Just a whiff of the classic Filipino holiday dishes, and memories of Christmases past come rushing back to chef Bambi Sy-Gobio
Christmas celebrations in the Philippines have always come wrapped and bundled with good food. This rings no less true in the recollections that Restaurante Pia Y Damaso and Damaso Residencia private dining’s chef Bambi Sy-Gobio have of her growing up years. “With the whole family, it was always about food. Everyone had their special signature food to bring. Sometimes it was the same annual Christmas dish, sometimes it was something new that they discovered to make or buy,” she says with a smile.
Aside from family traditions of attending midnight mass and opening gifts once Noche Buena was over, she has strong food memories too of finding several staples as part of the Yuletide feast. “It was always the same: Chinese ham from Hong Kong with bread, butter, and pickles. Then there’s homemade quezo de
bola ensaimadas with my dark Belgian hot chocolate, and grapes, oranges, and all the fruits in the house.”
These food memories linger the strongest, along with the recollection that younger members of the household were allowed to be messy at this time of the year. She compares the Chinese ham they frequently had to a dry Smithfield or a really dry, really dense parma ham: very salty, not sweet at all, and a bit tough, unlike the square hams sold at the supermarket. “Some friends in Hong Kong wondered why we ate it the way we did. They’d put only little bits of it in their food, whereas we’d eat it [as part of ] a roast beef sandwich.”
Cookery is something that runs in the family, SyGobio shares. Her grandmother cooked very well, and was of the school of thought that preaches, if you wanted to eat something, you just had to learn to make it. “I think I got that from my mom too. When I was young, there was always so much food around. What I didn’t recognize but liked to eat, I would eventually find recipes for in the cookbooks my other grandmother gave me.” She calls herself a “nerd”— one that never played with dolls, spending her time poring through old cookbooks instead. The older the books, the better, she proclaims. “They all stuck in my head.” Christmas break was also the time when she would busy herself in the kitchen, practicing the recipes she had read up on. “My mom had let me cook and practice on any food I wanted to experiment with. Sometimes, she would clip a recipe from a magazine or newspaper, hand it over, and say, ‘ Here, make this. Make sure it’s nice.’”
This is Sy-Gobio’s version of the Christmas spirit, something that gives her satisfaction to this day. “I guess as a chef, I always feel [I am given] free rein during the holiday season. [Christmas] always started with a request from me if I could make something, and my mother would invariably say yes.” All that childhood exposure to food are manifested in her restaurant, and her mother’s recipes are represented in the Restaurante Pia Y Damaso menu.
The restaurant’s concept actually started with the name. “My brother George insisted it be called Damaso, and it was exciting because it got me started on reading Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo again,” she recalls. In the course of her research, she discovered that Jose Rizal really wrote in detail what some of the characters ate in scenes in the books—something that no one really paid attention to in high school, she adds. Then Greenbelt 5 called and said they wanted an allFilipino concept, so it just fell into place. Of what her take on the name entails, Sy-Gobio explains, “We wanted something that showcases what Filipino food is like, tied to a period in time when we wanted to be equal with the Spaniards and not be just their indios.”
The restaurant, which bears the tagline “Subversive Filipino Cuisine,” offers the simple foods that the character Sisa prepared for her boys, Crispin and Basilio, like tapang usa. These are in addition to real Spanish dishes that are ingrained in Filipino life like
callos, lengua, and pastel. “The other food items in the menu, I make up [based on] the names in the books. But mostly they are Filipino dishes and Spanish or Chinese selections eaten at that time period, like the Lang Lang noodles of Binondo.” During the Yule season, people swing by the restaurant to take comfort in their favorites, though not specifically for the holiday food, she observes. They do, however, order desserts and cakes to be given away as holiday gifts. Sy-Gobio also receives special orders for her turkey for potluck parties. There are a lot of balikbayans, home for the holidays, who have expressed love for her bibingka waffle.
Sy-Gobio doesn’t go all out in decorating the restaurant for Christmas, as the limited space would only allow for wreaths and little festive details. At home, though, she starts to trim her tree as soon as December comes, even right after Thanksgiving if she’s in the mood. There’s no theme, she claims; she uses their old decorations over and over. “One of my favorites is this wooden Nativity set from Europe that has been around from when I was a child. It has a smell that throws me back to when I was five years old. Every year, when I take it out, I smell the same smell of Christmas.”