Thursday, 11 July 2013

La Paz Batchoy face-off: Who really invented batchoy?


 A hot, steaming bowl of soup with crumbled chicharon (fried pork skin) and a half-cooked egg on top is set in front of you. As you dig in and mix the contents together, you discover noodles and slices of meat and innards. As the egg mingles with the rich broth, you take a sip and then dive into this little pool of comfort food.

A complete meal in itself, batchoy is best enjoyed right out of the stove. Part of the fun is blowing at spoonfuls to make the broth just warm enough not to scald your tongue. Another delight is slurping and sipping the soup—there is no shame in making sounds as you enjoy the meat, noodles, and kaldo (soup).

[Also read about Pinoys’ favorite rainy-day meals.]

Dissecting the dish
Different cooks have put their own spin on the batchoy since its popularity ballooned. But the basic ingredients remain the same: meat, noodles, chicharon, and egg. These are what define batchoy.

The taste comes from the mingling of different flavors in the broth: a mixture of garlic, chicken, beef, and pork meat as well as innards like kidney and liver, and a variety of herbs and spices. The result is a rich, thick, savory broth. Some variations include shrimp among the “meats”. Egg noodles provide the carbohydrates to the dish. However, recent varieties have also made use of other kinds of noodles: bihon (rice noodles), sotanghon (vermicelli or bean noodles), or misua (wheat noodles).

After the ingredients are boiled together, they are poured into bowls and topped with chicharon and raw egg (which will eventually be cooked by the hot broth). The crunchy pork skin and runny white-and-yellow egg provide different contrasts of flavors and textures to the hot dish. It is best enjoyed with a siding of bread or puto. And that is how batchoy is a delicious, hearty all-in meal.

 Ilonggo roots
Batchoy actually had its genesis in the province of Iloilo. Oh yes, batchoy is very popular over at the neighboring city of Bacolod, but it was Iloilo’s town of La Paz where this delicious soup was really born (thus, the famous La Paz batchoy tag). Now, as to who are its parents is still a puzzle. Some credit it to the Chinese community in Iloilo in the 1930s. Others, to one or the other culinary Ilonggo family.

The two contending camps, if you will, are also two of the most enduring Batchoy brands in the Philippines. Deco’s Original La Paz Batchoy was begun by Federico “Deco” Guillergan Sr., a butcher and supposedly the inventor of batchoy as we know it today. Deco began his business in 1938 with an improvised counter-type carinderia (eatery) inside the La Paz Public Market. Since then, Deco’s has grown exponentially.

Rumor has it that when Deco invented batchoy, he originally (and jokingly) referred to it as “bats.” Later on, probably to give it a more relevant handle, Deco added “choy” as a nod to the Chinese dish, chop suey.

Another Ilonggo runs an equally popular batchoy business in Iloilo, begun just a few years after Deco’s did. In his teens in the 1930s, Teodorico Lepura worked for a Chinese merchant from whom young Teodorico learned how to make batchoy. He eventually mastered it. His first La Paz Batchoy endeavor—Ted's Old-timer Lapaz Batchoy— opened at the La Paz Public Market in 1945. Word is that Teodorico invested all of ten pesos to build his first 5’ x 5’ stall made of nipa and bamboo and cook his first bowls of batchoy.

Ted’s began as a family business, with Teodorico’s wife and kids helping out. Back when they first opened Ted’s, a bowl of steaming batchoy went for 20 centavos.

History has a way of blurring the lines. Ted’s and Deco’s both claim proprietorship over the beloved batchoy, and no one has given the final word. But we say, a bowl of batchoy is a bowl of batchoy. We love it in any form!

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