With the Philip­pines’ In­de­pen­dence Day on June 12, Arva Ahmed asks why Pi­noy cui­sine is not bet­ter known

Friday - - Contents - Arva Ahmed of­fers guided tours re­veal­ing Dubai’s culi­nary hide­outs (fry­ing­panad­ven­

What will it take for Pi­noy cui­sine to be­come a global phe­nom­e­non? Our columnist Arva Ahmed finds out.

Iam rem­i­nisc­ing about my first sweet in­ter­ac­tion with Filipino food four years ago. It was a mound of milk-soaked shaved ice topped with a lu­di­crous com­bi­na­tion of boiled beans, ten­der sliv­ers of maca­puno (a co­conut vari­ant), jelly, creamed corn, flan and a ro­bust scoop of cheese ice cream caked with pounded rice flakes. The name of this bom­bas­tic dessert helps you nav­i­gate through its lay­ers: halo-halo, or mix-mix.

But Filipino food rarely fea­tures on the meal itin­er­ary for those out­side the Kabayan com­mu­nity. Why?

Maybe it is be­cause we sim­ply do not know enough about Filipino cui­sine. We un­der­stand Span­ish, Mex­i­can, Chi­nese and Amer­i­can flavours on their own – but few of us fully un­der­stand how traders and con­querors left their culi­nary foot­print on this is­land cui­sine. No one has taken the time to mar­ket the flavours of the Philip­pines in Dubai, so how could we be ex­pected to know our adobo from our afritada?

We could, of course, sim­ply ask one of the many Kabayans that we are priv­i­leged to in­ter­act with on a daily ba­sis in Dubai. My gym trainer Ernest is a fount of knowl­edge about his na­tional cui­sine. I have spent many a per­spir­ing hour al­ter­nat­ing burpees with chat­ter about en­se­mada, that chubby sweet cheese muf­fin that com­bines all forms of fatty in­dul­gence into one but­tery sin.

The Filipinos are un­doubt­edly mas­ter­ful bak­ers. A Filipino friend and food blog­ger once opened my eyes to the world of ube – pur­ple yam – through her fan­tas­ti­cally moist and flavour­ful cup­cakes. Since then, I have lin­gered in the bread aisle of Satwa and Deira gro­ceries for savoury onion hopia, su­gar and but­ter-filled Span­ish rolls and glossy buns filled with sweet­ened mung bean paste.

The United States is al­ready sim­mer­ing a trend around Filipino cook­ing, with Bad Saint in Wash­ing­ton DC mak­ing it to Amer­ica’s top 10 list of Best New Restau­rants in 2016. Dubai, on the other hand, has yet to find the recipe for el­e­vat­ing and popularising Filipino food be­yond the core Pi­noy com­mu­nity. There is no dearth of Filipino fast food chains or ‘cheap eats’ restau­rants that have churned out main cour­ses for prices less than a bowl of hum­mus. Ac­cord­ing to Didi Paterno, my Filip­ina food men­tor dur­ing her years in Dubai, most of these restau­rants are not fo­cused on be­ing the best in their class, but rather, on cap­tur­ing a price-sen­si­tive Filipino diner with com­fort foods like tap­silog and sisig.

One restau­rant that dared to cut against the grain was Ka­lye Kusina (Street Kitchen) in Satwa. Com­pared to most bud­get eater­ies, Ka­lye Kusina’s spa­cious din­ing area was a vis­i­ble up­grade, with its white brick walls and naked pen­dant bulbs dan­gling over wood-ve­neered benches. The restau­rant had beefed up its kitchen with an in-house smoker: Ev­ery smoked rib was a heav­ing choco­late­coloured hunk of meat that clung on to the bone with melted ten­drils of soft con­nec­tive tis­sue. Sadly, most of the restau­rant’s pa­trons opted for the bar­gain sta­ples on the menu over the ribs that might have helped pay its rent. A year af­ter open­ing in 2016, Ka­lye Kusina promptly closed down.

But it is not all de­press­ing. A trendy, bustling Pi­noy scene erupts ev­ery evening in Deira, around Cen­tu­rion Star Tower near City Cen­tre. One of the most mem­o­rable din­ing ex­pe­ri­ences in that neigh­bour­hood is the ‘boo­dle fight,’ rem­i­nis­cent of army cadets in the Philip­pines who would grab their share of food from a com­mu­nal ba­nana leaf. At Dampa Grill, the bat­tle be­gins out­side, with the long queue. But the pa­tient are re­warded with gen­er­ous spoils, man­i­fest in a bucket of crabs, clams, mus­sels, prawns and corn that are strewn across a plas­tic sheet on your ta­ble. The seafood ar­rives drenched in a sauce of your choice, with but­ter chipo­tle hav­ing the power to en­slave even the most re­strained of eaters. Some don plas­tic gloves while oth­ers ad­vance fierce and glove­less, each armed with noth­ing but an ap­petite.

Ihawan in Hor Al Anz seats about 20 in its bare-bones din­ing room, with another 10 out on the pave­ment. The cramped quar­ters are well worth the in­i­haw, or grilled skew­ers, with an ube milk­shake topped with an un­think­able com­bi­na­tion of whipped cream and shred­ded cheese.

Restau­ra­teurs in Dubai will not take bar­gain Pi­noy eater­ies to the next level of restau­rant re­fine­ment un­til there’s a broader res­i­dent mar­ket that de­mands thought­ful,

The US is al­ready sim­mer­ing a TREND around Filipino cook­ing, with Bad Saint on Amer­ica’s top 10 Best New Restau­rants in 2016. Dubai has yet to find the recipe for POPULARISING Filipino food

high-qual­ity Filipino food. And the mar­ket will not de­mand un­til it knows any bet­ter. So this In­de­pen­dence Day, let’s min­gle with a com­mu­nity that brings cheery op­ti­mism to our lives in the city, ask them about their favourite places to eat, and start tast­ing the flavours they love. Let’s step out and halo-halo.

The grilled skew­ers are the draw at the tiny Ihawan in Hor Al Anz – wash them down with an ube milk­shake

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