Leche Flan

Leche Flan – the light, tender, sweet custard served during fiestas, big family get-togethers and potlucks – is the Filipinized version of Southern Spain’s Tocino del Cielo, which means ‘bacon from heaven’. Of course this ‘tocino’ contains no bacon, but that should clue you in to its rich, decadent, grunt and eyeroll-inducing deliciousness – much like its porky namesake. That’s because, unlike traditional flans – which are made with whole eggs and milk or cream – Tocino del Cielo is made only with egg yolks, sugar and water. No goopy egg whites, no dairy to compromise its texture and lightness. That makes Tocino del Cielo the flan of flans, and our Leche Flan, well, its poor man’s version – in fact, a poor man’s version of even the traditional flan. The Philippine Leche Flan – at least the recipe I’ve been taught – contains mostly egg yolks, yes, but with a couple of whole eggs thrown in “parsimoniously”. And, instead of whole milk or cream, we use condensed milk and evaporated milk. So you see, ours is a frugal flan – also one that speaks of our double colonization (by Spain, whose Tocino del Cielo once underscored the divide between the poor indio and his conquistador and, of course, the US who market-tested and brought these canned goods, along with Spam, to our shores.

1/2 cup white sugar (do not use brown sugar)
6 egg yolks, from large eggs
2 whole eggs (large)
1 300-ml condensed milk
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1/4 tsp vanilla extract, or
3-4 pandan leaves, known in North America as screw pine
lime zest
1. In a flan mould or a 4″x8″ meatloaf pan, caramelize the sugar by stirring constantly over medium heat. When melted, tilt the pan to cover the sides, up to 2 inches high. Set aside to cool and harden.
2. Omit this step if not using pandan: In a saucepan over medium heat, combine evaporated milk, water and pandan. As soon as the mixture starts to boil, turn off the heat. Do not allow to boil! Set aside to let the pandan infuse. Do not use until the infused milk and water mixture is cool. Discard the pandan.
3. Beat the egg yolks & whole eggs until somewhat combined. Do not overbeat or stir, otherwise bubbles will form in the flan!
4. Add the condensed milk, the evaporated milk, water & vanilla extract. Stir until combined (do not worry if some of the egg whites are not completely incorporated)
5.  Strain the mixture using a double cheese cloth (for a finer consistency) or use a fine-mesh strainer. Pour into the caramel-lined flan mould.
6. Place the mould in a high-sided baking pan or aluminum tray. Fill with water enough to reach 3/4 the height of the mould or at least to the same level as the flan mixture. Bake at 320ºF degrees, uncovered, until firm (approximately 2 hrs). Test for doneness by inserting a toothpick – it should come out dry.
7. Cool and refrigerate to set, preferably overnight, before removing flan from the mould.
8. To serve, remove flan by inverting mould onto a plate. Drizzle flan with the remaining caramel from the mould. Zest lime on top.



Unless you grew up in gated and exclusive villages like Forbes Park and Dasmariñas Village, you’d be familiar with the ambulant vendor who usually came around at breakfast or sometimes for mid-afternoon merienda, shouting “Ta-hoooooo”. The call, its lilt, exactly where the voice would start low (on the first syllable) and then crescendo on the second, with a throaty elongation of the “o”…. Of course you remember that, you KNOW that. Because, whether that taho vendor was in Singalong or BF Homes, the sound was the same. The sight too was the same, of those two large aluminum buckets of taho the vendor carried and balanced on his shoulder with a bamboo yoke or some piece of wood. How weighty those buckets looked, bobbing up and down as the magtataho (taho vendor) walked down the street and up to your door.

To this day, I can’t think of a more universally Filipino sweet treat. Despite recent innovations back home in terms of flavouring and marketing (taho can now be purchased from shiny metal carts in airconditioned malls), to most Filipinos, taho is a singular experience, a singular taste: soft, silken, steamed tofu scooped in thin layers into a cup, then drizzled with a dark simple syrup and small sago pearls. Funny how the universally Filipino taho is actually of Chinese origin, reminding us once again of our long history of trade with China.


