made sweeter by a sprinkling of salt, or mangoes sliced in a crisscross pattern to yield petals of succulent mango chunks ready for the plucking. Sticky rice and coconut milk steamed in banana leaf, called budbud.
A variation we had at this breakfast was moron, a special budbud, that has a woven strip of sticky rice cooked with chocolate. Budbud is traditionally served with sikwate, the Visayan chocolate drink -thick, slightly bitter chocolate made from pure ground cacao, called tablea. More on sikwate from a previous post Chocolate of Home.
The fruit and sticky rice platter is only a prelude to the real breakfast ahead: Garlic rice, fried eggs with cured pork loin strips called tocino, our native bacon- sweet, smoky and salty from the caramelized sugar and curing marinade. On the side, fresh chopped tomatoes, onions and the vinegar dipping sauce we call suka. For this meal, we had suka that was a specialty of Iligan ( a province in the South) called Pinakurat, aged coconut toddy (tuba), infused with bird eye chilies and spices. It was robust and had the right sourness and heat to meld that rice and tocino to exaltation. An exaggeration of bliss I know, but when you have not had food from home for 6 years , you too will see the angels part and weep.
Breakfast was followed by lunch of an equally lavish spread of crispy pata-pig shanks braised and then deep fried, served with a vinaigrette of soy sauce, vinegar, chopped shallots and green chilies. There is gintaang gulay – squash, yard long beans, bell pepper and okra slow braised in coconut milk and shrimp broth.
There was of course lechon, Philippine’s roasted pig that Cebu does exceedingly well -as Anthony Bourdain proclaims, ” the best pig ever” ( we think so too Mr. Bourdain.) On this homecoming we were feted with a total of three lechons.
Ahhh… lechon, we do love our pork. It is the soul of our food. Even before the Chinese and Spanish influenced our cooking, the pig (or wild boar) was the animal our ancestors beheld worthy to sacrifice to the gods. These days we keep the pig to ourselves and offer our prayers instead to a Catholic God.
Two weeks whizzed by and soon I had to return to the States. It took me a couple of days to get over the jet lag but the withdrawals from coming home took several weeks.Friends had packed dried mangoes and tablea for us to take back, to ease the homesickness they say, but it was of course different. Food from home is always a joy to have but it is the company of your friends and family that really takes you home.