Sisig and beer are like peanut butter and jelly; coffee and cream; pencil and paper; running shoes and socks; Kris Aquino and controversy. They just really go well together. To be clear though, this popular Kapampangan dish isn’t just for beer drinkers, happy hour patrons or people who want to drown their sorrows (or the cause of their sorrows) in a potent mix of alcohol and fat. Nearly everyone I know loves this dish.
Like many Filipino dish origin stories, there are many different accounts and versions as to how sisig came to be. What is surprising though is that it may have originated well before the 20th century. I had always mistakenly imagined that sisig was a modern creation.
Sisig in the 1700s
Most sources agree that perhaps the earliest reference to sisig was in a 1732 Kapampangan dictionary, Vocabulario de la Lengua Pampanga en Romance by Fr. Diego Bergaño who was then the Augustinian parish priest of Mexico, Pampanga. He described sisig as a salad of green papaya or guava. Some translators mention that the dish is supposedly served with some simple condiments or sauce, perhaps of pepper, garlic, salt or vinegar.
Shockingly, the original sisig had absolutely no meat in it.
There’s a great deal more to the etymology of sisig than what’s contained in Bergaño’s story. Although I am currently unable to verify these other stories through their source documents, I think they’re worth noting with citations to possibly secondary or tertiary sources.
According to Karen, a Kapampangan blogger, sisig is really a general term for a sour food item that is eaten by itself, for example, sour unripe fruit dipped in vinegar. Karen further expounds that the derivative term mapanisig is still actually used in the modern sense to denote a person who likes eating sour food by itself.
An article by Robby Tantingco in the Department of Tourism website presents an alternative angle, pointing out that manyisig may mean to make salad and that someone who is mapanisig makes a lot of salad. Tantingco also suggests that sigang; the sour soup of fish, shrimp, chicken or pork more popularly called sinigang; may have come from the term sisigan which means to make sour.
Whatever are the true stories behind sisig’s word derivatives and their origins, one thing is clear, the dish in its original form and meaning exuded sourness. According to another story in the popular food blog Pepper.ph, sisig salad was supposedly used as an early remedy for nausea and hangovers because the sour taste was considered a vomit suppressant. Thus was probably born the first direct connection between sisig and alcohol drinkers.
The Evolution of Sisig
It is not clear when the exact point was when sisig evolved into a predominantly meaty main dish with the sourness factor turned down a level lower. Many regular folks I know cite the story of how the kitchen staff of the former US Clark Air Base regularly threw out pigs’ heads. The residents of Angeles, Pampanga who probably thought this was a waste of perfectly edible heads, bought them at cheap rates. The jowls and ears were boiled and chopped, with some mixing in pig brains and chicken liver, and seasoned with onions, salt, pepper and/or vinegar.
There are those who say however, that the sisig recipe that came out of the heads that rolled out of the American base was simply a different version of a recipe that residents had already been used to preparing.
It’s also worth considering that the term sisig may correctly be considered not just as the name of a dish but also as a way of preparing food. In an article by Claude Tayag in the Philippine Star, he tells the story of how, in the early 1970s, he was served a dish which was called sisig by his host during the town fiesta. The dish of pure pork fat boiled and soaked in vinegar hardly seems like the sisig we recognize today but was still obviously considered so probably because it was prepared following a certain method.
Enter Aling Lucing
Lucia Cunanan of Angeles City is credited for having created the modern sisig dish that we know today. It was reportedly around 1974 when Cunanan, in her eponymous eatery Aling Lucing alongside the railroad crossing, introduced new elements into the traditional sisig recipe. After boiling the meat, she also grilled and/or broiled it before chopping and adding chicken liver and seasoning. Cunanan also reportedly used the meatier cheeks and snout for her recipe.
It is not clear whether the hot or sizzling plate is also an innovation by Cunanan or one other neighboring eatery. Regardless of whoever came up with the idea first, it’s likely that the introduction of the hot plate was the final key that pushed the dish into the hearts and arteries of the Filipino people, making it a national favorite.
In an episode of No Reservations, international chef, Anthony Bourdain remarked that sisig is “exactly what you want” when you’re drunk, thereby confirming that the dish truly is best for beer drinkers. 🙂
Sadly, Cunanan, the Philippines’ undisputed sisig queen, met her tragic end in 2008, mysteriously bludgeoned to death. Her memory however, will continue to live on for as long as Filipinos cherish her culinary masterpiece.
Pampanga and Beyond
In 2013, Angeles, Pampanga held the first ever sisig festival. The event, Sadsaran Qng Angeles is now an annual affair and Angeles itself is the recognized Sisig Capital of the Philippines. Despite its solid claim to the title however, there has been no stopping Filipinos from many different regions from concocting their own versions of sisig. Today, sisig variations include chicken, fish, shrimp and even tofu.
From a simple sour salad, sisig has truly gone a long way, crossing land and sea and carving its mark in our history as a well loved, truly authentic Filipino creation, and again, it’s not just for beer drinkers.
A Cagayanon’s version of sisig. Get his recipe here.