Eating one’s way around the Philippines

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We have heard it too many times before that it is tough to sell Philippine cuisine to foreigners when we ourselves cannot agree on what is a good adobo (garlic, vinegar and soy marinate,) or a good sinigang (tamarind broth) for that matter. But does having a singular unifying dish like hamburger or hotdog make a cuisine better than the other? Who wants to eat the same standard adobo anywhere you go in the country? As they say, variety is the spice of life. And with such wonderful regional cuisines having an endless variety of tastes, flavors and nuances—often served full of surprises—isn’t it adventurously more fun having such diverse cuisine?

My wife Mary Ann Quioc and I travelled and literally ate our way around the country the past decade, in search of the proverbial Holy Grail, culminating in the publication of “Linamnam: Eating One’s Way Around the Philippines” (Anvil Publishing, 2012.) In this culinary travel guide book, not only do we lead the reader to the best eats every region has to offer, scouring the length and breadth of the archipelago, but we also learned the why’s and how’s that makes each dish unique and outstanding in its own right. We discovered the sheer variety and intricacies of our multi-layered cuisine, making sense of what makes the Filipino eat what he eats, and debunking the pronouncements of armchair pundits that Filipino cuisine is all brown, oily, and unappetizing.

Indeed, there’s more to it than the adobo, pancit (noodles,) and lumpia (rolls.) Diverse as Filipino cuisine may be, there is only one word to describe it: malinamnam (tasty.) It is the yumminess in English, not merely tasty, flavorful, savory, or delicious. Perhaps it is all of the above, and more. It’s the kilig that only a Filipino can identify with. It’s a thrill of emotion or excitement, a tingling sensation (sounds almost orgasmic, doesn’t it?)

When it comes to panlasa (taste,) it is the bitter and salty tastes that are most sought after up north in the Ilocos region, while sweet and sour for the Pampangos, the mouth-puckering sour for the Tagalogs, and the richness of gata (coconut cream) and hot chili in Bicol. Down south in the Visayas, it is the simple basic cooking techniques of sugba/tola/kilaw, or “su-to-kil” for short, that draws out the natural sweetness of its bounties from the sea. They may be the most basic form of cooking, but defi nitely not plain tasting, mind you. After all, it is surrounded by one of the richest fi shing grounds in the archipelago, and it would be almost criminal to use any spice to mask the natural flavors of the freshest seafood there is.

In our book “Linamnam,” my wife and I probed the origins of such iconic dishes like Ilocos empanada (savory stuffed pastry,) Pampanga’s sisig (sizzling pork cheeks and liver,) Manila’s steak ala pobre (poor man’s steak) and salpicao (tenderloin tips,) Batangas bulalo (boiled beef shank,) Lipa City’s lomi (egg noodles,) Bicol Express (spicy pork in coconut cream,) and Iloilo’s batchoy (noodle soup with assorted meats) to name a few. It all boils down to one person creating it, whether intentionally or accidentally. Then it catches on and everybody replicates it within the clan, the community, the province, then the whole country, becoming part of the national mainstream over time. But there are certain dishes served in a joint like no other, and, although available in other places, one has to have it just in that particular locality.

Mangantayón. Mangan tana. Kain na tayo. Kumaon na kita. Kaon ta anay. Manga-on na ta. Manga-un kita! Said in any other Filipino language, these are the most inviting words one will encounter anywhere you go in the country. Let’s eat!

Here are some of the more memorable iconic dishes we’ve encountered around the country:

Lechon (Spit Roasted Whole Pig)

This is the lechon that won the heart (and stomach) of Anthony Bourdain, who declared it numero uno in the world, replacing Bali and Puerto Rico in his books. The Cebu resource person, top blogger Market Man of Market Manila and his staff, took all of 10 pigs before getting the result he wanted—a blistery, golden red-skinned lechon. It is stuffed with an assortment of spices and herbs, then pricked a zillion times with a pin (“acupuncture,” he calls it) and basted with olive oil and local sea salt. Towards the last stages of roasting, it is sprinkled with water to make the skin rupture, and to make it bubbly crisp.

Zubuchon is the brand name for this unique style of lechon, coined after the original name Zubu for Cebu island in 16th century Spanish and Portuguese maps of the Philippine archipelago. It’s the ribs that have absorbed most of the flavors from the aromatic stuffing clinging to its undersides. In addition to the usual Cebu-style stuffing ingredients of lemongrass, garlic, leek, whole peppercorns, and salt are added red and white onion, fresh rosemary, thyme, lemon, red bell pepper, and chili peppers. Market Man recommends that the lechon should be eaten within 15-30 minutes after taking it out of the roasting pit. It is often served with puso or the heart-shaped boiled rice wrapped in a woven pocket of coconut fronds. Generally, Cebuanos favor dipping the salt-happy lechon in spiced vinegar, rather than the sweet liver sauce favored in Luzon.

