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.”

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