Epicure (Indonesia) - - CONTENTS -

Why the dark horse of Asian cui­sine is now in the spot­light

Mis­tak­enly la­belled as unimag­i­na­tive, fried, doused in sauce, or lack­ing in depth, Filipino food is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a re­nais­sance in the cap­i­tal thanks a slew of stylish new restau­rants that are win­ning over the next gen­er­a­tion of din­ers. By San­jay Su­rana

Think of Asian cities with a buzzing food scene and Hong Kong, Sin­ga­pore and Tokyo come to mind but not Manila. That, how­ever, does the cap­i­tal of Philip­pines a dis­ser­vice. The food in this na­tion of more than 7,000 is­lands has a rich his­tory re­fined over mil­len­nia, moulded by in­flu­ences near and far. The Philip­pines has 135 dif­fer­ent tribes, each with their own lan­guage, cus­toms, and its food cul­ture was ini­tially shaped by Aus­trone­sians from South­ern China and meth­ods of prepa­ra­tion from Malaysia and In­done­sian. Immigration and coloni­sa­tion over cen­turies, most re­cently by the Span­ish and Amer­i­cans, have added el­e­ments to the cui­sine. To­day, Filipino food is as mul­ti­lay­ered, com­plex, and so­phis­ti­cated as any in Asia, with fre­quent notes of salty, sweet, and sour, of­ten all to­gether in the same item.

Chicken or pork adobo is one of the cui­sine’s defin­ing dishes. (The Span­ish term adobo, which means mari­nade, in­volves drench­ing meats in a mix­ture of soy sauce and vine­gar.) Pancit bi­hon, a legacy of Chi­nese im­mi­grants, mar­ries rice noo­dles with soy sauce, citrus, meat, and veg­eta­bles. Le­chon, the roasted suck­ling pig eaten at cel­e­bra­tions, is pure Span­ish. Kare kare, or ox­tail stew, de­rives its name from curry, a ves­tige of the coun­try’s In­dian her­itage. Spam – fried in spam­silog or served in sand­wiches topped with a fried egg – re­mains a sym­bol of the Amer­i­can in­flu­ence. And yet, de­spite such colour­ful his­tory, Filipino food hasn’t made the kind of world­wide head­lines that Thai or Viet­namese cuisines have, nor had much im­pact out­side the coun­try.

“Our melt­ing pot of in­flu­ences has made it dif­fi­cult to es­tab­lish a truly de­fin­able iden­tity,” notes Josh Bout­wood, the half-filipino chef who has worked at Noma in Cophen­hagen and now runs the one-year-old Test Kitchen. “Slowly but surely the pub­lic is tak­ing no­tice and un­der­stand­ing the foun­da­tions of Filipino food. But much like get­ting to know a coun­try, one needs to be present and eat with Filipinos to fully un­der­stand our cui­sine.”

“We don’t have a strong mar­ket­ing pro­gramme and fund­ing from our gov­ern­ment,” adds Berna Gar­riz, one of the own­ers of Black Pig. “A lot of money needs to be in­vested by the gov­ern­ment to mar­ket Filipino cui­sine and to link Philip­pine cui­sine with our tourism pro­grammes.” Orvilla Zosa, owner of Bodega Kitchen & Bar, puts it more bluntly “It doesn’t get the same head­lines be­cause it isn’t as pho­to­genic as other cuisines.”

Another prob­lem hin­der­ing the cui­sine: be­ing a chef was also his­tor­i­cally frowned upon. “Prior to 2000, pro­fes­sional cook­ing was not a ca­reer that one as­pired to,” J. Gam­boa, chef at the decades-old lo­cal favourite Milky Way Cafe, adds. “It is only quite re­cently that Filipinos have taken the pro­fes­sion se­ri­ously and with re­spect. We are be­gin­ning to see more Filipino chefs cook­ing clas­sic and in­no­va­tive lo­cal and re­gional dishes in Manila and the prov­inces.”

This emerg­ing sense of pride has spurred chefs to work with lo­cal in­gre­di­ents and fo­cus on pop­u­lar dishes. At Toyo Eatery

(toyo means soy sauce and is also a slang for crazy), Manila-born chef Jordy Navarra cel­e­brates his home through beau­ti­fully en­gi­neered and pre­sented dishes that use lo­cal prod­ucts and show­case flavours that will be fa­mil­iar to Filipinos. The oneyear-old restau­rant is an über-cool, won­der­fully at­mo­spheric space, with naked con­crete walls, black linen nap­kins for din­ers, ta­ble lights en­sconced in bird-cage lamp­shades, bam­boo chairs, and a huge open kitchen that acts as a stage of sorts. Among the high­lights is the dish in­spired by the folk song Ba­hay Kubo, which de­scribes 18 veg­eta­bles in its lilt­ing melodies. Toyo’s ver­sion looks like a bowl filled with dirt, but melds the sweet, sour, and salty notes of Philip­pine cui­sine, while in­tro­duc­ing vari­a­tions in tex­ture and colour.

