Friday, March 28, 2014

A layered experience

 The Filipino lays everything out on the table, including dessert -- although some of the more modern families opt to keep the sweet stuff away from the children for fear they would lose their appetites for the main course. Rice, meat dishes, salads, desserts are all placed on a large table and everyone is asked to join in.
This presentation shows our preference for variety and color and excess, which is characteristic of the Pinoy fiesta. The lack of formality in table presentations is exactly how we socialize, with lots of bonhomie and interaction.

The Japanese on the other hand show more restraint and discipline. Where the Pinoy loves oido -- instinctive improvisation -- the Japanese devote themselves to strict form with the sole requirement that all that they do must be beautiful in addition to being practical. This is evident in their food where plating is elevated to an art form and the tea ceremony is a ballet. Grace and harmony reign at the table.

Yet there is no denying that Japanese food, has embedded itself in the Pinoy restaurant experience. Perhaps because being both Asian, we share a preference for fish, rice, pork and vegetables. The flavors too, are not too different. And this is what I noted in trying out Kimukatsu's tonkatsu or pork cutlet. I am reminded of the ubiquitous lechon or the sacrificial native pigs at canya-o.

I must admit, however that I have never liked tonkatsu or its more popular form, katsudon, which is pork cutlet with egg and served on a bowl of rice.

Belatedly, I realize that I may not have been having the right kind. Kimutasu developed their own cooking style for tonkatsu, by slicing the pork very thinly and stacking in it 25 layers. They then cover it in a thin layer of bread crumbs and deep fry for exactly eight minutes.Japanese discipline, remember?

The result is an uncharacteristically juicy and delicate bit served with plum sauce (tonkatsu sauce) and ground sesame or  vinegar (ponzu sauce). Mmmm. Upon tasting it I had to revise the blog I had pre-written in my head. Although for a moment there, I blanked out. The taste demands concentration because it is so many things at once, juicy, crunchy, lightly salty, with a lightly sweet sauce.

Most tonkatsus I've had here are dry, uninteresting and heavily breaded. I was happy to find that my expectations were far off. The cutlets come in a variety of flavors.  I tried the plain, then the cheesy (one of the best) where the cheese is embedded in the center of the layers, Yuzu Kosho which is spicy and refreshing at the same time, made with a paste of green chili peppers and the yuzu fruit. The garlic tasted quite fine, though may have been too subtle for someone like me who likes to pour on the garlic. Which is not to say it wasn't good. It was.

The restaurant theme was yin and yang, black and white. Women were given white menus and white plates, men, black menus and plates. The miso soup came in two forms, male which is spicy and female, subtle. The cabbage is served with two kinds of dressing, the first, Shoyu vinegar, the other creamy with roasted sesame (goma), both excellent. The pickles, were, as far as Japanese restaurants go, one of the best in the Metro area. I hope this keeps up. The soup, cabbage and rice and pickles are unlimited.

And speaking of rice, Kimukatsu served a very light kind of rice cooked in their patented manner, which is done in 15 minutes. Their technique allows the rice to absorb the right amount of liquid so that it is light but still chewy, with grains sitting separately and not forming a paste-like porridge.

I also had the Agedashi tofu, and this made me close my eyes to ruminate on the subtleties of silken tofu. Lightly breaded, fried and served in a sauce, I could have just eaten that and gone home happy. As it was, however the entire meal was a symphony of Japanese styling and subtleties, with still the kind of Asian flavors to make this Pinoy's palate very very happy.

Oh, and the soy cotta for dessert sent me home singing.

Monday, March 24, 2014

To my son on our birthday


You were always the sweetest boy, the one who proudly proclaimed that all he would ever need and love is his Nanay, his mom. Made even sweeter by the fact that when you said it, you were all of five years old. You were the one without fanfare, the one who pressed a medal into my hand when you came home from school once. It was for a Math contest, and no one at home even knew you joined. Maybe because we share a birthday, that we could always understand each other. That I could always tell what you wanted and provide just exactly what you needed. 

