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The Sisig Story by Robby Tantingco

Death and sisig
By Robby Tantingco

The first time that sisig was ever recorded in history was in 1732, in a Kapampangan dictionary compiled by an Augustinian friar, Diego Bergaño. (The Spanish missionary served as parish priest of Mexico, Pampanga in 1725-1731, where he most likely encountered the dish.)

In his dictionary, Bergaño defines sisig as a "salad, including green papaya, or green guava eaten with a dressing of salt, pepper, garlic and vinegar." "Manyisig" means "to make salad" while "mapanisig" is "one who makes a lot of salad, or frequently eats salad, or picks tidbits of it."

The sisig of our ancestors is the equivalent of our vegetarian salad today, no meat, just green fruit soured further with vinegar, tempered with salt and spiced with pepper and garlic. They probably ate it as a regular side dish ("tiltilan") , and maybe as cure for nausea.

It's quite possible that the word "sigang"—that sour soup dish so popular among Filipinos and other Southeast Asians—came from the contraction of "sisigan" ("to make it sour"). In ancient times, sigang was the easiest complete meal to prepare; even fishermen who went out to sea for days probably carried with them basic cooking implements so they could cook "sigang" right there on their boats. It was all too easy to prepare: they just boiled water in a pot, threw in anything they'd caught (clam, shrimp, fish, bird or fowl), and added any green fruit (santol, guava, tamarind, kamias, mango, citrus, tomatoes, and any pickings from trees growing in mangroves and forests).

Over the years, sisig evolved from being just a salad to being main dish, when our ancestors started putting meat in it, like pig's ears and pig's cheeks. That's the sisig I came to know as a child, back in Mabalacat. My mother boiled pig's ears and jowl, chopped and minced them and then mixed in chicken liver and pig's brain and of course onion, salt, pepper and calamansi. The sound of the crunchy cartilages between my teeth and the soft mayonnaise-like texture of liver and brain melting in my mouth—that was what the traditional sisig was all about. It was no longer the sourness that defined it, but the chopped pig parts.

And then came Lucia "Aling Lucing" Cunanan of Angeles City. She further redefined sisig by introducing two features in the preparation: broiling or grilling the pig parts after boiling them, and then serving the dish on a sizzling plate. She had retained all the elements of the traditional sisig (chopped meat sprinkled with calamansi juice) but it was the sizzling plate that revolutionized the Kapampangan sisig and made it a national sensation, catapulting the obscure little lady from the railroad tracks to national fame.

Aling Lucing also revolutionized Kapampangan eating-out habits by not serving her sisig in a fancier place. "Crossing" became the most popular destination in the region as celebrities, government officials and rich families risked their lives, their reputations and their expensive cars by flocking to Aling Lucing's open-air eatery on the old railroad tracks, close to a squatters area, where the tangled web of narrow alleys could easily hide thieves, assassins and drug addicts.

Because Aling Lucing made her sisig so irresistible, Kapampangans threw all their vaunted snobbery and vanity to the wind and went where the food was good. Before, Kapampangans ate out only in air-conditioned and fashionable restaurants; they shunned humid and unsanitary canteens. Today, it doesn't matter what the place looks like, as long as the food is good. This is good news for Kapampangan entrepreneurs because a restaurant business no longer requires a huge capital; they can actually just convert their backyard or the vacant lot beside their house or even their garage into an eating place, and the customers, who care only for good food, would certainly not mind. I can cite a few examples: Jojo's, Razon's, Corazon's, Kabigting's, Cely's, Grill 99, Luring's, and all those popular but still nameless eateries all over the province.

It was Aling Lucing who started all that.

Today her stall at the railroad tracks is draped in black. They should put a marker there so that people will not forget how this humble spot has spawned a whole industry around the Philippines and even in many parts of the world. Sisig is now perhaps the most popular Filipino dish, more popular than the adobo. Cooks everywhere have concocted their own sisig versions, using bangus, tuna, tofu, mussels, squid, chorizo, chicken, and even frog, ostrich and python. Some have experimented with frying instead of boiling and broiling, and others have introduced egg, chicharon and many different nuances, but what has remained as the defining element is the sizzling plate. That's exactly the one master stroke of culinary and marketing genius that we can all attribute to the late Aling Lucing.

Five years ago, on May 17, 2003, Angeles City started the Sisig Festival, which featured a giant sizzling plate on which HAU-HRM students cooked tons of sisig which was later served to the thousands of revelers. The festival was so successful that the city council promptly passed a resolution declaring Angeles City as the "Sisig Capital of the Philippines. " No other town or city objected or complained then; none has challenged it since.

Now that Aling Lucing is dead, she has certainly become larger-than- life. The annual sisig festival will most likely keep her memory and legacy alive, probably even start weaving a legend around her. There is a certain symmetry and poetry in the life and death of Aling Lucing: she had used a knife to create the dish that gave her fortune and fame, and a knife was used to take it all away.

As the case continues to unravel in the next few days, we who consider her a Kapampangan cultural icon cannot help being dismayed with newspaper reports about who the suspect might be. They were an octogenarian couple, for God's sake. How could an octogenarian ever deserve dying such a violent death, or be ever capable of committing such a violent murder?

Next time you order sisig, take time to appreciate the ancient origins of this original Kapampangan dish, and don't forget to say a prayer for that little old lady whose sad and sordid ending will always be part of the sisig story.


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