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This is my go-to recipe for bread loaf. I have go-to recipes for practically everything, all bookmarked in categories on my desktop. Those that I make quite often, like this bread or scones, or those more elaborate like Oxtail Stew in Peanut Sauce, I like to write down. Preferably with sketches or doodles of the ingredients or steps. I love to use felt tip pens, inks of different colors. I don’t know, it seems easier for me to remember or memorize stuff that way. And oh, did I tell you I’d draw or write them down with my left hand? I’m right-handed, but using my left is somewhat akin to engraving words, pictures and ideas on paper and, eventually, in my head.

Many many years ago, when I used to write poetry, I wrote with my left hand too. That way the exercise felt more deliberate; it slowed down my thoughts and enabled me to build the structure of the poem in my head. I hardly write poetry nowadays (nil, in fact) and have abandoned writing with my left hand but for occasional recipes like this. I don’t know, is that sad or what?

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“If you have yet to acquaint yourself with the characteristically tart, sour, and fermented flavor palate, now’s the time.”

This recent article in The New York Magazine was – rather belatedly – referring to Filipino food. Since 2012, Filipino food has been predicted to surface in a big way and  somehow the buzz persists. Its epicentre is, of course, New York City, thanks to restaurants like Purple Yam, Maharlika and new additions like Pig and Khao and Talde. Buoyed by the attention, good reviews and the business success all that brings, Maharlika, which started out with pop-up brunches, has now opened its second, family-style restaurant, Jeepney. Purple Yam, on the other hand, has chosen to go back to its Philippine roots. It has taken the lead in the research, exploration and preservation of Philippine traditional ingredients and cooking methods via Sariling Atin (translated, Our Very Own), a Philippine-based foundation set up by Purple Yam Chef Romy Dorotan and his wife Amy Besa. Plans for another Purple Yam – not New York or another American city but in Manila – are also in the works.

While Filipino food hasn’t yet risen in popularity to the same level as Japanese, Thai and Korean, it’s good that our kababayans (compatriots) in New York keep stoking the fire, and the curiosity, for this “the most underrated cuisine in Asia”.

Meanwhile in Toronto, there’s Lamesa Filipino Kitchen.

This restaurant on Queen W and Bathurst opened when the buzz about “the next big food trend” had just started. Expectations were high: finally Toronto had a full-service Filipino restaurant that promised to bring our food into the mainstream,  give our “tart, sour and fermented” repertoire a contemporary, approachable spin.

If contemporary meant “fusion” and deconstruction, and approachable implied toned-down flavours, Lamesa might have disappointed traditionalists, including a Globe and Mail food critic who bewailed that Lamesa has “softened the cuisine’s edges, pulled back the sours and the gut-filling fat.” The Adobo, for one, comes to the table on a pretty plate: pork belly that’s confit then deep-fried, resembling lechon kawali more than its braised and saucier cousin, with a black garlic pureé and a small cup of adobo reduction on the side. Not exactly the adobo of the common tao (Everyman), but one for the novice who may be put off by the adobo’s vinegar-garlic edge. Another Filipino classic, Sisig, reincarnates as a trio of beef-pork-chicken, again a less polarizing version of the original dish which is chopped up pig’s face and jowl served on a sizzling plate. Refined, minimalist plating is certainly not something we associate with Filipino food. It’s supposed to be messy, sometimes scary – a scary mess of sweet-sour-spicy-fatty deliciousness.

Nevertheless, young second-gen Filipino-Canadians and their largely multicultural community of friends have embraced the concept. Some nights the place is rocking full – especially since their new, priced-down menu includes a Merienda Platter (5 snacks/app items enough to feed a barkada, for only $18) and the shareable $18 Crispy Pata (Deep-fried Pork Trotter) with the crunchiest pork skin on the planet, served with 3 dipping sauces. For the soy sauce sensitive or the garlic averse, there’s the house banana ketchup, sweetish and moderately spiced. You can probably ask for San Miguel Beer to go with all that porky goodness, though I didn’t see that in the Beer/Cocktail menu the last time I visited. Lamesa also has one of the best-value, 3-course prix-fixe dinners in the city at $30.

