A strong stroke of Asian au­then­tic­ity is reel­ing in more dis­cern­ing Filipinos, lay­ing the foun­da­tion for an emerg­ing food cap­i­tal


If you want to know the next big food trend on this side of the hemi­sphere, check for flight pat­terns

It’s ob­vi­ous. Asian food is in. How­ever, while the world cel­e­brates Nou­velle Filipino dishes in New York’s bor­oughs and we play around with mod­ern­ized ver­sions of lo­cal stews and Malay braises, there re­mains a buzz­word re­fus­ing to go away: au­then­tic­ity. True, the rules are bend­ing now more than ever. In fact, fu­sion is no longer re­viled like it was a cou­ple of years ago. Young, ad­ven­tur­ous chefs are smart yet cau­tious, care­fully tip­toe­ing the fine line that sep­a­rates the in­no­va­tive from the hot messes. Per­haps, it is the blur­ring of th­ese lines, an em­brac­ing of Asian fla­vors cou­pled with West­ern tech­niques, or vice versa, which spurred the rise of a move­ment in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion.

Tast­ing Tra­di­tion

For Annabelle Chua, CEO of Xiu Fine Can­tonese Din­ing, it was never about fol­low­ing a trend. If there ever was a lo­cal clamor for Asian cui­sine, she was com­pletely obliv­i­ous to it. “We’re just stick­ing to what we know,” ad­mits Chua, whose fam­ily owns Lu­gang Cafe, Tuan Tuan, and The Dessert Kitchen. While th­ese es­tab­lish­ments move freely within dif­fer­ent re­gional Chi­nese cuisines, Xiu is de­cid­edly tra­di­tional Can­tonese. Af­ter all, it is a joint ven­ture be­tween Chua’s group (she has a dif­fer­ent set of part­ners for Xiu) and Hong Kong restau­rant West Villa, a col­lab­o­ra­tion she says she fought hard to fi­nal­ize. “They ( West Villa) don’t need us!” she says. “They’re do­ing well on their own in Hong Kong, they don’t need the Philip­pine mar­ket. How­ever, I think the lo­cal restau­rant scene needs some­thing like them.”

It’s hard to ig­nore the glitz of the oblig­a­tory crys­tal chan­de­liers or the menu that reads like an em­peror’s ban­quet—suck­ling pig two ways; sautéed lob­sters with egg white; scal­lops in truf­fle paste; shark’s fin in dou­ble-boiled broth. All are pre­pared ac­cord­ing to their Hong Kong part­ners’ high stan­dards.

Past the shim­mer­ing am­bi­ence and the os­ten­ta­tious dishes is Xiu’s de­vo­tion to tra­di­tional Can­tonese cook­ing en­sured by a bat­tal­ion of chef im­ports from Guang­dong prov­ince. This is an el­e­ment that, de­spite the el­e­gant trap­pings, puts them com­fort­ably in the same breath as Makan­su­tra, Sin­ga­porean TV per­son­al­ity KF See­toh’s hawker stall con­cept. Chef Him Uy de Baron is the only lo­cal part­ner with restau­rant ex­pe­ri­ence so he was tasked with head­ing op­er­a­tions at the sprawl­ing flag­ship store in SM Mega­mall. “When the Sin­ga­porean part­ners de­cided it was time to ex­pand, they ex­plored sev­eral prospects—Malaysia, Hong Kong, the Philip­pines. It was here, they said, that the mar­ket seems most vi­brant and most ap­pre­cia­tive of their con­cept and cui­sine.” It was a year ago when See­toh got in touch with lo­cal food writer and en­tre­pre­neur JJ Yulo and, now, Makan­su­tra Hawk­ers is at­tract­ing crowds of both well-trav­eled lo­cals and ex­pats from the Or­ti­gas busi­ness dis­trict. When asked if he no­ticed Asian food is trend­ing, Uy de Baron says “that started more than five years ago with the Ja­panese food in­va­sion, when

bud­get air­lines made travel avail­able to the grow­ing mid­dle class. Then peo­ple started ex­plor­ing dif­fer­ent South­east Asian coun­tries such as Cam­bo­dia and Viet­nam where ev­ery­thing’s cheap. That was when we dis­cov­ered what real pho tastes like, and banh mi, and seafood

laksa. Even­tu­ally, what we had lo­cally was no longer good enough. We wanted the real thing.”

True to Form

It is this “real thing” that Xiu of­fers, at a price of course. Can­tonese food in the Philip­pines has been, for many years now, prom­i­nent. How­ever, Chua shares that many lo­cal Chi­nese restau­rants are be­com­ing less tra­di­tional and will­ing to bend to the whims and pref­er­ences of the Filipino mar­ket. “Filip­inized,” Chua wrin­kles her nose. “Not that it’s a bad thing, but it’s no longer Can­tonese.” She fur­ther stresses her point by shar­ing how our lo­cal hoisin sauces are too sweet ac­cord­ing to their Can­tonese chefs. Their sauces are im­ported from Beijing, where the hoisin is not any­where near as sug­ary as the ones lo­cally avail­able. Even the Filipino-Chi­nese com­mu­nity, whose el­ders mostly hail from the Fu­jian prov­ince, would have to look else­where for re­gional fare.

Same thing with Filipino hawker fans who have been let down by lo­cal of­fer­ings for far too long. Makan­su­tra brought in their hawk­ers from the orig­i­nal branch to train lo­cal cooks who will man their stalls in SM Mega­mall. “There is no cen­tral kitchen where ev­ery­thing is pre­pared be­fore­hand,” Uy de Baron says. “All the cook­ing takes place in their per­spec­tive stall. It’s all spe­cial­ized.” There­fore, the seafood laksa tastes as it would in the Sin­ga­pore Makan­su­tra as well as the oys­ter omelet and chicken and sausage clay­pot rice. The only stall de­vel­oped lo­cally is Gooba Hia, a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Uy de Baron and Yulo, which is their el­e­vated take on beef pares. With the cheaper beef chunks usu­ally re­served for the stew, Uy de Baron added tripe and gelati­nous ten­don. This can be con­sumed with Hong Kong noo­dles or rice, and al­ways with a side of soft-boiled egg. With anise and other Chi­nese spices more pro­nounced, the dish sits per­fectly at ease in the midst of its Sin­ga­porean coun­ter­parts.

It’s al­most too easy, but it seems that spot­ting the next trend is as sim­ple as look­ing where the next cheap flights are. “So many cuisines to be dis­cov­ered in Asia alone,” Uy de Baron says. “Ev­ery prov­ince in China has its own specialties. And let’s not for­get the Mid­dle East. So many of our OFWs are com­ing home with a taste for that kind of food.” Chua, too is also not look­ing far, but look­ing up. “El­e­vat­ing Asian cui­sine such as Thai and Korean food. So far, we have only been ex­posed to their street foods. But, if you ex­plore and re­search, you'll find that there are so many dishes in those coun­tries that are re­fined and re­served for spe­cial oc­ca­sions.”

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