At Gallery Vask, which re­opened in March 2018 fol­low­ing a com­plete ren­o­va­tion, Span­ish chef Jose Luis Gon­za­lez (known in the busi­ness at Chele), has his own take on the sin­gu­lar­ity and in­tri­cacy of Filipino food. “If you go to Malaysia, Thai­land, Viet­nam, there are many com­mon cul­ture points among them: In the re­li­gion, in the food, in the dy­nas­ties, in the roy­al­ties,” says the chef, who has worked in Miche­lin-starred restau­rants such as el­bulli and El Celler de Can Roca. “The Philip­pines was very iso­lated, it was (able to re­main mostly) in­dige­nous. The sour­ness in the food, it is unique.” Gon­za­lez spends time trav­el­ling around the ar­chi­pel­ago, learning about na­tive cook­ing and in­gre­di­ents, and his devo­tion to the coun­try is ev­i­dent in dishes like sour ribs, where the salty and sour flavour pro­file is achieved by mix­ing soy sauce and cala­mansi as sour­ing agents, while mari­nades, grilled garlic paste and smoked onion leaves deepen the jus of the slow-cooked beef. The dessert su­man uses one of the coun­try’s thou­sands of va­ri­eties of rice cooked in co­conut milk, sea­soned with salt and sugar, and served with sweet man­goes (Filipinos proudly pro­claim their man­goes as the best in the world).

Manam, which has four branches in Manila, is driven by the de­sire of its three own­ers to trans­form the cui­sine they grew up eat­ing into some­thing mod­ern but grounded in its roots. The in­te­ri­ors are very Scan­di­na­vian, with blond wood ev­ery­where, high ceil­ings, and at the Boni­fa­cio Global City branch (the new­est), huge sheets of plate glass at the front, lend­ing the space the ap­pear­ance of a gallery. Manam of­fers an ex­ten­sive menu of Filipino favourites, made either as classics or with a twist. Among the best­sellers are the wa­ter­melon sini­gang, a re­work­ing of the clas­sic sour soup that is beloved by Filipinos, us­ing short ribs and

adding wa­ter­melon to give a soup a deep red hue and hints of sweet­ness. The beloved sisig is more tra­di­tional – fried and crispy pork cheek served on a siz­zling plate – while the ube shake, a tall milk­shake made from the pur­ple yam and en­hanced with sago pearls, adds a splash of colour.

Up­dated classics are also avail­able at Bodega Kitchen & Bar, an in­ti­mate, fun joint in Makati. Just one year old, it has warm in­te­ri­ors, a turquoise colour scheme and a wall bolted with spray painted house­hold items – shoes, bas­kets, kitchen tools, coat hang­ers, old ra­dios – to jibe with the bodega theme (bodega means a stor­age place or ware­house in Tagalog). It’s pop­u­lar with young pro­fes­sion­als work­ing in the area who come for a bot­tle of beer and fa­mil­iar dishes given a novel treat­ment. “Every­one knows dishes like inasal,” says the owner Zosa. “We add Greek el­e­ments to it.” Here, the crispy, bar­be­cued chicken is served with tzatziki and the Eastern Mediter­ranean salad tabouleh.

The kansi, a soup that melds the sour flavour of sini­gang and the hearti­ness of bu­lalo (a beef shank and bone mar­row soup), is given a fresh jolt with the ad­di­tion of kimchi.

Pe­tra & Pi­lar de­buted a new look in Oc­to­ber 2016 fol­low­ing a full ren­o­va­tion. A spa­cious restau­rant with walls of wood planks that look like they be­long on a barn, poured con­crete floors, and rows of spot­lights, it cel­e­brates quin­tes­sen­tial Filipino food.

Din­ers or­der sini­gang, twice-cooked adobo, and kare-kare, a slow-cooked beef brisket sim­mered in peanut sauce and served with a home­made ba­goong (fer­mented shrimp paste). The pork sisig is creamy and tongue-tin­gling, en­livened with may­on­naise and chilli. Dishes come with condi­ments and sauces, ex­tras like soy sauce, cala­mansi limes, chopped chilli padi, patis (fish sauce), and other ac­com­pa­ni­ments that Filipinos add to their food to de­velop the flavours.

