Lolo Isko’s Special Kilawin

By Armando Ambahan Suñe|

My Lolo Isko was a teenager when he started working at the kitchen of the Iloilo Plaza Hotel during the peace-time years of the 1900s, just before WWII broke out. There, he learned the basics of fine hotel cooking, translating in the new environment his home cooking skills learned from relatives.

Iloilo Plaza Hotel, owned by the Ybiernas family of Iloilo, was the first hotel in Iloilo City. It was opened in 1920, at the height of the American period, and was the gathering place of Iloilo’s elite. Here, at the Plaza Libertad where the hotel was located, my Lolo Isko was literally walking on historic grounds. Formerly called Plaza Alfonso XII for the king, Plaza Libertad was where Spain lowered its flag for the last time on December 25, 1898, making Iloilo the last capital of Spain in the islands. Lording over this European-looking plaza were the old Municipio, the majestic Iglesia de San Jose, beside it the huge Lacson ancestral mansion, and on the southern side, the Iloilo Plaza Hotel held court, its white corinthian-columned frontage held together by a balustraded porch. Stretching from this area towards the long drive on the main avenue called Calle Real (today’s J.M.Basa), my Lolo Isko would pass by along a mixture of various commercial buildings owned by Spanish and Chinese-mestizo Ilonggos, British and European, and American residents—some with art-deco designs fashionable during those days, some with their beautiful lacy, cake-like embellishments Iloilo city was known for, and as my Lolo Isko got nearer the plaza, earlier period Spanish antillan buildings lined the street, leading to the hotel. Such inspiring sights were literally a walk along history, and heightened my Lolo Isko’s creative cooking ambitions.

Lolo Isko learned a lot. He cooked linaga nga karne, estufados, and sarciados, among others. But one special dish that mattered so much to Lolo Isko (Francisco Jusa Ambahan) was also the dish that endeared him to Lola Osay (Rosa Arcenas Andrada), his beloved wife. It was also his favorite—his special pig lungs kilawin.

His love for cooking his special kilawin literally became his way of giving affection to Lola Osay and their six children, among them my own mother. I can imagine their old house on Mabini street in the city proper, with its capiz-shell windows, filled with the enticing smell of kilawin simmering in the kitchen. Lolo Isko’s kilawin was always present at Christmas eve dinners, during our fiestas in Jaro, and on special occasions like birthdays, baptisms, and weddings, and the anticipated annual clan reunions. Naturally, it was always the first to be scooped from the plates, and always the first to be wiped clean. I associate these special celebrations with the fragrant smell of Lolo Isko’s kilawin.

How did Lolo Isko cook his special kilawin? Trust him to procure all the necessary ingredients himself, no one else, and he wouldn’t allow anyone to take a peek in the kitchen. First rule, at break of dawn, he’d buy only the freshest at the mercado central: just-butchered pig’s lungs; robust white radish; one or two young chili peppers, just enough for the zing (you may omit this if you like); red onions; just enough cooking oil for the saute; the essential recado of bay leaves and whole, unbroken peppercorns; and, most importantly, the sweetest, tangiest dalisay coconut vinegar, no substitute allowed. The secret to the dish: no scrimping and no substitutions.

First, Lolo Isko would fit the whole lungs in a caserola, immerse it in just enough water to cover the meat, heat to boiling, and simmer till tender; the pig lungs should not stay too long, or it became rubbery. He’d chop the meat fine, as in one-third of an inch; it would have uniform size, for even cooking. Set aside, it was kept warm.

Next, he’d chop the onions in half-circles; coin-chop the radish, a little diagonally, in uniform sizes. Then, he’d take a big carajay, saute the onions in just enough oil; add the recado of whole peppercorn and just one or two bay leaves, and watch out, for too much can overpower the entire dish; he would add one or two chili peppers, but sometimes he skipped them. Now, he’d add the chopped lungs. Sauted till tender; and add the radish. The flavors would have to blend; my Lolo Isko had a special way with this. This required his own special skill. He’d add salt to taste. Voila! By this time, the kilawin’s fragrant flavors could be wafting as far as two houses away! Be careful, cook, the neighbors are coming.

My Lolo Isko was clever. Only he knew the secrets to his good kilawin cooking! But clever still were his young children; they were able to observe, and preserve, his secret, my mother and one or two aunties among them. They would sneak in every now and then, and through the years, were able to piece together its true taste. And wonder of wonders. His two sons became experts, too.

What distinguishes Lolo Isko’s Kilawin were its taste, textures, and color. The meat flavorful, tender but firm; radish complimented the flavors; the kilawin was not oily; there was no soggy sauce, it clung to the ingredients. Lolo Isko’s special Kilawin was a feast of the senses, of harmonious flavors, fragrant smells, and most especially, it brought back happy memories of past celebrations with family and relatives.

Today, I have tried to make my own kilawin dish, based on Lolo Isko’s original recipe, and being faithful to it as much as I can. But as a baby boomer independent, and feeling like a present millennial, I feel the pleasure to just tweak things a bit. How about topping my own version with crushed crispy pork chicharon? And adding sweet pickled apple slaw? Perfect!