During the colonial era, wherever the Spanish went, “lechón” went—and stayed. So today, from the Spanish Caribbean to South America to the Philippines, and, of course, in Spain itself, there is lechón. But of all the world’s lechóns, the lechón of Puerto Rico is unequaled. It is arguably the absolute, all-time, most delicious pork—though many would insist that Italian “porchetta” is equally delectable.
“Leche” is Spanish for “milk.” And the word “lechón” was originally—and in Spain and some Latin American countries, still today—used to describe a suckling pig that is roasted. But in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and the Philippines, for example, the word “lechón” is used to describe a spit-roasted whole pig—of any age and size, pigs from 90 to 120 pounds (40 to 55 kilos), large enough to feed about 50 people, being typical.
Traditionally eaten at Christmastime and on special occasions, lechón is today prepared and eaten in Puerto Rico primarily on weekends—on account of the many hours required to prepare the delicacy. The Caribbean island’s lechón is distinguishable from other lechóns primarily because of the seasonings typically used to marinate the meat: annato oil, salt, black pepper, garlic, oregano, and rosemary.
But before the pig is seasoned, it must be properly “prepped”: The butcher is notified of the size-range of the desired pig; it is then slaughtered, its entrails and hair removed (The head, tail, and hooves are left intact); any hairs missed by the butcher are removed by the chef, using scalding-hot water and a razor; the carcass is then thoroughly washed, inside and out, with a cider vinegar-and-water solution, rinsed thoroughly with cool water, then pat-dried with paper towels in preparation for the seasoning.
Approximately 24 hours before roasting, the pig is seasoned, inside and out, the foundation of the seasoning blend being annato oil. Annato is the spice derived from the achiote tree (Bixa orellana), also called the “lipstick tree” because of the spice’s traditional use in body-painting amongst the native peoples of the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. The desired quantity of the brick-red, somewhat triangular-shaped spice, about the size of a lentil, is put into a heated skillet and slightly toasted in order to release the essential oils. Cooking oil is then added to the skillet, thereby allowing the oil to be infused with the color, flavor, and aroma of the spice. (Annato is used worldwide as a natural colorant in such foods as cheese and butter. The spice imparts a yellow-orange color and is oftentimes used as a substitute for saffron. The flavor and aroma of annato are at once somewhat peppery, nutty, and sweet). The contents of the skillet is then passed through a sieve, and the annato-enhanced oil is then allowed to cool before being mixed with the salt, black pepper, garlic, oregano, and rosemary to form a seasoning blend with a paste-like consistency. The seasoning blend is then generously rubbed onto the entire carcass, inside and out, before the carcass is placed into a refrigerator, where it marinates for about 24 hours.
After marinating, the pig is readied for roasting: A wooden or metal spit sturdy enough to support the full weight of the pig is passed through the entire length of the pig, emerging through its mouth. (Because of their relatively delicate nature, the pig’s ears and tail are protectively wrapped in aluminum foil until the last two hours of cooking, when the foil wrapping is removed so that those parts can attain the same reddish-brown hue as the rest of the pig). The carcass is then secured onto the spit with culinary wire before the point of a knife is used to perforate the carcass in strategic locations so as to enable any excess melted fat to escape during the roasting process.
Lechón is traditionally slow-cooked, rotisserie-style, over a white-hot charcoal fire, the charcoal usually made from local woods that impart a slightly smoked flavor to the meat. Approximately one hour of cooking-time is required for each 15 pounds of pork, a 120-pound pig therefore requiring about eight hours of cooking-time. The pig is given a quarter-turn about every 10 minutes, and the entire pig is basted with annato-infused cooking oil with each turn, the skin (when fully roasted called “cuerito” [“litte leather”], the diminutive of the Spanish word “cuero,” meaning “leather”), in the process, obtaining a crispy, caramelized texture and its characteristic reddish-brown color.
When fully cooked, the pig is moved to a large table and the spit is removed. Thereafter, the roasted pig is allowed to “rest” for about 20 to 30 minutes so that its juices may evenly distribute throughout the carcass. Thereafter, the meat is carved—traditionally with a razor-sharp machete—and served, each serving presented with a portion of prized “cuerito.”
Lechon is “down-home” food—so much so that it is the official dish of Puerto Rico. It is traditionally served with rice-and-beans, arepas, boiled cassava, or guineitos en escabeche (pickled green bananas). During the Christmas holidays, the complementary drink is coquito (See “Major National Liquors of the World” above), and during the rest of the year, rum or beer.