Battle of the batchoy

In the spirit of Dinagyang, that concluded over the weekend, here’s a reprise of something I wrote a while back on Iloilo’s signature dish.

THE SWEET SIDE Popoy's batchoy at the Iloilo Central Market

Some sophisticates might harrumph, “There’s got to be more to Iloilo than batchoy.”

Yes, but I am really only honeymooning with both Iloilo and batchoy and, though it looks like I am more than making up for all the time I skipped Iloilo for other places in the Philippines, I really have yet to decide which side of the Battle of the Batchoy I’m on.

On a visit a few years ago to Iloilo for Dinagyang, the battle to me was limited only to Deco’s at La Paz on the streetfront and Popoy’s at Central Market in Iloilo proper, so I guess I’m far from being a batchoy expert.

I mean I love Popoy’s, but I guess part of the reason is because it is in the innards of the Iloilo public market. To get there, you have to pass through the dried fish section and you have all the smell of dried squid and guinamos opening up your senses even before you even get a whiff of batchoy.

I love Deco’s less because it is in an airconditioned space on the streetfront of La Paz, but if I must believe Iloilo cuisine proponent and chef Tibong Jardeleza, I might consider that Popoy’s has been tweaked to appeal to the palate of the non-Ilonggo. 

BATCHOY DISTRICT A section of the Iloilo Central Market where batchoy food establishments converge

Tibong’s explanation is that Popoy’s batchoy is love at first spoonful, its soup milky-creamy, and the love affair lasts until the bowl is emptied of its contents, the intensity of the flavors consistent from start to finish.

Deco’s, on the other hand, needs some work, especially on inexpert tongues like mine, if only because the first slurp isn’t so smooth, not instantly likeable and, a little bitter from the pork innards, even an acquired taste, but the experience gets better with every slurp and the heaping of utok or brain marrow as an extra layer on the clear-as-water surface of your batchoy bowl leads up to a satisfied finish. 

Not fair, because I had Deco’s only 15 minutes after Popoy’s when I was already full, those 15 minutes I spent traveling from Central Market to La Paz with a stop at the post-World War II bakery Pan de Buho to try the famous pantso, Iloilo’s custardy version of pan de coco, which was also quite an adventure because to buy it we had to negotiate a narrow alley on Mapa Street and through a hole only  twice the size of my face on the nondescript hollow block wall, literally a hole in the wall!

Until I get to try Deco’s when I’m hungry, the battle of the batchoy is on and which side I should go I have yet to know for sure.

NAMIT GID From left: Deco's La Paz batchoy (Photo from Deco's)

Some sophisticates might harrumph, 'There’s got to be more to Iloilo than batchoy.'

And then Chef Tibong introduced me to Mary Rose Bulalacao, wife of former Philippine National Police spokesperson Chief Superintendent John Bulalacao, with whom, cheek by jowl with tens of thousands of revelers local or tourists, Tibong and I spent a whole night of barbecued delights—lots of native chicken inasal—on Delgado Street at the Dinagyang Street Food Festival, and she told us about this relatively new batchoy contender.

The very next day, off we went on a new batchoy expedition on a convoy of two cars. The location was Santa Barbara, about 20 minutes away by car from the Richmonde Hotel Iloilo at the Megaworld Iloilo Business Park, where I was staying.

I can’t tell you how to get there. I tried to keep track of the route but we made too many turns. If you really must try it, they say the best way is to go to the Santa Barbara Commercial Center, leave your car there and take a trike instead, then tell the driver to take you to the batchoyan and you will be there in two minutes.

I was dropped off in the corner of a narrow alley on Libertad Street, on which the only indication that I was in the right place was a small directional sign that said “Batchoyan, This Way.”

Would that this batchoyan had no name! No name needed, but it does, Sobredo’s Batchoyan, carrying the name of the entrepreneurial woman, Jasmine Sobredo, who set it up only a few years ago in a small hut that by now has expanded four times its original size.

Between Popoy’s and Sobredo’s, the latter gets plus points for being cooked on a traditional, if primitive, wood-fired stove, the former is cooked in a gas range. At Sobredo’s you can choose to order a pack of puto to go with it. The puto or rice cakes is supplied by Mang Dionisio Sildura, who tells us he sells up to 300 puto a day at the batchoyan. At Popoy’s, though, you can have puto too or you can have pan de sal, your choice, so Popoy’s gets the score on the subject of siding options.

As for location, Central Market from Mandurriao, where I usually stay when in Iloilo, is about a quarter of an hour away by car while it should take you upward of 20 minutes to get to Santa Barbara. 

I don’t remember much of the details but I remember the feeling when I tried Popoy’s for the first time. It was as special as trying Sobredo’s this time, which I finished down to the last piece of crushed chicharon, along with a whole four-pack of puto.

I guess when it comes to batchoy in Iloilo, there’s no such thing as a winnable war, to borrow from a Sting song during the Cold War, because there are so many variables by which one can outshine the other. 

Besides, I have yet to give Deco’s—which all my Ilonggo friends, Chef Tibong most especially, prefer—its due, a fighting chance to make it to number one on my list or, along with Popoy’s and Sobredo’s, high enough to get there, depending on my mood, who I am with, the temperature of the day, and how hard the wind blows into Iloilo, often cool and hard, especially at this time of the year.

Photos by Jules Vivas.