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