Our travel takes us back not only to the heart of Negros island, the “sweet spot” of the Philippines where sugarcane fields stretch endlessly to the horizon, but also chronologically to a time when Negros relished a boom in sugar production and exportation. Bacolod City, the capital of Negros Occidental was then a place with a laid-back lifestyle having a fair amount of urbanity within the backdrop of a rural landscape, beautifully enclosed by a natural border of rugged mountains.
We are transported to the decade of the 1960s, where we find the beginnings of Bacolod inasal as we know it now. The downtown area of Bacolod sees an emergence of low-rise buildings built in art deco, meant to serve an economy revolving around the sugar industry. Back then, people employed in the downtown offices and stores would clock out at five p.m. to go home to their families and have dinner by sundown.
To highlight of the end of a workday, some would buy a few sticks of grilled chicken from a small stall beside the Floredith Theater along Araneta Street, right next to the Bacolod City Hall. It was here that Sabel Velez opened the first chicken inasal stall, serving what would eventually be among the most popular fowl viands of the Visayas.
Barbecued chicken is the more common description of what inasal really is. Nevertheless, beneath the simplicity of inasal’s description lies the embodiment of Negrense island life, the agricultural abundance of the island finding its way into a stick of paa (leg) or pecho (breast).
Before the chicken hits the grill, it is quartered, segmented, and marinated in a concoction of ginger, garlic, calamansi, brown sugar, rock salt and native coconut vinegar. Though sugarcane may be the main produce of Negros, coconuts abound too. From here comes the vinegar which is an integral element for the inasal marinade, having the right amount of sourness to create that distinct, tangy flavor for which inasal is known for.
Equally important as an ingredient to the marinade is the right amount of brown sugar. One can’t put too much sugar lest the sweetness overpower the other spices, the garlic and ginger, that lend flavor to inasal.
We’ve also found some home-made experiments on inasal wherein the sugar is substituted by ounces of Sprite, the carbonated beverage. Such experimentations, perhaps inclusive of some random incantations, are what makes the quest for the most flavorful inasal exciting. The timing as to how long the chicken is marinated is also part of inasal’s mystique – some want it longer, others want it short.
Skewering the chicken is also a ritual in its own right. Most prefer to put it on skewers immediately after the chicken is quartered. Yet, some opt to marinate the chicken prior to placing on the bamboo skewers.
With so much said about the marinate, it is easy to skip the importance of the chicken itself. While most chicken inasal used native chicken, I learned from Toto Tarrosa of Aida’s, one of the best chicken inasal grills, that Aida’s was the first to use white leghorn chickens for inasal. The reason why they opted to grill white leghorn chickens instead of the usual native chicken back in the day was partly due to the timing and availability. Native chickens were sold out in the market by the early hours of the morning for various uses. Given the timing of when to grill inasal, which is usually in the afternoon towards the end of the work day, the short supply for native chicken led to a happy discovery of a delicious version of inasal with the use of white leghorns.
As it is, chicken inasal is really a viand meant to be eaten after five p.m. For those who really understand the beginnings of this delicacy, eating inasal is not just about having it to fill one’s stomach come dinner time. Eating chicken inasal more than anything else, is viewed as a subdued yet meaningful celebration of simple victories in life. Honest work well done at the close of day, the joy of having family close by, it is the humble yet flavor-rich inasal that brings Bacolodians together in modest jubilation. Eating chicken inasal is more than just having another chicken dish. Wherever in the world it is eaten, it is a sacred communion that ties Bacolodians and Negrenses back to their homeland, Bacolod…Negros Island…the sweet spot of the Philippines.
The writer, Lloyd Tronco, is from Negros Island. This piece was written for the 2018 Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award. The entry did not win, but it captures the richness and beauty of Negros Island, the land where Doreen Gamboa Fernandez grew up in.
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Revisiting Cuadra Street : The Street Which Made Bacolod Chicken Inasal Popular
Bacolod City's famous chicken dish inasal (barbecued chicken) has spread far and wide across the globe reaching not just the United States of America but also the Middle East. Unknown to many is the fact long before it reached foreign shores, inasal's humble beginnings are traced back to a small street in Bacolod known as Cuadra......Read More