Cebu is the barbecue capital of the world. I'm not just saying this; it's official. The longest barbecue grill in the world was held in Cebu last year, and this broke the previous Guinness Book of Records set by a Peruvian city years earlier. I was there, and I can assure you it wasn't just for show. The whole length of the grill was packed with customers fighting each other for a few sticks of barbecued pork, even though they eat the stuff every day. That's how much Cebuanos love barbecue. Cebuanos are obsessed with barbecuing - sinugba or sugba for short - to the extent that gout is uncommonly common for a developing country.

It's the toyo, I tell you. Toyo is the sauce you dip your morsels in. It resembles soy sauce but isn't quite the same. Cebuano toyo always contains the two essential elements of Cebuano cuisine, sili and suka (see Cebuano Cuisine). Most restaurants make their own toyo, in old bottles of Tanduay rum, vinegar and soy sauce packed with chilli peppers, garlic, and other vegetables.

But it's not just the toyo. In Cebu, barbecue is not just a method of preparing food; it is a culture. The barbecue culture comprises a considerable portion of the Cebuano identity, is an integral component of the Cebuano lifestyle, and supports a whole range of minor industries all across the island. Mountain peasants spend long hours crafting the barbecue sticks. Hundreds are involved in the daily production of puso, known in English as "hanging rice." Unique to Cebu, puso is rice wrapped in a skin woven from the fronds of a palm tree. [MORE ABOUT PUSO]

Barbecue stalls can be found at every street corner; they appear from nowhere as darkness descends. But the neighborhood stalls often have a limited selection, and the fare may not necessarily be fresh. The most famous place to go for barbecue is Larsian's, a cooperative of about two dozen stalls, right on Fuente Osmea. It's officially called the Fuente Barbecue Plaza but nobody ever calls it that.

The stalls at Larsian's are not the most hygienic of places; rats and cockroaches abound, and even many Cebuanos refuse to eat there. But you needn't worry, since you'll only be about 100 yards for the emergency entrance of the Chong Hua Hospital, Cebu's best medical establishment. One thing adding to the ambience at Larsian's is the street urchins who will try to sell you a small necklace of sampaguita (jasmine) flowers for five pesos. Cebuanos use these as air fresheners in their cars. You should get one; the sampaguita is the national flower of the Philippines.

Here's how to eat at barbecue joint. Don't just sit down; first head to the pile of skewered meat and fish and choose what you like. Most of the fare will have been precooked to a limited degree, and your wait will be about 10 to 15 minutes. Cebuanos just hold their selections and hand them over to the vendor when complete, but if you have a typically Western appetite, ask for a plate to hold your selections. Here are the names of some cuts.


The pork is usually indistinguishable and just referred to as baboy (pork). You may also have a choice of a small fish on a single stick, fresh or dried squid, or sausages, such as the spherical chorizo. Most cuts except the sausages have been barbecued lightly, and will now be broiled again, and doused with a red barbecue sauce. Usually, guests go off to wash their hands - at a plastic bucket - and then take a seat and wait for their orders. The attendant may ask you how many puso you want, and hand you your toyo. The system is essentially the same whether you go to a dirty little stall or a big fancy place, although the latter serve cooked rice in addition to puso.

Competing with Larsian's for public affection is the agglomeration of stalls near Mactan International Airport, wedged between the seashore and the coastal road, and right under the flight path of incoming jets. Planes don't land that often at Mactan - perhaps once every few hours - so the airport doesn't distract from the ambience.

As the economy worsened at the turn of the century, the misery Cebuanos started spending even less on food, and a lot of restaurants found the number of diners dwindling. At the same time, the number of fancy barbecue restaurants started to boom, perhaps because barbecue, even at a fancy place with waiters in uniforms, is still cheaper than meticulously prepared food. These establishments are continuing to grow, and some of the more established players - actually only 2-3 years old - are started to go bust.

The original large-scale barbecue restaurant is AA on Salinas Drive. They used to cause massive traffic jams until they acquired a lot across the road. Right next door is Goodah Gud. Unlike the pure play AA, Goodah have invested in wide-screen flat panel TV's, karaoke, and they operate 24 hrs. The food is surprisingly good.

On of my favorites is Tsibogs. Their speciality is native chicken, barbecued whole. Native chickens, called manok bisaya are the scrawny chickens pecking around in the dust on every street corner. Although their meat is tougher than that of the factory-farmed variety, it is said to be tastier. Native chicken is more expensive than factory-farmed chicken - known as Magnolia, after the leading brand - and rarer by far. A unique thing about Tsibogs is that they also serve seaweed salads, in addition to barbecued chicken, pork, and fish. The original Tsibogs is on A S Fortuna, and there's another branch on Salinas Drive, near the Waterfront in Lahug.

Neo-neo are a Tsibogs imitator; they have a branch on Juan Luna, the wide boulevard stretching from SM to the Waterfront in Lahug, and on A S Fortuna.

Tucked away on an alley between Escario Street and Ayala is Charcoal. This is a good place to drink a lot of beer.


Cebu is famous for its lechon, or roast. There are three types of lechon: lechon manok (rotisserie chicken), lechon baboy (pig), and lechon baka (cow). Lechon baka is quite rare and usually only involves a hind leg, rather than the whole animal. By default, the term "lechon" is taken to signify whole-roasted pig, and is considered indispensable for major social occasions such as birthdays, marriages, christenings, and fiestas - in the Christian areas of the country, that is.

Lechon is the representative dish of the Philippines, and Cebu does it best. Vendors at shops in Manila will often purport to be from Cebu to boost sales. Believe it or not, wealthy folks in Manila will order a lechon from Cebu and have it flown in especially for their party. Within Cebu, the renowned lechon-producing locales are Carcar and Talisay.

Lechon is prepared by stuffing the inside of the animal with a variety of herbs and vegetables, such as lemon grass, garlic, onions, ginger, and so on. The combination and the types of vegetables used varies not just according to vendor, but also day to day, since the price of vegetables fluctuates. I think I once came across myrrh. The animal is then slow-roasted over an open fire until the skin is crispy and the inside tender.

Lechon baboy should really be had at a celebration; the pig will occupy a prominent position in the house, a knife will be stuck in its back, and guests will help themselves by carving off portions they fancy. Group photos are often taken with the porcine carcass in the middle. However, you can also buy a portion of lechon at a stall in the mall or some street corners, with 1/4 of a kilo retailing between 60 and 80 pesos. The quality is unlikely to be as good as that of a party lechon.

Lechon manok is usually bought at one of the ubiquitous roadside stalls and consumed at home. Now, in some cases, you may be sold what is known as a "double-dead" chicken: a bird that died of disease or other causes, and was then butchered to make it look normal and saleable. In addition, some of the vendors sell chicken that is not that fresh (to put it mildly). Most of the questionable lechon is sold by the vendors on A C Cortes, the avenue leading to the Old Bridge. A fuss once ensued when a flunky in the employ of the mayor bought his boss's lunch there and nearly poisoned Mandaue's chief executive. Get your lechon manok anywhere else and you'll probably be safe. There are some chains with multiple branches: Luz's Inasal, Prime Lechon, and Sr Pedro are among the best. Prices range between 110 and 140 pesos per chicken. The vendor will usually ask you if you want your chicken chopped.


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