I suppose in my head, you would always be that sweet, bright boy of my birthday, with the fine sense of humor and wickedly sharp brain. So that I cannot, for the life of me recognize now, the handsome angry young man sitting across from me at the table. The one who answers with grunts and rolled eyes, the one who proclaims he knows better, and has bigger horizons to forge, the one who thinks that the little dreams his mother has for him have little to do with the man he wants to be. 

And for all the wisdom I am supposed to have, at this age, at this stage, I can think of nothing to appease you, I cannot find the words or tactics to get through to you. While I could always read the little boy and the laughing adolescent, all I can tell you now, all I am reduced to, is asking you, in the traditional way, "Kumain ka na?"("Have you eaten?"). It is the way of Filipino mothers, to ask if their children are  hungry, and to show their love with food. Or to lovingly prepare dishes, lay out the plates, pour water, each gesture, an act of love.    

It is the only way I can tell you how much I keep you in my heart, tell you that no matter what it is you are going through, what troubles you have, I love you, I am with you, I understand you. I will feed you. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Shrimp in coconut cream

I shall but be a shrimp of an author.
                         ~Thomas Gray

Shrimp in coconut cream
Nothing reminds me more of my lola than shrimp. It was she who taught me the nuances of cooking it, while my mother would gladly spend for ingredients if I so much as whispered an interest in kitchen activity. It was lola who informed me that shrimp must be cooked gently and exposed to heat only long enough for it to turn to its cooked color through and through. Any more exposure and the meat begins to toughen and lose its sweetness.

It was also lola, who taught me how to squeeze out the kakang gata and the pangalawang piga (second squeeze) or coconut milk. The niyog must be placed in a laundry basin or large pan and scant water poured over it. The water must be slightly warm, and little more than the volume of the grated young coconut. The mixture must be allowed to stand for a few minutes. Then the same is mixed gently by hand in similar fashion as when one washes rice, then squeezed over a sieve with a bowl to catch the cream underneath. Repeat but separate the second liquid.

Coconut cream or " kakang gata" and coconut milk ("gata") are found in many Tagalog dishes and some Bicolano ones. Filled with the good kind of saturated fats, it boosts the immune system, not to mention gives dishes a rich and creamy taste one cannot get from animal-milk based cream.

Shrimp on the other hand, once plentiful in Philippine waters and a poor-man's food, is now served primarily in special occasions and in sparing portions, a sad footnote to man's interference in the ocean's ecology.

Shrimp in coconut cream
Surprisingly, however in the past week, shrimp prices were down from the usual P400 per kilo to an all time low of P250/kilo. Suddenly awash in shrimp, I am reminded of the time when lola, then alive would supervise my cooking while sitting in the kitchen. When she got older, she lived next door and would send the maids back and forth with instructions.

Interesting thing about Philippine recipes, especially those passed down generation to generation, their measurements are an informal thing, handsful, pinches, non-measuring spoons and cups are the norm, and feeling and taste are as important as the amount of ingredients specified.

Hipon sa Gata

1k fresh medium sized shrimp
scant oil
three inches ginger, peeled and sliced into strips'
rock salt
gata and kakang gata from one coconut (or two, depending on preference)
sili pepper leaves
pepper corns
chili powder (optional)

Shrimp must be drained well, after cleaning and salted. Chop off the sharp parts and excessive antennae. In a large wok, lightly oiled and heated, toss in the ginger, then when it is heated, put in the shrimp and sautee until each shrimp is half turned in color. Add. gata (second squeeze) and simmer, mixing lightly to make sure the shirmp is evenly cooked. Before the shrimp is cooked through, add pepper leaves and pepper corns. Then pour in the kakang gata. Exactly when shrimp is all orange and cooked through, turn off heat. Add chili powder if desired.

Note: My grandmother is Paula Espiritu Lavina. She was a de la Paz on her mother's side and came from a wealthy family that owned the first car in Marikina where her family resided.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Rich and Joyful

The Chinese often give names of characteristics or ideals, perhaps in the hope (that's another good Chinese name) that the characteristics spelled out in it will be reflected by the person or place so named.  So, immediately upon learning that the restaurant we were in is named Rich Joy, we knew, with absolute certainty what its cultural origins are.  Well, maybe the Lomi was a dead give-away, but one can never be sure in this age of globalization. 

