My all-time favourite Filipino dish is sisig, a grilled dish of pig’s ears and cheeks, seasoned with vinegar, chopped onions and chicken liver. There are many versions to sisig (which is traditionally prepared in three stages: boiling, broiling and grilling), making use of other ingredients like chicken, squid, tuna, pork cracklings (or chicharon), tofu and mayonnaise. There are wet and dry, as well as crunchy varieties.
There were two packs of frozen sisig I had bought from Hukad Manila a few weeks ago, and as I was thawing them for a traditional preparation with garlic rice, I realised it was the moist version when thawed. It gave me an idea to use it as a sort of ragu, since I had been making pappardelle strips out of fresh pasta dough.
A part of me was also worried whether I was appropriating both of these storied dishes; I wanted to make sure I wasn’t desecrating the rich traditions of sisig and ragu. The dish I had in mind is an amalgamation of memory — of trattorias in Rome that served hearty pasta with meat sauce made from off-cuts (Italian-style pasta sauce is never topped; the pasta is always mixed into the sauce), and of university days at the Ateneo, where I had my first taste of sisig at a restaurant called Ken Afford (how apt, when the student market was constantly on a tight budget), and had gotten hooked since, always ordering sisig every chance I got whenever we had saved enough allowance to “splurge” at restaurants along Katipunan Avenue.
The main similarity between the two cuisines is the use of different parts of the entire pig, including the head. The Romans apparently still refer to this type of cooking as cucina povera, or poor cooking, as the off-cuts were cheaper at market price. You can also find similarities in guanciale, or pork cheeks, cured and sold at a more palatable presentation at most delis; coppa di testa, or soppressata, cold cuts made with parts of the pig’s head, with Filipino sisig, as well as longanisa, chorizo, dinuguan, batchoy, dinuguan, among others.
Since the meat-based sauce in this kind of ragu is heavy considering the cuts involved, onions sweeten and neutralise the meat, chilli pepper provides heat and tones down the thick gelatinous texture, and calamansi juice balances the aromatics overall. The New York chef Sarah Jenkins explained in a New York Times article that some ragus are more delicate, others more robust; some have milk, others have wine; at the end, it’s really about what one’s personal preferences are as long as it’s delicious...I'd like to humbly add calamansi juice, as a nod to the Philippines.
So here goes, a little lightbulb moment that meets two beloved culinary cultures that warms my heart and belly.
Cooking time: 15 to 16 minutes
300 grams pork sisig
400 grams pappardelle, fresh or packaged
1 large onion, thinly chopped
4-5 garlic cloves, minced
2 birdseye chilli (also known as siling labuyo, or, you can also use sili espada, or green finger chilli), cut into very small coins
1 calamansi, sliced in half
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (for extra spice)
1. Cook pasta according to package instructions. If freshly made, allow pasta strips to dry flat or hung, at room temperature. In a stockpot or large sauce pan, heat salted water until it comes to a rolling boil. Drop 1-2 strips of pappardelle first to test heat. If it curls and wiggles like a worm, carefully drop the rest of pasta into the boiling water.
My first few attempts at the manual pasta machine produced these jagged strips. LOL! Fail! Keep practicing. :-D
Not as smooth and uniform as I'd picture it in mind, but this will do.
2. While pasta is cooking, heat cast iron pan or a large skillet for a minute or two, then pour vegetable oil in. Once oil shimmers, cook onions in and allow it to be translucent and turn brown, about 10 to 12 minutes.
3. Add garlic and chilli pepper in. Saute for a minute to release aroma. Add sisig and saute further for 3-4 minutes, squeeze calamansi juice in between, and toss frequently to allow juice and aromatics to combine.
Moist, shimmery, with a peppery fragrance
Moist, shimmery, with a peppery fragrancebo sizzle on the cast iron pan. By then, pasta should be done cooking as well. It's okay to undercook by a minute or two (e.g. if cooking time is 10 minutes, you can turn off heat by the 8th or 9th minute mark), because we will be transferring the pasta into the cast iron pan to continue cooking together with the sisig "ragu." Keep tossing to combine pasta and sisig sauce, until sizzle stops. Transfer to serving plates and garnish with calamansi and/or a finger chilli on top.