FINE FILIPINO FARE
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