Batchoy in the Visayan Islands
“Brains?” the waitress asks as I peer into the bowl of the person next to me. Not the most appetizing question first thing in the morning, but for a hangover brunch, it’ll do.
It was my first trip to the Visayan Islands, in the south of the Philippines. The obsession with red meat unites the country. It is not the ideal tourist destination for the average vegetarian.
The 35-year-old Batchoy house I walked into is located in the heart of Bacolod, a stone’s throw from the busy central market. The place is packed with locals—a good sign.
The high-protein soup of mystery meats originated in the neighboring province of Iloilo. Before the Second World War, in La Paz, Iloilo, butcher Federico Guillergan concocted a hot noodle soup based on the dishes of Chinese merchants in the area. Guillergan developed, through trial and error, a complex broth made from bone marrow, boiled shrimp paste, chicken, pork, and beef meat, topped with fried garlic, pig organs, crunchy pork cracklings, leeks, and a raw egg.
This Filipino soup is not as well-known in the West as Japanese ramen and Vietnamese pho, which are easily found in bigger cities. Batchoy is consumed not with chopsticks, but a fork and a spoon, and, to put it mildly, is an acquired taste.
The cook forms an assembly line of bowls on a messy table counter. He builds up each bowl with egg noodles, tender beef, pork loin, and chopped pig organs. The soup base has been boiling slowly in a large cauldron for hours. The broth is added last and topped with your choice of gamey add-ons. The chalkboard shows the available choices: Original, Special and Super. The rule is, the larger the order, the more organs—liver, intestines, and brains—are included.
No one wants to look like a lightweight in front of locals. “Super.” I say. The server flashes an amused look.
A warm bun is placed beside me with an overflowing ceramic bowl of Batchoy and a bright plastic cup with even more broth. One could drown in the free soup refills.
Batchoy’s spiced aroma can hold its own against its better-known counterparts. The noodles are substantial and firm to the bite. I wade through the chopped meat bits to decide which organ to tackle first. The crackling pops in my mouth. The salty and slightly sweet broth comes as a pleasant surprise to an empty stomach after a night of debauchery. Batchoy is an unusual bowl of comfort.
“Namit?” (“delicious”) the lady across me asks. I nod and pour the contents of the cup into my bowl.