Rich Joy is a third generation restaurant. Its name has changed several times and so has its proprietors but it has thus far stayed in the same family. The current owner, a lovely Chinese woman in a pixie cut, declined to be named and said that her mother advised her two major things. First, that a restaurant doesn’t need publicity and second, she may cook anything, so long as she uses Chinese ingredients.

On the first matter, while she declined to be named and photographed, her natural instinct for people who appreciate her food was at work that day.  When she saw us taking pictures of the dishes, she immediately came over and made menu suggestions, all the while happily chattering about the history of the place, such as, that it was first put up in the ruins of war, in 1946 and has since been providing inexpensive and delicious food for students and the church going public patronizing the nearby Quiapo cathedral. She used to run the cashier in the corner, but now mainly chats up the regulars and entertains the newbies while armchair directing equally friendly kitchen staff.

The restaurant itself is located on Quezon Boulevard, squeezed between the uniform (ROTC, pilots, law enforcers) makers and vendors of cheap China electronics, one block or so away from Quiapo church, walking distance from Isetann, and does brisk business even as one of the staff regularly conducts publicity calls from the open sidewalk side. “Sir, kain kayo! Lomi, bihon, club sandwich.”

The menu is pretty varied but reasonably priced and its best sellers are the Pata Bihon and the Lomi. What a surprise to discover the mild use of five spice powder (very subtle here, unlike cheap restaurants which tend to overdo it) and the generous ingredients – real Chinese black mushrooms, chicken liver, Chinese cabbage, juicy slices of fish balls (I didn’t quite make them out as fish balls, but there they were), egg mix an
d fat lomi noodles. I was perfectly happy with the dish and began to regret ordering the sandwiches. But, no worries, they were great, for their price – forty two pesos for a clubhouse sandwich (burger, ham and egg) and twenty-two fifty for a small burger – and they kept well for when we were stuck in traffic later that afternoon.

Pata Bihon is a mongrel. Pancit bihon married pata tim and resulted in a large slice of pata tim (chopped) resting on a bed of bihon doused in the pata sauce mixed in with Chinese cabbage, fish ball slices and Chinese black mushrooms (do you see a pattern here?). The hoisin sauce and brown sugar blend well with pancit ingredients resulting an a sweet-salty dish that will have you discarding that no-carb diet.

An even bigger surprise is the cleanliness of the establishment evident in both the taste of the dishes (no detergent in the mix, no slimy dishes or utensils) and the smell of the place. While one may long for airconditioning, the open-ness of the resto allows air circulation, preventing trapped food smells from turning rancid. Remember that famous Chinese restaurant in Cubao that was supposed to be using cat meat? Its awful exhaust smells were equally famous and could be detected at least half a block from its location.

The sandwiches at Rich Joy are clearly student fare, and provide more than simple survival for the financially strapped – though cheap, they’re actually good for the price. They weren’t swimming in mayonnaise (pet peeve!) In fact, the entire place could have just become another cheap hole in the wall for the hungry transients of Quiapo, but because of the current owner’s wise, wise mother, the generous Chinese ingredients and savory taste make this place a classic.

Kain tayo dun?

Rich Joy is located at the corner of Gonzalo Puyat (Raon) and Quezon Boulevard Cathedral side. 

Monday, July 2, 2012


The term “turo-turo” refers to an eatery where one needs only to point to the displayed food items to place an order. One therefore dispenses with a menu and makes things far simpler. The root word, of course, is “turo” meaning to point with a finger, though it is said, and I agree, that some Filipinos prefer to point with their pursed lips. Strangely enough, this lip pointing practice holds true in many situations, but it seems, rarely with food, mainly because in turo-turo places, one gets far too close to the food (though occasionally separated by the glass case or the cover of the food container) to need to use the lips.