Lo­cal in­gre­di­ents drive the menu at the reser­va­tions only

Test Kitchen. Run by Bout­wood, who by day uses this space as a real test kitchen in his role as cor­po­rate chef for the Bistro Group restau­rant col­lec­tion, the Test Kitchen changes its menu weekly. Each dish is based on a tri­an­gle bal­ance – Bout­wood is ob­sessed with the num­ber three – with only a trio of core in­gre­di­ents per dish. Opened in 2017, the Test Kitchen re­sem­bles the din­ing room in a home, with two long wood ta­bles next to a sub­tly lit open kitchen, jars of pick­led and fer­mented fruits, veg­eta­bles, and roots stacked on a tow­er­ing shelv­ing unit. Bout­wood and his team pre­pare and present tast­ing menus that he dreams up us­ing the bounty of the coun­try, and he comes to each ta­ble to ex­plain each dish in de­tail in a crisp British ac­cent. There are no sig­na­ture dishes, with the menu ro­tat­ing so fre­quently, but on a re­cent visit, the six cour­ses in­cluded lo­cal pink oys­ter mush­rooms, beef cheek cooked for 18 hours and served with a beau­ti­fully per­fumed cele­riac sauce, a pork rib pre­pared with lo­cal Barako cof­fee and served with a dol­lop of apple sauce, and a dessert of heir­loom black rice from the Cordilleras fer­mented for five days, churned into ice cream, sit­ting on a bed of smoked, salted palm sugar.

Af­ter grow­ing up in Eu­rope, work­ing at Noma in Copenhagen, and later open­ing the restau­rant Alchemy in Bo­ra­cay, the 31-year-old Bout­wood is ex­cited to be cook­ing in Manila. (In March 2018, he opened the restau­rant Sav­age, where all dishes are cooked over wood.) “Peo­ple say Bangkok has soul but I don’t feel it. Manila’s soul cap­ti­vates me, I never get bored. This is a vir­gin culi­nary city and chefs have a free rein to do what we want. I couldn’t do that in Swe­den, Hong Kong or Sin­ga­pore.

Here, the chefs all work to­gether, there is no jeal­ousy or sense of com­pet­i­tive­ness with each other. When we meet, there is no ri­valry.”

In the south­ern part of Manila, the for­mer farm­ing area of Ala­bang is the set­ting for Black Pig. Lo­cated in­side a non­de­script shop­ping mall, the restau­rant serves Euro­pean-in­spired cui­sine us­ing Filipino in­gre­di­ents like lo­cally grown sal­ads, fruits, and veg­eta­bles (the baby corn comes from Silang, just to the south). Nat­u­ral pro­cesses used in the Philip­pines like dry­ing fish un­der the sun, salt­ing, pick­ling, fer­ment­ing also play a role in the menu. It’s a hand­some, at­trac­tive spot, with echoes of a rus­tic farm­house – dark clay tiles, wooden ac­cents, mango-wood table­tops, leather arm­chairs, and a large out­door ter­race that gets a con­stant breeze day and night. The meals, mas­ter­minded by the dis­arm­ingly earnest Span­ish chef Car­los Gar­cia, “try to cre­ate the tastes of my mother and my grand­mother. I want this to be a restau­rant where you can eat ev­ery day,” he tells me, his eyes glint­ing with boy­ish ex­cite­ment. “I fo­cus on the flavour, not the looks.” That said, dishes are beau­ti­fully plated, per­fectly primed for In­sta­gram, es­pe­cially when shot on the out­door ter­race ta­bles that look like they’re made from drift­wood. The menu changes ev­ery quar­ter, though typ­i­cally in­cludes peren­nial favourites like pork belly served with white beans and chorizo, lo­cal grouper paired with Span­ish black ink and fideos, and beef cheeks, so ten­der and suc­cu­lent in their own jus that they can be pulled apart with­out the need for a knife.

I won­dered whether the Black Pig, which is full most evenings with nearby res­i­dents that stroll over for din­ner, would be even busier nearer the cen­tre of the city, in ar­eas like Makati or Taguig. But then it struck me that the Black Pig is do­ing just fine, a restau­rant where the ex­pe­ri­ence could be a metaphor for Manila’s cur­rent din­ing scene – an un­ex­pected des­ti­na­tion, full of sur­prise and de­light, and one that should not be missed.

A typ­i­cal feast at Manam

Toyo Eatery’s Ba­hay Kuho dish

Ti­ra­dito at Gallery Vask

Manam’s branch in Bon­afa­cio Global City

Stairs to the up­stairs din­ing area at Toyo Eatery

Jordy Navarra at Toyo Eatery Pork Sisig at Pe­tra & Pil­lar

14-day Aged Duck, Mor­rels and Yeast at Test Kitchen

Test Kitchen’s Josh Bout­wood

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