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.