But why is it that in Toronto I can find all other exotic Chinese foodstuff – even smelly tofu – but not taho. Not in Chinese restaurants, not even at Filipino potlucks. Diona Joyce of Kanto served it during Kapisanan’s 10th anniversary celebration and posted the recipe online. But for someone (that’s me) who has tried (once, and I swear, only once) an home-made soy milk, cooking taho is an even more involved and complicated process. That’s maybe why, for us Filipinos, taho will remain strictly street food, inseparable from the ambulant vendor, the large aluminum buckets and the all-too-familiar siren call, “ta-hooooo!”

That is, until I found this recipe from Kawaling Pinoy. Why sweat it? Just use store-bought Extra-soft or Silken Tofu!




It started with an immersion circulator, aka a sous vide device. Truth is, all I wanted one for was to cook a perfectly poached egg. God knows how many gadgets for poaching eggs I’ve tried, only to throw them out in a bin meant for old batteries, busted bulbs and dead cellphones. I like my poached eggs with whites firm enough so I don’t have that wet, gloopy mucous running on my plate and ruining a perfect toast, but with a yolk that oozes out in cinematic slow-motion the moment I slice a knife through. Yes, the money shot!


The sous vide device delivered, and more. Three, six, a dozen eggs poached to uniform doneness (while I Facebook in another room), check! A perfect medium-rare (sans that nasty brown edge) New York Strip, check! Hollandaise Sauce, the thought of which terrified and got me all clumsy and messy in the kitchen, check check check! Oh, of course it helps to have a whipping siphon for dispensing Hollandaise sauce that’s velvety and decadent-looking.

I guess things just escalated from there. My kitchen has turned into a playground, and me – as a friend has so aptly put it – into a culinary adolescent. A kid at play has no fear of failure; that’s the beauty of it.



Balsamic Vinegar Pearls


Beet spheres, olive oil, minced rosemary


Liquid olives, an Albert & Ferran Adria recipe, tasted for the first time at Tickets Restaurant, Barcelona.


MC's Pork Belly Adobo 3.06.31 PMI posted this Instagram a couple of days ago and regretted it. Am I an adobo nazi?

There it is, on page 224 of Nathan Myrhvald’s Modernist Cuisine At Home, the recipe for Pork Belly Adobo, “considered a national dish of the Philippines.” If there’s clear indication that Philippine cuisine – represented by our adobo – has hit the mainstream, this must be it. Unfortunately, the recipe was for pork asado, not adobo.

Pork asado – while resembling the Filipino adobo in its use of vinegar – is actually a sweet pork dish introduced by the Chinese, distinct for its use of star anise, (or five-spice powder) and sugar. Sure, the adobo has seen various transformations and at times taken on Chinese ingredients like soy sauce, but pork asado and adobo are of separate provenance – just as our sour soup, the sinigang, is different from the Malaysian singgang.

I feel it’s a distinction that’s important to make, if we are to present a national dish to the world.

MC's recipe Pork Asado. Note nice crust of caramelized sugar.

MC’s Pork Belly Adobo is actually an asado. Note distinctive crust of caramelized sugar. But, hey, it’s good!

Not an easy job. To start with, a foreigner would often confuse it with the Spanish adobo – which is basically a condiment or seasoning – and the adobos of Mexico, Puerto Rico and Peru where adobo refers to a type of marinade or pickling sauce. And then there’s the asado, a Hispanic term for the Chinese dish that found its way to our tables, perhaps via the Parian, Manila’s “Chinatown” during the colonial times.