Zubuchon – For orders of whole lechon, call Edrid or Beverly (Mon-Fri, 9 AM-4 PM), tel. nos. +63-32-236-5264, +63-917-627-4761. Lechon by the kilo available at the Banilad Town Center, Mon-Sat, from 11 AM until supplies last. They airfreight whole lechons to Manila!

Kinilaw Na Tangige (Ceviche)

Less than an hour’s drive north of Tagbilaran, Bohol, is Maribojoc town. On the dead-end narrow road to the Punta Cruz watchtower, past the town’s parish church, is Aup-Aup Seafood Restaurant. “Aup-aup” means “flickering light,” probably an allusion to the distant kerosene lamps on boats out fishing at night. One dines inside bamboo-slatted cabanas on stilts by the water’s edge, looking out to the Bohol Strait. The very fresh seafood, coupled with the constant gentle sea breeze and idyllic setting, defines the dining experience. Seafood is served mainly in the Visayan “SU-TU-KIL” tradition (sugba/tula/kilaw or grilled/boiled/vinegar-cured.) One of Aup-Aup’s specialties is its very fresh and clean-tasting kinilaw tangige or mackerel soaked in palm vinegar and coconut milk. Boholano kinilaw comes in two ways. The more favored version uses plain coconut vinegar, added into the dish just before it is served, plus ginger and bird’s eye chilies. The other is called binakhaw, which uses thick coconut cream together with the vinegar. The term “fresh catch from the sea” couldn’t get any more accurate.

Aup-Aup Seafood Restaurant – Punta Cruz watchtower, Maribojoc, Bohol. Call Inday Campos, tel. nos. +63-38-504-9467,+63-928-399-9376.

Ilocos Empanada (Fried Savory Turnovers)

By 5pm, students, office workers, and professionals alike trek to Batac’s Riverside Empanada Plaza for a bite of this addicting merienda fare. A row of food stalls under the covered plaza comes alive by mid-afternoon and is soon filled with locals and tourists alike, hankering for basically the same things: empanada, miki, balut (boiled duck egg), fried peanuts, and barbecued meats. The beloved Ilocano turnover’s dough is made with rice flour and stuffed with a mixture of grated green papaya and/or mongo sprouts, garlicky Iloco longganisa, and egg wrapped in a screaming orange-colored rice flour dough. It is made and deep-fried as one orders it, then eaten still piping hot, doused with a spicy sukang Iloko. One can have a “healthier” version with just the vegetable filling. But what the heck, make ours “double-double” (two longganisas and two eggs.) Oh, by the way, one can request how you want the egg: runny yolk (malasado) or well-done. It is best paired with a bowl of hot steaming miki, a thick noodle soup in a rich chicken broth, topped with fried garlic and chicharon bits and half a boiled egg. And that’s just for starters.

Meanwhile, a bit further south in Vigan City, the locals favor a somewhat different empanada. The dough is much thinner, almost like a lumpia wrapper, and without the artificial coloring. Irene Santos, a fourth generation empanada monger, has the longganisa filling made early in the day. It’s basically ground pork seasoned with the requisite condiments of sukang Iloko, soy sauce, and garlic, but is no longer encased and made to age. It doesn’t have the oomph of its cooped-up cousin, but we just love its much lighter rice flour crust, remaining crisp even when it cools, unlike Batac’s, which toughens like cardboard. And we just love the way the half-cooked eggs (double, of course) ooze out once bitten into. Irene serves it all day, starting at 8 AM.

Glory’s Empanadahan – Riverside Empanada Plaza, Batac, Ilocos Norte, just across the Catholic Church, tel. no. +63-916-358-2597 Irene’s Empanada and Okoy – 11 Salcedo St. Vigan City, Iocos Sur, tel. nos. +63-77-722-0581, +63-917-690-1373

Bachoy (Noodle Soup With Assorted Meats)

Batchoy (noodle soup with assorted meats) – Batchoy first appeared in the wet market of La Paz district in 1938, served by Federico Guillergan, Sr. It’s named after the Chinese word batsoy, a Hokkienese term that refers to dishes with pork loin as the main ingredient. At Deco’s, a serving consists of a large bowl of thin wheat noodles, topped with very generous slivers of the assorted meats cut with scissors, then ladled with the piping hot caldo or broth boiled for hours with pork and beef meat and bones, liver, intestines, and Ilonggo guinamos or shrimp paste for flavoring, and finally smothered generously with crushed tulapó (pork cracklings), fried garlic, spring onion, a spoonful of native MSG, and a yellowish dollop of luscious artery-clogging beef bone morrow. Usually served with sweetish puto or steamed rice buns.