Lately, I’ve been seeing more and more innovations on classic Filipino dishes coming out of the Lamesa kitchen – inspired, unexpected twists, and this time more forward with their Filipino flavours. Try the Bicol Express Fries, their take on your good old poutine (fries and cheese curds) except the gravy is a spicy coconut-milk adobo reduction. Lamesa Chef Rudy Boquila has also experimented with grilled squid delicately suffused in a similar coconut milk adobo sauce, a subtle but thoughtful embellishment on the traditional Adobong Pusit, and it works! His Sinigang Risotto, served at a recent dinner benefit, picks up on the Filipino’s peculiar habit of mixing soup and rice. I’d welcome a bit more asim (sourness) but the idea is brilliant! I hope to find these two dishes in the regular menu soon. There’s a recent write-up, too, about Chef Rudy’s Christmas Eve Jamon en Dulce (sweet ham), his first attempt at replicating his mom’s recipe for this Noche Buena staple, to be served at brunch during the holiday season. That, with queso de bola, is what for me makes a perfect Filipino Christmas morning.

Lamesa has definitely built that much-needed presence for Filipino food in Toronto. But where it has contributed most, I think, is in the resurgence of confidence and pride for our food. Through its series of collaborative dinners, it has brought together equally young and talented Filipino chefs to cook in its kitchen: Jeff Claudio formerly of Yours Truly, Robbie Hojilla of Hudson, Dennis Tay of Richmond Station. We can expect more to step forward and proclaim their Filipino heritage at the dining table. Chef Rudy’s passion for our cuisine is simply contagious.

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Chef Rudy Boquila manning the Crispy Pata station at a tasting dinner.

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Oh no, not again. I’m filled with nostalgia for home. Worse, it’s a nostalgia for the tastes of home, thanks to this link I found on Facebook, “10 Best Filipino Restaurants in Manila”.

True, the best Filipino food I’ve ever had is right there, happening, in the city I’ve left behind. Much of this nostalgia perhaps arises from the fact that I’ve practically witnessed Filipino cuisine evolve – what with more than 30 years of eating out, and counting! From the uncompromisingly traditional, mouth-puckering sinigang and sinus-busting bicol express at Cely Kalaw’s Grove Restaurant many many moons ago, to that jolt of an innovation – corned beef sinigang – more recently at Sentro in Greenbelt, Makati. Sentro’s sinigang was just as mouth-puckering, by the way, but non-traditional in that one would be given a sampling of the broth and the liberty to choose the level of its sourness. It also blew my mind that corned beef, something I always associated with breakfast – and an American import at that – was used in the most traditional of Filipino dishes. This, possibly, was my introduction to Filipino modern or fusion food.

Filipino fusion cuisine is a “double-kill” of a term, if you ask me. Filipino food is – and always has been – fusion, to quote Anthony Bourdain.  The late Doreen Fernandez surely meant “fusion” too when she described our food as “the adaptation of various flavors merged with our culture”. Indeed, our pot is a hodgepodge of various influences – from China, Melaka, India, Mexico, Spain and North America.

The challenge now is not so much to define what Filipino food is, but to answer “What is authentic Filipino food?”, if there is such a thing. Or, for a Filipino dining out in another country, whether there’s logic in seeking out authentic Filipino food.

Paradoxically, it’s this fusion of influences that has brought about a cuisine that is vibrant and unique in itself and, in that sense, authentic. Let me put it this way: it’s cuisine that has managed to keep its soul in spite of.  The same way a Filipino will speak in fluent English, at the same time  point to a direction with his lips. By “authentic” I refer to its bold flavours – unabashed seasoning with garlic, the liberal use of coconut milk, and often there’s vinegar in the mix. Take the Kaldereta for example with its peculiar Filipino marinade of garlic, soy sauce, vinegar and kalamansi, or the adobo that keeps its Filipino flavor profile despite additions of paprika, curry and the like. “Authentic” involves thick, rich sauces – to spoon on and mix with rice as we eat. Of course, “authentic” means bold aromas, too, of patis (fish sauce), bagoong (shrimp paste), and in some homes, the extract of charred coconut meat. We are after all a people that sniff-kiss our babies, whose descriptive for great grub is “langhap-sarap”*. And true, there’s a lot of sentimentalism every time we seek out authentic Filipino food, a pining for heritage, home and family-style gatherings at the table.