In the Philippine context, adobo is not a particular dish with a specific set of ingredients; it is a method of cooking, one that is indigenous to us: braising meat in vinegar and salt. It predates trade with the Chinese, which according to records, did not begin until the 900’s. It certainly predates our colonization by the Spanish who, mildly reminded of their own adobo, gave it the same name, “adobo de los naturales”. Sadly, there is no record of how our ancestors called this “dish”, this method of cooking, our adobo.

But for sure, it was very simple and austere – just vinegar and salt and maybe garlic, another preservative. We didn’t have royalty the way the Chinese and the Europeans did, for whom we had to cook, to please and impress. While we shared DNA as well as some maritime routes with the kingdoms in Java and Brunei, we were practically a cultural isolate –  Filipinos were a people divided by water and more than a hundred languages. If there were variations on this adobo, they were mainly geographical: the addition of coconut milk in Southern Luzon where coconut was abundant; turmeric in Mindanao because of its proximity to Indonesia.

The adobo has since transformed – or to be precise, become more embellished – in a way that reflects our history as a people like no other Asian dish I know. The addition of onions, tomatoes, bell pepper was an influence of Spain; potato, most likely from Americans. Similarly, no single dish has become a means to show off one’s status in society or level of sophistication: balsamic or sherry in lieu of vinegar; foie gras, because pork isn’t rich enough.

There are 7100 Philippine islands and perhaps as many ways to cook adobo. At least 100 ways, as recorded and compiled by Reynaldo Gamboa Alejandro and Nancy Reyes Lumen in The Adobo Book. My mom made about three kinds of adobo: kapampangan-style (braised then fried), Tagalog-style (with coconut milk), and with eggs or potatoes (well, to feed a household of 10). So when my mom – sensing my lack of aptitude for cooking and disinterest in anything to do with the kitchen – told me that I should at least learn how to cook adobo, the question in my mind was “which one?”

Traditionalists assert that what makes “authentic” adobo is the triumvirate of vinegar, garlic and salt – no soy sauce, perhaps some peppercorn, and no more! The austerity of it has always intrigued me. Slow-braise, pressure cook,  sous vide, deconstruct? How else do you make this adobo shine enough for the world stage?

The answer is just cook it! On low fire for 1-2 hours, or until the pork fat melts. You’ll be amazed, just as I was, at how deep-flavored, dark and decadently rich it can be. And so simple, anyone can cook it. Our national dish it is!


Photo by Catherine Mangosing

My version of salmon sinigang involves brining the salmon for 45 minutes, cooking it sous vide at 104ºF for 60 minutes, then chilling the cooked, vacuum-packed salmon for a few hours in the refrigerator before serving. It’s a series of prep based on the recipe for Salmon Mi-Cuit at

Sure, it’s a more lengthy, seemingly complicated process, but I find that cooking the salmon this way results in incredible taste, texture and color – impossible to achieve when simply steaming, blanching or grilling the fish for sinigang.

Thanks to the brining, the salmon retains its bright pink-orange hue, with none of the whitish proteins that usually leach out when the fish is cooked. Because it is slow-cooked, sous vide, at a temperature just a tad warmer than breath, at 104ºF, the salmon comes out “mi-cuit”, a luxurious taste and texture akin to sushi – except it is anything but raw! Finally, chilling the package in the fridge for a few hours (6 recommended) after cooking, allows the salt from the brine to continue “curing” the fish so it yields a dense but fork-tender texture. After that, all it needs to shine is the very hot, very tart sinigang broth.

The traditional Filipino sinigang is a one-pot dish. Ingredients – meat (or seafood) plus vegetables such as taro, radish, long beans and spinach – are added to the sour broth in timed progression, depending on how fast each ingredient cooks. Somehow I never get this right – the vegetables invariably turn out limp and overcooked.

Hence, my deconstructed version.

