Friday, May 2, 2014

Laoya- Marikina

My grandmother was known for her cooking skills. And if I had a peso for every time I read this sentence, by various authors, I'd be able to buy up half the country. Still, Lola Olay, as we called her, was the quintessential lola. She took care of me when I was a baby, she taught her daughters homemaking skills so that even when they mostly became career women, they all could and still do, cook up a mean meal. And, I am proud to say,  that to this day I can crochet like she did. And cook. Maybe.

Hanging out in Lola's kitchen meant you got the stories as well as the food. And, unlike my siblings and cousins, I got asked a lot about what I wanted for meryenda or Sunday lunch, simply because I was the one there, underfoot. Often, I asked for laoya.

When investigating this dish, I found that strangers who had tasted Lola's laoya often thought that she had invented it. Its unique flavor does not seem to have a counterpart anywhere in the country.

Laoya comes from the Spanish words La olla, meaning "the pot." Spelled Lauya in other provinces, it has come to mean a boiled meat dish, or as the Tagalogs put it, "nilaga." As is evident, next perhaps to adobo, nilaga exists in various forms all over the country and varies only in the vegetables each region puts into it.

In its basic form, nilaga is boiled beef in onions and pepper corns. The part is usually the cow's thigh, with the bone in. The marrow and the bone give the soup its extra dimension. While Tagalogs usually add cabbage, string beans and potatoes, Cebuanos add in corn. But in all instances, the soup is clear.

In the North, lauya is a boiled pork dish, using the pig's knuckles.

In Marikina, however, laoya, is a traditional dish using the cow tail and derives its red hue from achuete -- a natural food coloring. Growing up, Lola would usually ask the driver to simply pick achuete off the tree in the backyard. It is sweetish, owing to the boiled bananas and sweet potatoes added into the pot. And since it is a traditional dish, it defies measurements.

Recently, I gathered up the courage to make my first version and thanks to Mama and her sisters, managed to approximate Lola's version.


Ox tail, chopped into about three inches in length
Salt about two teaspoons
pepper corns
onions peeled and quartered
garlic about one small head, peeled and pressed
String beans, cleaned
sweet potato (peeled, soaked in water for an hour, then boiled) and quartered
sweet plaintain (saba bananas) boiled in their skins, sliced into threes horizontally
achuete (natural red food coloring seeds from the  bixa orellana shrub or tree) soaked in half a cup of water
Sugar to taste

Boil the ox tail for two hours, then as it is still boiling, remove the scum that floats to the top.

Add salt and keep boiling until beef is tender. Add onions, garlic and pepper corns. Continue boiling.

When the fat on the oxtail softens to a gel like consistency, add the sweet potatoes and bananas. Adjust taste, then add food coloring. Add string beans and boil for ten minutes more.

Take off heat. Serve.

If on a low fat diet, my mother would make the laoya ahead, and when done, cool it, then refrigerate it. When the fat has coagulated on top, she would lift it all off. It should not affect the flavor much. Heat and serve.

Note that because of the sweet potatoes this dish does not keep for very long when unrefrigerated.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Sweet Jack

According to myth, a pregnant woman smells like a jackfruit to an aswang. Such is her fragrance that an aswang need only follow that scent to find his prey. It is no wonder, as the scent of jackfruit is sweet to many and conjures up happy summer memories.

Often used as a topping for the star cooler -- halo-halo-- or as a kicking sweetener in turon, jackfruit, or the langka is often recognized for its supporting role in dessert favorites. But its versatility is famous since it effortlessly transitions from vegetable to dessert, depending on the state of ripeness.

Enjoyed all throughout Asia and Southeast Asia where it is endemic, the langka is also served as a snack fresh or dried.

Langka trees are usually prolific. Farmers are advised to cull some of the fruit that a tree produces in order to favor the biggest one, and for it to develop into sweeter fruit. The culled fruit can be turned into a vegetable dish, cooked with gata.

But because a single fruit can produce so much edible flesh, it is often preserved in syrup. What follows is a lighter recipe for preserves than what are produced commercially.


6 cups jackfruit flesh, seeds removed, flesh cleaned and drained
3 1/2 c water
1 1/2 c sugar

Boil 2 cups water.
Blanch the jackfruit by immersing it in the boiling water for two minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon and put into a bowl.
Add remaining one cup water, bring to a boil.
Add sugar. Do not stir.

When sugar has been completely dissolved test done-ness by dipping in a metal spoon. If the liquid that drips from the spoon is slightly sticky, it is done.
Pour syrup over the jackfruit and cool.
When at room temperature place into sterilized jars and refrigerate.

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.