What does a surf city eat after they’ve had their fill of the waves? In Borongan, the answer isn’t so straightforward. Locals delight in juicy lechon in one part of town and freshly-caught seafood in another. Cafés open at two o’clock in the afternoon but bottles of Red Horse are already opened even earlier. And as the rest of the town sleeps on weekends, some surfers stay up drinking local tuba until the early morning. Meanwhile, the town cooks begin preparing breakfast, their stoves click to life before the roosters even crow.
You can tell a lot about a place by its culture around food and drinks. In this aspect, Borongan sits between two sets of extremes: the land and sea from which they harvest their produce, and the laidback and diligent dispositions that mold their food culture. Somehow, they embrace these contradictions, making the city’s food all the more exciting to explore.
Although sugar is ever-present for this delicacy, the sweetness is never cloying—they temper the flavor with milder roots and grains, or a cup of strong coffee.
For starters: Dessert
Borongan captures the country’s fondness for sugar in their penchant for having kakanin in the morning. Like eating dessert for breakfast, it is both sustenance and indulgence. As Rocajane Salac, a fellow writer who was born and raised in the city, succinctly puts it: “On weekday mornings, we look for pandesal to eat in a hurry but on the weekends when we get to slow down, we look for kakanin.”
Though kakanin isn’t particularly hard to find: If you wake up early, you’ll see vendors selling a wide variety of this sweet delicacy in Borongan’s bustling markets and city square. With just the core ingredients of coconut milk and rice flour, a whole lexicon of food opens up.
Produce that are bountiful in the Eastern Samar landscape are secondary ingredients that shape their regional identity in kakanin: Coarsely ground grains of rice filled with sweet coconut meat make the Puto Binagol, akin to a cookie made of crispy rice. Replace the rice with cassava flour and you’ll end up with Puto Bilanghoy, something like a chewy, personal-sized cassava cake. Mix the core ingredients with the local palawan—a type of swamp taro root—and you have the mild and hearty Minoron sold in palm leaf bundles at the markets.
Varying cooking techniques make a world of difference, as well. The method can be simple as with the Sarongsong—triangular rice cakes with slivers of coconut mixed inside. They contain the charming smallness of a present but with less fuss. Steamed and nothing else, the hardest part of making it is folding fragrant talipopo leaves into a cone that will contain the batter. The Sagmani, on the other hand, is a much more complicated treat. To make it, a large gabi root goes through a series of steaming, carving, and filling preparations. The end result is a deceptively simple-looking gabi root that, when cut open, reveals a cross-section of a mildly sweet gabi, crunchy peanut, and coconut core filling encased in the outer layer of the steamed root.
As with any type of food, a cook’s expertise has an impact on how the final product turns out. In Barangay Lalawigan, I met Mila Domingo, a lively woman who navigated her kitchen while attending to her toddler grandson with the finesse of an experienced cook and mother. She showed me how to make the Bakintol, something I’d describe as Suman’s more indulgent cousin from Visayas: sweet and milky, but also—plush, pillow-soft with a decadent chocolate center. It’s a treat to indulge your inner child.
While the Salukara from the markets only had a single note of sweetness, Bella’s had layers of flavor.
As the smell of cocoa powder perfumed her kitchen, Mila explained how delicate kakanin can be. Dishes made with coconut milk in general spoil easily when exposed to direct sunlight and humidity—and if your livelihood is to sell these treats, this is your main rival.
Waving away a billow of steam, she took pieces of Bakintol and Sarongsong out of the stovetops and wiped them down until they were all dry. This trick, and maybe a little prayer, helps keep the moisture at bay. "Kahit kinakabukasan na—sa awa ng Diyos—hindi yan napapanis," she said. When she used to sell these regularly, people would marvel at how long her kakanin would stay fresh.
Weekend or not, the city is spoiled for options when it comes to their breakfast. And although sugar is ever-present for this delicacy, the sweetness is never cloying—they temper the flavor with milder roots and grains, or a cup of strong coffee.
Breakfast by a local legend
The quest for kakanin doesn’t stop here: Of all the vendors I spoke to during my trip to Borongan, everyone recommended I try the Salukara made by a rather elusive woman named Bella Divino. The locals talked about her kakanin with the kind of pride and ambiguity usually reserved for folk legends. It took some time and a lot of asking around, but I luckily managed to pay her a visit in Barangay Songco on my final morning in the city.
Rocajane had warned me not to get my hopes up about meeting Bella—finding her was a challenge in itself but we also had to ask for permission to enter her home and observe her at work. Bella had declined interviews before and nobody really knew why. Perhaps she was secretive about her recipe or maybe she didn’t want random cityfolk like me poking around her kitchen. With Rocajane’s magic, I didn’t have to find that out myself. Bella thankfully agreed to our visit.
