PEPITA S KITCHEN

Chef Dedet de la Fuente el­e­vates Filipino home cook­ing into culi­nary obra maes­tras

Let’s Eat - - WHAT'S INSIDE - WORDS BY SPANKY HIZON EN­RIQUEZ

Around nine years ago, Dedet de la Fuente, a home­maker and hands-on mother to her lovely daugh­ters a.k.a. “The Pepi­tas”, ful­filled a dream by learn­ing how to roast a le­chon. Not just any le­chon, mind you. Pu­gon-roasted suck­ling pigs stuffed with a variety of in­tensely fla­vor­ful and un­de­ni­ably unique rice stuff­ings. That was her big idea, the light bulb mo­ment that’s since cat­a­pulted her to in­ter­na­tional renown. Her le­chons have been to Sin­ga­pore, New York, and Lon­don, and they are now the show­case fix­ture in the an­nual Madrid Fu­sion in Manila. The home cook has now earned the ti­tle of “chef ”, and even has a nick­name: Le­chon Diva! But back in 2009, when she was start­ing out, she needed her clos­est friends to give their frank, and some­times, bru­tal opin­ions about the evo­lu­tion of her le­chon. Our then (very) slim and fit group was in­vited to many a din­ner, tast­ing and cri­tiquing and val­i­dat­ing all those le­chons. Suf­fice to say, for friend­ship’s sake, and for the love of pork per­fec­tion, we sac­ri­ficed our beach bods.

Fi­nally, when Dedet felt con­fi­dent enough, I or­ga­nized the very first le­chon de­gus­ta­tion for the coun­try’s most re­spected and most in­flu­en­tial food writ­ers and crit­ics. Dedet and I didn’t re­ally ex­pect raves; we just wanted hon­est feed­back . Pepita’s Kitchen, af­ter all, was very much a work in progress at that point. But af­ter

that din­ner, the en­thu­si­as­tic re­views started com­ing in, and the ac­co­lades haven’t stopped since. Ev­ery cou­ple of years, the Le­chon Diva cre­ates a whole new menu around her world-fa­mous le­chons, and that, for me, is the real se­cret to her suc­cess: in­no­va­tion. From her fish roe pate a.k.a “Pi­noy Caviar” to Ba­lut Salpi­cao to “Hi­plog”, those ir­re­sistible plump prawns in a rich it­log na maalat sauce, and more, so much more… thanks to her bound­lessly pure Willy Wonka imag­i­na­tion, Pepita’s Kitchen is now at the fore­front of the cre­ation of mod­ern Filipino culi­nary clas­sics.

Al­most a decade on, I’m still the Diva’s pri­mary tastetester and cheer­leader, so much so that I have my own hon­orary ti­tle: the “Pepito” of Pepita’s Kitchen. And as such, I was for­tu­nate enough to be among the first to sa­vor her new recipes for 2018. Far and away my fa­vorite of the batch is the “Crab Gu­long-Gu­long”, so called, ac­cord­ing to the Diva, be­cause “ma­pa­pag­u­long ka sa sarap!”. And yes, I can at­test to this: it’s com­posed of fresh fatty crabs, the meat thought­fully and thor­oughly sep­a­rated from the body and the shell, in an ex­otic Alavar-like sauce, but with a hint of sweet­ness. It’s the kind of dish that de­mands a dou­ble serv­ing of rice. And since ev­ery­thing’s off the bone, so to speak, it’s twice as nice. Then there’s some­thing I call the “KKK” or Kare-Kareng Ka­suy: un­be­liev­ably but­tery rich and deca­dently nutty thick, the sauce prac­ti­cally spread­able and ab­so­lutely good enough to de­vour on its own, even with­out the suc­cu­lent ten­der ox­tail. Just add rice. Make that lots and lots of rice.

But fret not, my Keto friends. Dedet, ever aware of cur­rent trends, has ac­tu­ally de­vel­oped her very first ke­to­genic stuffed le­chon: it’s filled, not with fra­grant fla­vor­ful rice, but with the clas­sic Pi­noy “lumpiang sariwa” fixin’s – car­rots, string­beans, ubod (heart of palm) – and it comes with crushed peanuts, crispy garlic bits, chili honey, and lumpia sauce to com­plete the ex­pe­ri­ence. And what an ex­pe­ri­ence it is: get a slab of crunchy le­chon skin, some veg­etable stuff­ing, and your choice of condi­ments, and pile ev­ery­thing on a large leaf of let­tuce for a very Filipino pro­tein wrap. Hence it’s punny name, “It’s Sarap!” Get it?

There’s much more in store; the Le­chon Diva’s tin­ker­ing with a “Pi­noy Ra­men”. She served it in small batches dur­ing her food fes­ti­val in the Su­milon Blue­wa­ter re­sort. There’s a guinatan that’s un­de­ni­ably stun­ning: and it’s sa­vory and sea salt-y, and it only has one com­po­nent: ube. It’s an­other culi­nary magic trick, be­cause won­ders will never cease when the Diva’s in her kitchen.

“HER LE­CHONS HAVE BEEN TO SIN­GA­PORE, NEW YORK, AND LON­DON, AND ARE NOW SHOW­CASED IN THE AN­NUAL MADRID FU­SION MANILA.“

1 Crab Gu­long Gu­long 2 “it’s A Wrap” Le­chon with Lumpiang Sariwa Stuff­ing 3 Kare-kareng Ka­suy 4 Biko Mangga’t Tu­tong na Latik 5 Chef Dedet de la Fuente

PHO­TOS BY GABBY CANTERO

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