The broth – tomatoes, onions, souring agent, long chilli or banana pepper, fish sauce, taro (for thickening) – is cooked separately, then – with the chilli discarded – processed in the Vitamix or blender into a smooth, tart and slightly spicy broth. The vegetables (scallions, grape tomatoes, eggplant) are grilled, the char adding a depth of flavour and a touch of sweetness. I could blanch the rest of the vegetables (long beans, radish, spinach), but now I prefer to cook each vegetable in the microwave at 15/30-sec bursts. No mess! And precise. Best of all, the vegetables keep their color, especially the long beans which also stay crunchy.

What I love about deconstructing the sinigang is it can be presented at the table with some flourish. Imagine all the vegetables arranged in a circle, the contrast between charred and “blanched” making for visual appeal. A wedge of space is, of course, reserved for the salmon. The broth makes the final and dramatic entrance, poured hot and steaming into the bowl. It releases such an aroma that you know this sinigang is going to be rich and tart. The mouth can’t help but pucker up.


Salmon fillet/s, skin and pin bones removed, good for 4
neutral oil like canola

5 cups water
Extract of unripe tamarind (in a pinch, packaged Sinigang Mix from the Filipino or Asian store will do)
5 TBSP lemon or lime juice – or kalamansi, if available
1 tomato, quartered
1 onion, quartered
5-8 taro, depending on the size

fish sauce

12-16 grape tomatoes

4-8 shallots, depending on size, halved
1 Japanese eggplant, sliced crosswise on a bias
1 daikon, peeled, sliced crosswise and half-mooned
12-15 long beans, cut into 2.5″ pieces
12-15 stalks of spinach, tough stems discarded


A. The Salmon Mi-Cuit

1. Prepare cold or icy water with 2:1 salt to sugar solution. Make sure the salt and sugar are completely dissolved before adding the salmon. Keep in the refrigerator to brine for 45 minutes.
2. Remove  salmon from the brine, pat dry and vacuum-pack with oil and cook sous vide at 104ºF for 60 minutes. The oil helps the salmon keep its shape while cooking.
3. Immediately place the sous vide salmon in an ice bath to stop the cooking. Refrigerate 6 hours. For me, this 6-hr refrigeration is optional. I once skipped this step and the salmon still turned out okay. It really depends on how much time I’ve got.
4. Gently remove from the packaging and blot out excess oil. Slice into 4 equal serving sizes, cover and refrigerate until ready to plate.

B. Cook the Sinigang Broth

1. Bring water to boil. Add tomato and onions. Stir in the souring agent (tamarind extract or Sinigang Mix). Add taro. Season generously with fish sauce (you should be able to smell the fish sauce).

2. Add lemon/lime juice. Taste for tartness. Ideally, the broth should register “High” or “Very High” on the sour-meter. Add more lemon/lime juice if needed.

3. Take a piece of taro and test for doneness. When it’s  soft but doesn’t break apart when pierced with a knife or fork, ladle out half of the taro and set aside for plating.

3. Turn off heat. Place broth in a blender or use a handheld to blend the broth, making sure the taro is broken down and there are no lumps in the broth. If the broth is still watery, add more cooked taro and blend to thicken. The consistency of a light creamy soup is what we’re going for. It may happen that there will be no cooked taro left for plating, but that’s ok.

C. Prepare the vegetables

1. Heat cast-iron grill until almost smoking. Grill tomatoes and shallots (cut side down) until slightly charred.
2. Place long beans in a small bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Microwave at full heat for 30 secs or until cooked but still crunchy. Repeat with the radish and spinach. I prefer the radish al dente and the spinach just wilted, so maybe microwaved at 40-45 secs and 15-20 secs, respectively.

Divide and arrange vegetables and salmon in 4 soup bowls. Bring to the table and add broth, to serve.


• My most recent sinigang experiment (above photo) includes nori. Since the salmon was skinned, I figured nori sheets would approximate the taste and texture of salmon skin. Interesting, but it didn’t add much. Next time I’d take the skin peeled from the salmon and bake/toast it to a crisp – much like chicharron or pork rinds. A topping like this should add another, much needed, texture to the dish.