Bold flavours and a dose of sentimentality. I’m afraid that’s what some new Filipino chefs cooking for a global table don’t get. They have become gun-shy with our flavours. Is it food shame? Are they fearful our food’s vinegar-y and often pungent edges will turn off the western palate? Or are they just too preoccupied chasing the buzz around deconstruction, molecular cuisine and the latest food trends? Where does the discomfort lie? Tradition doesn’t preclude a nice plating for a bit more colour than our ubiquitous brown, does it? And it need not involve bamboo and banana leaves! Neither does it shun the idea of deconstruction as long as it doesn’t compromise the harmony of its flavours but instead highlight the inherent simplicity of our cuisine. Unexpected embellishments – like the corned beef in Sentro’s sinigang – can accentuate the adaptability of our cuisine that’s fusion to begin with. Surely, as the chefs in Manila continue to prove, all it takes is transforming this cuisine for the Filipino audience, first and foremost, playing to the inherited memories and cultural history that have shaped our palate. Let the Filipino embrace it, and the rest of the world will follow. I think this is an easy enough start for any chef who aspires to elevate Filipino food on the world stage.

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Footnote: I have dined in only 6 out of the ten restaurants mentioned in the list, simply because the other four are recent additions to Manila’s dining scene. My top choice would also be Sentro 1771. “When a cuisine banks on heritage and homestyle flavors, it doesn’t leave much room for playing around. Innovation, after all, opposes tradition, and no cuisine emphasizes the latter more than Filipino fare. But Chef Vicky Pacheco of Sentro 1771 knows how to toe the line, keeping the vibrant profile that Filipinos love while adding a few embellishments here and there.” That pretty much sums it up for me.

* Langhap-sarap is a term coined by Filipino adman Minyong Ordoñez for a Jollibee ad campaign. It means “smell of delicious taste” or “smell the delicious taste”.

Other Filipino food terms: Sinigang, a Filipino sour soup; Bicol Express, dish with chillis and coconut milk, named after the train route between Manila and the Southern Tagalog Region; Kaldereta, a beef stew; Kalamansi, a Philippine lime.

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More than 10 lbs of chicken thighs skinned and deboned for AdoboAidTO. What to do with the discards? Ask the butcher at Sanagans to vacuum pack them, of course, for future use in the kitchen. The skin makes sinfully crunchy chicharron that’s great as a pulutan (like tapas) with beer or cocktails! And the bones make a better broth than you can ever buy in the grocery, just what you need this winter to make a hot bowl of chicken arroz caldo (Filipino rice porridge), or chicken noodle soup. It’s always handy to have chicken broth in the fridge anyway.

1454920_10151769253601884_1701295425_nI shared some chicken chicharron with a friend last night and got a tweet about how she crushed it over her sunny side up, which she then liberally anointed with Diablos Fuego Hot Sauce. So many ways to crunch a chicharron, if you ask me. How about smothering it with maple syrup? Candied bacon, you’ve met your match!

How-To: Defrost chicken skin. Flatten individually on oven rack. Lightly sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake (I hate frying) at 350F for about 40 minutes or until desired brownness and crispness. Remove from oven and drain on paper towel. Keep uncovered until thoroughly cooled, to keep crispness. Can be kept for a couple of days without refrigeration. If needed, re-crisp by reheating in oven (I use the oven toaster for small batches) and draining on paper towel again. Best served with a dipping of vinegar and bird’s-eye chilli. The vinegar cuts the grease, so munch on.

(Thanks, Catherine Mangosing, for the chicharon-on-egg photo. Beautiful!)

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Would anyone really pay $24 for a plate of spaghetti with tomato and basil? At Scarpetta, people apparently do and in fact say they’d happily (pay and) eat this simple dish again. Scarpetta, that restaurant with a New York pedigree and of Scott Conant’s fame, opened in Toronto a couple of years back. The reviews were mixed, some even harsh, but that plate of spaghetti with tomato and basil was always singled out as excellent – and, as one food critic said, “irreproachable”. It was for this reason that I always had my eye on Scarpetta: just how good can pasta with nothing else but tomato sauce and basil get? But in Toronto, where the food scene is quickly evolving and new restaurants are opening practically every month, plans for such a splurge can easily get sidetracked by news about “electric” $3.75 tacos, nonna-style chicken liver agnolottis being served in Parkdale, and grilled pulpos that leave Toronto folks awestruck.