Vivian’s started out as a tapsilog place. Tapsilog from the contracted term “tapa, sinangag at itlog” describing the main items of the meal, preserved beef, fried day old rice and egg, usually fried.
Tapa is from the Spanish word, “tapas” meaning appetizers, usually beef, pork or sausage. In this country, tapa refers to an inexpensive cut of meat soaked and cured in sugar, vinegar, spices and preservative. Originally intended as a method to allow beef or carabao beef to be stored for long periods, the tapa we know now is a much evolved version from the original which were usually salty and soaked in “salitre” a nitrogen based preservative that is historically important for having provided the explosive component in rioters’ dirty bombs called Molotov cocktails.
Now, the sweet/sour/savory version is made with prime cuts of beef, such as sirloin and in most cases, the made without the explosives.
Vivian’s made her name in the tapsilog business by providing hers in clean fastfood style. Located in Project 2 in Quezon City in a side street fronting NCBA, (which is on Aurora Blvd). Her tapa was also cheap and delicious (though sweetish) as she intended to provide the food for students of the nearby college. But one can’t really keep great food a secret and soon, business was so good, Ms. Vivien has expanded her original tiny eatery into a more spacious one, but still in the same place. She also became a household name in tapsilog, inspiring many copycats in the city.
Now her resto serves food turo-turo style and is open twenty four hours.   But she has other dishes worth coming back for, in particular, the lechon kawali, which though sitting in the food display for hours, showed no sign of degradation or oiliness. It remained sinfully crisp, deceptively light and oh so bad for your heart – the fat was crisp throughout, but not hard and perfectly rendered.  It was almost of bagnet quality, but not quite as cholesterol laden.
For those looking for a good clean turo-turo, open twenty four hours with a few parking slots and some kubos that have karaoke, this place is for you. But don’t pass on the lechon kawali, which is a must taste at least once in what will probably be a short life.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Trek through dessert

Seize the moment. Remember all those women
on the Titanic who waived the dessert cart.
                                     ~Erma Bombeck

No matter if the meal were multi-course or turo-turo fare, dessert -- for me, anyway -- is like oxygen. I would gladly pay for a slice of chocolate cake with two hours on the treadmill, but please, please, never deprive me of my bit of sweetness. Even the most humble streetside eatery makes a nod for a sweet end. Many serve hard candies, though, which doesn't really count as dessert. Others have the native rice cakes, which are usually too heavy to be considered, and are probably more merienda fare than a meal ender.

At this point, I would like to state for the record that I am one of those persons who, when eating something sweet need to offset the taste with something contrasting, like a salty or savory morsel. I usually feel sated with a couple of bites of sweet things -- cakes and the like, not people -- and the Tagalogs have a word for it, "umay." Its one of those non-translatable things. Umay is the feeling one gets when you get sick or gaggy over too much sweet. Try eating white chocolate or leche flan and nothing else beyond the point of saturation and thats the feeling. It has nothing to do with being full. It has everything to do with taste. Unfortunately for me, I get the umay feeling quite early in the eating of dessert. So, sometimes -- and my friends all attest to this, while rolling their eyes -- I eat dessert with the meal.

Yeah, you read that right.

caramel cake
Caramel cake
But dessert has been around since man probably discovered that certain fruits or plants which didn't kill him, had those dulcet tones for his tongue. Early desserts were honeycombs, dried fruit, dates. Before mass sugar production, sweets were -- as many luxuries were -- reserved for the rich. The birth of sugar plantations and machinery that hastened production resulted in a more democratic enjoyment. The Philippines in fact enjoyed a large quota for exports to the United States in the early part of the twentieth century, continuing on until the seventies. The strict enforcement of a diminshed quota, and rising competition led to the depression-like state of sugar producing provinces like Bacolod in the 1980s.

To this day, we remain a significant sugar producer, but so diminished now, due to the widespread belief -- I'm still hoping this could be debunked by some scientist -- that sugar is (gasp!) bad for you. Further discussion not needed, nor required as it may lead to another depression, this time, mine.

Dessert comes from the French word "dessirvir" meaning to clear the table. I take that to mean that dessert is meant to clear the palate or sweep it with a taste different from the meal so as not to get gaggy over the savory meal. This leads us to another Tagalog word for over satiated with a savory taste, "suya" Thus in Tagalog, one is invited to eat a sweet dish after a meal to remove the suya ("pampaalis ng suya").

