Batchoy conversation with Karen Davila

FIRST TIME IS THE SWEETEST Clockwise from top: Lifestyle personalities and first-timers trying authentic La Paz batchoy are Tim Yap, Tessa Prieto, and Karen Davila

As a sidelight to the just concluded Dinagyang Festival over the weekend in Iloilo, SM City Iloilo, this year’s main supporter of “the mother of all Philippine festivals” held annually on the fourth Sunday of January, debuted the Batchoy Festival as part of the AweSM 2023 Iloilo festivities.

Broadcast journalist Karen Davila wasted no time to gather some of the guests, such as this writer and media darlings Tessa Prieto and Tim Yap, along with SM Supermalls president Steven Tan, for a panel discussion with Iloilo City Mayor Jerry Treñas and chef and Iloilo cuisine and culture expert Tibong Jardeleza.

Steven had much to say as the SM Group, in its program under SM Prime Holdings helping the grassroots, particularly Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), has embarked on the redevelopment of two of Iloilo’s seven markets in its seven districts, installing waste water treatment facilities, water system, comfort rooms, and CCTV, as well as parking spaces. One of these markets is the Iloilo Central Market, which is why, to me, Popoy’s is the clear winner in the battle of the batchoy, if only because it’s such an experience to walk into the innards of this marketplace, through an alley lined by stalls of pungent, piquant merchandise, such as guinamos, dried squid, dilis, daing, kalkag, salted labahita, fish tapa, and fish tocino. By the time you get to Popoy’s, your taste buds would have opened up.

A bowl of the batchoy served during the Batchoy Festival at SM Iloilo City

True enough, during the discussion, we were served batchoy from Popoy’s teeming with pork innards, pork offal, pork cracklings, fried garlic, and round noodles in chicken stock in bowls customized with each of our names. We all liked our batchoy—Tim finished his to the last drop. I wished they also served Deco’s from La Paz, where batchoy or bat-chui is said to have originated, to have been invented at some point, probably in 1938. Iloilo’s La Paz Public Market is a destination by itself, having been evaluated, along with Jaro Big Market, by the Department of Tourism for its tourist appeal.

It’s such an experience to walk into the innards of the market, through an alley lined by stalls of pungent, piquant merchandise, such as guinamos, dried squid, dilis, daing, kalkag, salted labahita, fish tapa, and fish tocino.

Batchoy at Popoy’s and Deco’s are alike yet different in ways that count. Popoy’s at Iloilo Central Market is a milky, almost-creamy soup while Deco’s is clear-as-water, but with an extra layer of bone marrow or utok on top.

Popoy’s, to me at least, is love at first taste, the taste consistent to the last drop while Deco’s, which has bitter notes from the innards, is an acquired taste. Deco’s is a slow-burning kind of love. And the bittersweet romance, thanks to the utok, makes it more memorable.

In delighting in your bowl of Deco’s batchoy, as the song says, “the first won’t hurt at all, the second only makes you wonder, the third will have you on your knees”—and before I knew it, my eating buddies were dragging me out, a spoonful of can’t-get-enough-of-it batchoy still in my mouth.

For first timers like Karen, Tessa, and Tim, I would recommend Popoy’s first, only because there is no break-in needed. It’s good from the first to last spoonful. Deco’s, however, is in an airconditioned hole-in-the-wall at La Paz Market so for others it might be easier.

There are many other batchoyans in Iloilo. There’s Netong, there’s Ted’s, and there’s a batchoyan we discovered recently in Santa Barbara, where we were led by a nondescript street sign that said, “Batchoyan, This Way.” I was disappointed, however, that the batchoyan did have a name—Sobredo’s Batchoyan. The mystery would have given it an added appeal.

In our batchoy conversation, we talked more about Iloilo food. Personally, I think the charm of Iloilo is its straightforward cooking, letting the ingredients provide the wow factor instead of some culinary trick. I told my co-panelists that one hasn’t really eaten in Iloilo unless one has eaten in the carinderias, particularly St. Martha’s, my favorite.

But I don’t mind all the attention batchoy is getting as the king of Iloilo dishes. It’s as good as any to market Iloilo as a food destination. It’s like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Statue of Liberty in New York. It’s the sushi or ramen of Japan. There is more to these places than they are most known for, just as there is more to Iloilo than batchoy.