That’s why when my neighbour, Andrew Starling, announced that he was hosting a pop-up dinner at his place, I quickly responded with a “Please count me in!” Of course, not before I checked his menu and made sure a pasta dish was part of his 5-course dinner. Why? Because Andrew Starling just happens to be Scarpetta’s pasta chef!

Screen Shot 2013-12-01 at 1.44.00 AMThe pasta he prepared wasn’t spaghetti with tomato and basil as I had hoped, but a ricotta+parmiggiano-reggiano ‘agnolotti dal plin’. Was I disappointed? Not at all. On hindsight, Scarpetta’s spaghetti with tomato and basil – excellent as it is – is, after all, just another “template” dish. I was more interested in Andrew’s take on pasta in general and even more on how he’d roll out a 5-course dinner that didn’t rely on pasta alone. 

I knew the dinner would be good the moment we entered his house. The wall along the stairs to the basement was stacked high with jars of preserves – berries and fruits picked during his bike rides. The kitchen, partially seen from the dining area, had a calm and readiness one usually didn’t expect from a dinner staged at home. The courses featured local, sustainable ingredients, some Andrew himself foraged in Don Valley, like the crabapples in the appetizer and the dessert. The home-made 5-spice ketchup was delightful and I thought, yeah, Heinz could pack up and go for all I care! The man knew and was passionate about food, and I was rather embarrassed that up to this moment I had only thought of Andrew as a pasta chef.

Overall, the menu was well thought out, the courses building from one to the next with precise cadence and good progression. More importantly, Andrew and his wife Francine created an ambience that was convivial – a surprise for me as my first impression of Andrew was that he was one very formal guy. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and I’m sure the other guests had a great time too.

Another thumbs-up for Toronto’s food scene, and what luck it’s just a couple of doors away from me.

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With Chef Starling at the AdoboAid-Toronto

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I think it will be months before I start cooking adobo again. Not after the AdoboAidTO dinner fundraiser, not after I cooked more than 20lbs of pork and chicken and fed more than 50 donor-guests, not after I spent three days chopping meat, seasoning, marinating them overnight and finally braising them for hours in the kitchen. Days after the event, the house is still redolent of garlic and vinegar. But there’s a reason why adobo is a staple in town fiestas, the dish to serve when feeding an entire barangay. Much like the “5 loaves and 2 fish” that fed a multitude of 5,000 and left enough for the twelve disciples to eat, adobo doesn’t seem to run out. And there will be, inevitably, adobo leftovers.

The good thing is, there are many amazing ways to reprise the adobo.

1. Fried adobo

This is actually how I like my adobo. Unfortunately, for the AdoboAid dinner, I didn’t have the time and the right-sized skillet to fry big batches of adobo. My mom, a capampangan, would braise the meats for hours and then, right before serving, fry the meats in extra oil. The result was adobo with layers of flavours and a dark, delicious crust.

A breakfast of adobo flakes, adobo rice and achara

A breakfast of adobo flakes, adobo rice and achara

2. Adobo Flakes

Sometimes we cook adobo just to make adobo flakes. This has been Rama’s favourite since she was 4, when her Yaya Melindi would coarsely “osterize” leftover adobo and fry it to crunchy bits. What I do, though, is shred the meats and fry them. Great with fried egg, fried rice and a little achara on the side. How Filipino can breakfast get?

3. Adobo Fried Rice

I often have more adobo sauce left in the pot than I know what to do with. Well, I’ve learned to pour them on cooked rice, stirring in just enough sauce to coat the rice evenly. I then set the rice aside in the fridge overnight or longer, allowing the rice to “lose moisture”.  You don’t want to use soggy rice for fried rice; wet or soggy rice turns limp when it hits the oil and you get clumpy fried rice. Ugh! That’s the reason only left-over rice is used for fried rice. The Chinese have a descriptor for the perfect fried rice: jumping rice. Yes, nicely “dried out” rice literally jumps around on a hot, oiled wok or pan. You can almost hear the rice go “Wheee! Wheee! Wheee!”

So, heat oil. Add smashed cloves of garlic. Throw in small chunks of left-over adobo (if any). Add the rice. Add vegetables, like peas and carrots, if you wish. Mix. Plate. Eat. A meal in itself.