To prevent umay, many people serve dessert with cheese as a counterpoint. Anyone who has eaten apple pie with edam or even with sharp cheddar or cottage cheese knows whereof we speak and is well aware of the symphony of tastes this provides.

Thus to clear the suya, especially after a turo-turo tour, we have found -- and continue to keep finding -- wonderful dessert places in the metropolis. I theorize that Pinoys have such a long history of dessert, every family has at least one favorite that keeps showing up at reunions and family gatherings, making many quite the experts at making them. Our love for them makes us skilled at it, and there are quite a few bakeshops, beyond the Goldilocks and Red Ribbon varieties which prove it.

Thus, evidencing the Pinoy's love for the sweet stuff and their skill at it, most coffee shops and restaurants boast of specialties or a line up of special cakes, pies, cupcakes or cookies exclusive to their stores. Others have gimmicks, such as Orange Hotel's eat all you can cakes and coffee.

black and white cake
black and white cake
The one we went to is located on Santolan and featured on that day, caramel chocolate cake, double chocolate cake, and black and white cake, making it my decadent day for choco. The coffee they served was a very mild arabica, smooth and classy. The caramel cake was moist and lightly sweetened, making it
a perfect partner for the hot and only faintly bitter drink.

The double chocolate cake may have been sitting in the freezer a bit long because it was dry and not quite as flavorful. The coffee made up for it, as by then I was on my second cup.

The best part of the day was the black and white cake. Subtly made, sweet highlights, but never overwhelming or cloying, though the cream could very well have headed that way.

All cakes could have suffered from dry roughness of a commercial cake, but these had an almost home-made quality. I only wish I had more thumbs for a more convincing sign of approval. Three thumbs up.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Turo-turo series: Maginhawa pa rin

Diliman is where UP is, and therefore remains one of my favorite places. It has given rise to interesting eateries catering to students -- something which we must explore soon. However, there is also another area, exiting UP from the Stud Farm, in Maginhawa street, Teacher's Village, which is slightly more upscale, more "young new professional" and less "student budget." My only complaint is that it seems to be perpetually stuck in the up and coming stage, never quite becoming a Malate, Timog or even Cubao Expo. Turn over of the pricier restos there seem to be high, even with nearby Bayantel and UP providing a steady stream of customers. 

It is, however, hospitable to low scale eateries, many of which lack the sophistication of the legendary Pampanguena in Katipunan Road fronting Ateneo. Many of these places are filling, but nothing to write home about. 

Nanette's is like that, but still packed a surprise. 
It advertised burritos and bibingka, but had on display isaw and pork barbecue, so we ordered all four. The bibingka was real, meaning it was made the traditional way, but since we went there at 3 in the afternoon, the one we had seems to have sat in the styrofoam warmer for some time. My guess is that it would have been great, had we gotten to it freshly baked. Still, it was genuine and simple -- no red eggs or cheese, and came with the requisite niyog on the side. Nanette's provides sugar on the table, which I thought was a nice touch. Most sellers of bibinka don't go that far. 

The burrito was made fresh, the onions and lettuce were crisp but the tomatoes and beef were barely there. I suspect they were going for a local version of the shawarma. Though it was tasty, it was slim and didn't pack enough inside to satisfy a customer, so at P55, it doesn't seem worth it. Hmmm. Maybe we should tell Nanette. 

The pork barbecue was cold, tough and tasted ordinary. There was too much post-roasting barbecue sauce that made it look too red. I couldn't finish it. 

But the real surprise was the isaw bituka ng baka. Lightly crisp, served warm and bursting with flavor, it felt like we hit the jackpot. Unlike other isaw offerings in other places, this nearly had a gourmet taste, no rancidity or gamey taste, no tough chewing. Certainly worth the trip, if they keep up this kind of quality.
In all, Nanette's is typical of the area, it holds promise, but doesn't live up to it too much. If it tries harder, it could be the next big thing for bakang isaw. 

Final tab: P195 for two persons. Not bad.