WANDERLUST| Davao’s Balbacua

BALBACUA brings back a lot childhood memories. Back in the day, I remember having lunch in our old along Quezon Boulevard where we would have that gooey balbacua soup that would unfailingly leave my lips sticky after every meal.

BALBACUA reinvented in Davao's Bulcachong

BALBACUA reinvented in Davao’s Bulcachong

 I knew then that it was something very local, not exactly an everyday thing, but it was a dish that we can have anytime. There weren’t much balbacua eateries then like we do now. Hence, we would either buy it from a neighborhood carenderia or had someone cook it at home.

 Over the years, I would occasionally wonder where balbacua – that orangey, spicy glutinous soup with chewy, rectangular-shaped cow (sometimes carabao) skin – really came from. Well, a former boss said that it’s proudly Davao. Others say it’s product of Cebu. Some believe that it’s actually influenced by a country that once conquered us. Well, they’re all correct.

 Yes, balbacua was first tasted by Pinoys in Cebu. However, the dish was rather inspired by “barbacoa”, said to be a method of cooking meat that originated in the Caribbean, and was brought in the country by the Spaniards.

 In Caribbean countries, they make use of either an entire sheep, slow-cooked over an open fire, or prepare it with parts of the head of a cattle, such as the cheeks and ears. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, we cook it with cow skin, meat, tail, feet, or a mix of the said body parts, boiled for several hours until it becomes gelatinous and extremely tender. That’s the balbacua familiar to our palates.

 “Balbacua is from the Bisaya speaking region, such as Cebu, but it varies from island to island,” said our good friend, restaurateur, educator, author, and founder the Center for Asian Culinary Studies, Chef Gene Gonzales.

 According to Chef Gene, Cebu’s balbacua is a “little spicier and more yellow because of achuete or turmeric.” We all know that turmeric has myriad health benefits that even Cebuano singer Max Surban bragged about it in his song “Aguy Kalami” (“Sabaw init-init, masustansya!”).

 “However, Bohol’s version is a bit pale and very plain”, Chef Gene added.

 Now, where does this leave Davao’s balbacua in the picture?

 According to Chef Gene, Davao’s version of balbacua is probably the most complex. “Your version has spices and the aromatic element of tongkoy,” he said. Tongkoy is a Chinese herb used in cooking medicinal broths.

 Intrigued by how he described our version of this gummy gumbo, I went on a balbacua trip around town and checked out each restaurant’s take.

 In Quezon Boulevard, I dropped by Hong-Jia that sells a bowl for PhP55.00 with unlimited rice. However, their soup is a tad diluted, and there’s barely meat or skin. In Agdao Public Market, the soup isn’t as gooey as it used to be. It’s all skin cut in squares then sprinkled with spring onions for PhP80.00. Comedor’s, located along Bonifacio Street, version (sold at PhP69.00) came quite close but it was just too oily for my liking.

 Knowing that these two would most likely fit Chef Gene’s decription, I saved them for last.  Paz Eatery in Bankerohan, the go-to place after a long night out, serves a bowl that can probably feed 3 persons for PhP100.00. Ye, the broth’s thick and spicy.

 Meanwhile. Bulcachong, which virtually reinvented balbacua, has lots of meat that got so tender from hours of boiling. The aromatic broth is thick but not the kind that leaves the mouth sticky (yes!). For PhP80.00, this is the obvious winner.

 “What is original is Davao is how balbacua is being prepared in Bulcachong,” said Chef Gene.

 Davao may not be the first to serve balbacua but it is certainly is the place to sample its various take of this comfort food. Balbacua is another proof of the Filipinos ingenuity of transforming what others might deem as unusable and useless animal body parts into lip-smacking dishes.

Posted in Lifestyle