At dawn on a Sunday, I stood at her doorstep timid with nerves but Bella’s mysterious reputation was dispelled the moment she welcomed me to her kitchen. There she was, flanked by five gas burners with a small kawali each, chirping about the new visitors in her home. I had asked her how it felt to be known all over Borongan, and she corrected me: “Sa buong mundo na!”—proud of how her Salukara has been featured in travel programs on TV.
Her kitchen was already in full swing. Like a well-oiled machine, she scooped a cup of batter, poured it into a kawali brushed with lard and waited a minute or two before sliding it onto a bed of smoked banana leaves on her counter. One side of each crepe is left pale while the other crisps to a golden brown.
For thirty years, it has been Bella’s use of unique local ingredients that sets her kakanin apart from others. While the Salukara from the markets only had a single note of sweetness, Bella’s had layers of flavor. The black and red rice flour she sources from the municipality of Dolores gives her kakanin a distinct nutty taste and a purple tint. Instead of baking powder, she uses locally-made tuba, a fermented coconut wine, to give the Salukara an airy lift and an alcoholic tang. I offered one to Kuya Arvy, the surfer who had volunteered to drive our team around the city, and he politely refused. When you’re served Salukara that’s that fresh, the heady aroma of the tuba greets your senses before anything else. It reminded Kuya Arvy too much of last night’s drinking.
Because of her particular recipe and certain limits to how much tuba she can source, Bella says she can only make about 200 pieces of Salakura to feed the town clamoring for breakfast each day. In perfect timing, a neighbor knocked on her door, asking to buy ten pieces of her freshest batch already.
Bella finished cooking just as the sun was starting to rise. Tidying up, she was finally ready to sleep until the late afternoon. Upon waking, she will go straight back to the kitchen to prepare ingredients for another night of cooking Salukara—a daily routine that explains how she became such an elusive legend in the first place.
Borongan lechon made me understand why we humans sometimes put our arteries at risk.
The open secret to Borongan lechon
Time moves slowly in a surf city. When you’ve been accustomed to the busy pace of Manila, it can be jarring at first to not be in such a hurry all the time. To the benefit of Borongan cuisine, the relaxed pace allows for more time to cook food well. When given the proper amount of time, the most simple ingredients and basic cooking methods can turn into exceptional dishes that people will come back for.
Shirley Alegre, owner of local favorite Totoy’s Lechon, knows this well. While roasting a pig in her backyard, she explains to me that almost every lechon in Borongan is made of the same foundational ingredients: a stuffing of salt, garlic, peppercorn, and bay leaves to impart flavor and fragrance; some form of milk–condensed, evaporated, or powdered–to help keep the oils intact and extra juicy; and soy sauce to brush on the lechon skin for its signature deep red look.
“Pero sa amin, Coke ang ginagamit namin para sa balat,” she said casually as her team of cooks began to spray soda onto the pig, still rotating over hot coals. The drink, she explains, adds a touch of sweetness to the skin and still gives it the rich dark hue. With lechon as her canvas, Shirley is an artist who knows that to make her product stand out, she has to know when to break the rules. Each lechon spot in Borongan breaks from the mold in their own ways—that is how their secret recipes are made.
A short drive away from Shirley’s backyard, I was able to try another lechon from a restaurant at the side of the road, where the staff chopped their freshly roasted pig outside on a table to entice hungry passersby like me. While buying a portion to eat for later, the vendors offered a piece of crispy skin for me to have.
Admittedly, I am not the biggest fan of lechon—some of the ones I had tried in Manila were good no doubt, but were unable to get me hooked. But Borongan lechon made me understand why we humans sometimes put our arteries at risk: From the skin and all the way to the meat on the bones, each bite was guilt-inducingly delicious. I asked the vendors how this was possible, and they said their secret was to roast the pig as slow as they could go. “About four hours,” they counted, starting from four o’clock in the morning.
If they were tired from working before daybreak, it never showed. They still indulged my never-ending questions, and even offered some more bites for our small team to try.
Boronganons do not use sauces or dips in their cuisine. Not for the lack of time or ingredients, but simply because their food itself doesn’t need the embellishment.
All the cooks say the same thing: Success for their endeavors is great, but they don’t want to get too commercial if it means sacrificing the quality of the food they make. Their customers are their own neighbors, friends, and loved ones. To care about their food is to care for these people too, and it is this dynamic that has pushed them to give a little more effort and time towards their cuisine. In turn, all that Borongan’s residents need to do is eat and eat well.
Borongan’s food culture is defined by these cooks that are adamant about the quality of their food and the city they feed that recognizes its value. For a city sitting between two geographical extremes, they seem to have found a comfortable harmony in this give and take. In the sleepy town of Borongan, I was reminded of how great food can be when you take no shortcuts.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the 2022 print issue of Borongan Magazine, commissioned by the Public Information Office for the City of Borongan. Edits were made for the GRID website.