I’d love to learn of more ways to reprise the adobo. Maybe a Pulled Pork Adobo Taco?

(Top photo: ingredients of the classic adobo – vinegar, garlic, peppercorn, bay leaf)

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AdoboAid was the brainchild of Maida Pineda, a blogger, whose call to help raise funds for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan was posted on Facebook. The idea was to cook adobo, gather friends for dinner and pass the hat around for donations. Better yet, for Filipinos – wherever they are in the world – to host those adobo dinners at the same time, on the same day, November 23. Imagine the Philippine diaspora – more than 10 million Filipinos living abroad – watching helplessly as news coverage of the worst typhoon disaster of the century unfold on tv. Herself a Filipino expatriate, blogger Maida Pineda knew exactly how it felt to be away from home and wanting to help. Well, here was a way Filipinos living abroad could reach out and share in the on-going disaster relief efforts…”one adobo dinner at a time”.

I thought it was a brilliant idea, one that would surely appeal to that uniquely Filipino character in us. Didn’t we always love a party, turning even a People Power revolution into one? Didn’t we rather be jovial than angry or somber, even as we took on the most menial of jobs in even the most inhospitable country? And didn’t we all have that weekend, that birthday, that town fiesta, that Christmas holiday we always looked forward to as a time to gather with friends and family? And wasn’t food always in the centre of these gatherings? If we had been described as a resilient nation – with photos of smiling kids against a backdrop of devastation as proof – this must be our secret.

Which is why adobo made so much sense. A “resilient dish” was how Maida Pineda described our national dish. Adobo’s main ingredient is vinegar, which keeps it from spoiling, even without refrigeration. It can be kept for days, tasting even better the longer it stays in the fridge.

If there’s a dish we can truly call our own, it’s adobo. It predates the arrival of the Spanish on Philippine shores, perhaps even the earlier days of trading with the Chinese. The Spanish called it adobo, after a Mexican dish, although there were hardly any similarities between the two. The Philippine adobo is a much simpler and austere dish: meat – usually pork – braised in vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper, cooked for 1-2 hours over low fire. The addition of soy sauce is, clearly, a Chinese influence. There are also as many variations of adobo as there are regions in the country, such as adobo sa gata (coconut milk) in Southern Luzon. In the Visayas, they prefer their adobo dry, with a little oil. In Pampanga, where my mother hails from, the adobo is braised and then fried, which is the way I like my adobo done. Vegetables make very good adobo, too: adobong kangkong (swamp cabbage) and adobong sitaw (long beans). In fact, every Filipino family boasts of its own adobo recipe – innumerable tweaks to an immutable dish.

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Footnote: AdoboAid Toronto served 50 plates of Adobo, with rice and a side of homemade achara (pickled green papaya, carrots, green bell pepper, raisins and ginger).  It raised $1750 in donations from friends and neighbours. The donations were forwarded to GlobalMedic, a Canadian organization which responds to disasters with a Rescue Unit, Water Purification Unit and Emergency Medical Unit, so badly needed in the typhoon-devastated areas. Since GlobalMedic is a qualified charity organization, the Canadian government will match the donation, dollar for dollar, thus bringing the total donation of AdoboAidTO to $3,500!

Maraming salamat!

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Not one you’d want to cook, especially if you lived in a condo. But in this case, nostalgia for tastes of home trumped neighbourly considerations. Hence these home-dried, home-cooked fish.

Smelts, when butterflied, resembled danggit enough, so…

I split, deboned and marinated them overnight in some salt, vinegar, water, salt and pepper, then laid them on a rack for a slow, 2-hour heat-drying in the oven set at the lowest possible temperature (170ºF in mine). I waited till the fish were dry, but made sure they weren’t browned or cooked.

Finally, when both fish and I were ready, I popped them in the oven toaster, at Bake. Ah, the smell of it just took me home!

Suggested serving: with fluffy scrambled eggs (cooked on very low heat, with lots of butter), fried rice (with lots of garlic) and a vinegar-chili dip.

Tried and Tasted

Clockwise, from top right: Callos, Prawns in Aligue Sauce, Achara, Sisig, Chicken Empanada, Ukoy.

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