• Mi-cuit means half-cooked, in French.

• is a website on contemporary cooking founded and led by Chris Young, the co-author of the acclaimed six-volume cooking opus, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. Check it out!


Our daughter, Rama, was born in the Philippines. It’s a country known for its hot and humid weather but, more notoriously, for its fierce storms and typhoons. On days when rains seemed incessant, the family usually found comfort and security in happy banter at the table, while the aroma of rice steaming wafted from the kitchen. We knew what Rama loved most on days like these: rice cooked as porridge, with toppings of chicken and – yes, like most Filipino food – with some fish sauce stirred in. To this day, say Arroz Caldo and her eyes light up. Somehow this dish evokes a deep sense of comfort and nostalgia in her. Now that we all huddle in cold Canadian winter, nothing can be more perfect!

This recipe serves 4.


1 cup leftover roast chicken (white meat, pulled or shredded), divided;

2 tbsp neutral oil, like canola

¼ cup diced onion

1 tbsp minced garlic

1 tbsp ginger, peeled and chopped

2 cups white rice (medium grain or Arborio)

4-5 cups chicken broth

Water, as needed

White pepper, to taste

Fish sauce or salt to taste

Sliced green onion or scallion to garnish

Lemon juice to finish


1.Saute onions, garlic and ginger in oil until onion is softened and the garlic and ginger are aromatic but not burned;

2.Add rice and stir to coat with oil;

3.Season with fish sauce or salt;

4.Add broth and bring to a boil; lower heat to simmer until rice is soft;

5.Add more broth or water for desired consistency or if porridge is too dry;

6.Before removing from heat, stir in half of the chicken and season with salt and pepper as needed.

7.Ladle equal amounts into 4 bowls; top each with chicken and green onions.

8.Finish with a drizzle of lemon juice.


  1. Use salt instead of fish sauce; garnish with a pinch or two of saffron. Serve with a wedge of lemon.

This list is a short one. The many other gadgets I bought for the kitchen this year turned out to be either useless (I have yet to make yogurt or almond milk that will put my 100-micron Superbag to use), redundant (a steamer is a steamer is a steamer), or downright dumb – yeah, like a set of mini spoons that measure a tad, a dash, a pinch, a smidgen and a drop!

But those that made it to this list, I truly and absolutely love! It’s not because they’ve made me a better cook, but for the simple reason that they’ve turned my kitchen into a space for adventure and play!

1. Sansaire Immersion Circulator, aka sous vide machine. The 64ºC egg, need I say more? Not to mention steaks that cook to a perfect medium-rare every. single. time. Or chicken breasts that won’t ever come out undercooked or overcooked and dry. Modernist? In the kitchen, that’s not a bad word.

2. Vitamix Blender.  Was it really worth the price? And what’s all that cult following about? We rented a unit from The Kitchen Library – you know, “to try before we buy”. The verdict: yes! In fact, it’s even worth going for the top-end 750 Professional. And yes, the cult is totally understandable. The smoothest smoothie of banana, peanut butter and chia seeds we’ve ever made. 2-horsepower, baby!

3. Silit Pressure Cooker. Making soup? Carrots you want to make into soup just won’t soften and caramelize when cooked in an ordinary pot on a stovetop the way they do in a pressure cooker . Or leeks, or cauliflower at that. Caramelized, with all the flavour kept in, is how you want them before they are pureéd (in the Vitamix, preferably) into silken, satisfying soups. We’re not even talking “garlic confit” yet.

4. Le Creuset Braising Pan. Sear. Fry. Or braise. From stovetop to tabletop. Beautiful.

5. Molecule-R Whipping Siphon. Whipped creams and soda drinks are so 80’s. How about fizzy, liquor-infused cubes of melon? Or a Modernist Cuisine version of hollandaise sauce? Let’s play!


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?

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,300 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 38 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

“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.


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


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.


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.