Deco’s Original La Paz Batchoy, at the front of La Paz Market, Rizal St. Iloilo City, Tel. no. +63-33-320-0725

Sisig 

No respectable Filipino eatery worth its fat would be without sisig, that yummy, cholesterolladen Pampango pulutan served on a sizzling plate. In its present popular form, it is basically a concoction of pork ears, cheek, and jowl, fi rst boiled, then grilled over charcoal until almost charred, chopped and mixed with boiled chicken liver, onions, and kalamansi, and spiked with fresh chili. Aling Lucing Cunanan of Angeles City is credited with having invented the present-day version of sisig in the mid-1970s, doing a makeover on the sisig matua, grilling further the boiled pig’s head and mixing it with chopped chicken liver. Another local establishment, Sisig Benedict (owned and operated by the late Benedict Pamintuan,) gave sisig a new presentation, serving it on a hot skillet for that crunchy finish. But even then, sizzling sisig was only popular among the Angeleños and the accidental tourists. It wasn’t until cousins Mario and Dan Tayag opened Trellis Restaurant in Quezon City in 1980 that many Metro Manilans had their first taste of this Pampango delicacy. This started the restaurant/grill genre bandwagon, and the sizzling craze caught on. In some joints in the metropolis, it is served with a raw egg that will cook on the hot plate (making it an ulam to be eaten with rice), or is mixed with mayonnaise and whathave-you. For the more health-conscious, cholesterol-free variants have been concocted out of squid, tuna, shrimp, tofu, or chicken. Nowadays, it seems that just about anything served on a sizzling plate is called sisig. But nothing beats the genuine article, in all its artery-clogging, uric acid-elevating glory.

Bulalo (Boiled Beef Shank)

If there’s one singular dish Batangas is identifi ed with, it is bulalo. Though it is just basically boiled beef shank and kneecap (called “bulalo” in Tagalog, lower part of foreleg with marrow), with onions, leeks, salt, and pepper, it is variably served with some some pechay (Chinese cabbage,) cabbage, carrots, potatoes, or corn on the cob, depending on the whim of the cook. It’s still just a clear broth, nilagang baka by another name. According to urban legend, the present day bulalo as we know it was popularized by Rose and Grace Restaurant, a Batangas institution since 1970. It served the typical nilagang baka just like everybody else, but it was able to brand it bulalo with the use of uniformly cut shanks with bone marrow, making it attractive to patrons, and serving it piping hot in large bowls. Though sawsawan or dipping sauce is a personal preference, most favored with bulalo are patis (fi sh sauce) / toyo (soy sauce,) calamansi, and siling labuyo. Rose and Grace’s strategic location along the Maharlika Hi-way between Calamba and Sto.Tomas has made it a favorite pit stop for travelers going south (to Quezon and Bicol) and north (back to Manila,) providing newly-cooked and well-presented local fare.

Rose and Grace– Maharlika Highway, Sto. Tomas, Batangas, tel. no. +63-43-778-1052. Branch: Barangay Don Jose, Sta. Rosa Estate, Santa Rosa City. Open from 5 AM to 12 midnight.

Longganisa

is one of the indelible culinary legacies from Spain. The Filipinos, in turn, adopted and adapted it with gusto to their regional context. In the Ilocos region, producers of sukang Iloko, salt and garlic that they are, the Ilocanos love their longganisa seasoned with the three, natural preservatives. In Pampanga, sugar is used as the main seasoning (again, as a preservative) which, when cooked, gives the longganisa a cloyingly rich, sweet caramelized coating, much like the tocino. The bipolarity of these two schools of taste is like a tug-of-war between the salty and sweet — the former, popularly known nationwide as de recado (Spanish for seasoning; Tagalog sangkap,) as salty and garlicky; and the latter, hamonado (from Spanish jamon) after the sweet, ham-like taste. Other variants have evolved using whatever locally available ingredient there is, or whatever local or regional taste dictates. Some have even made the town famous (i.e. Alaminos, Baguio City, Vigan, Lucban, Guagua, Cabanatuan, etc.) distinctive not only in taste, but in shape and size as well.

Managat (Red Snapper) Sabaw Na Abalon (Abalone Soup) Imbao (Mangrove Clams)

Breakthrough Seafood Restaurant offers Iloilo’s freshest catch from the sea, just like its neighbor Tatoy’s. But I’d give the former an edge because of the aerated aquariums where it keeps a stock of live managat, imbao clams (Anodontia edentula), blue crabs, krusan or St. Christopher crabs (named after the cross design on its shell,) abalone, and lobsters. The managat (mangrove jack) is taken out of the water only as ordered, gutted, then butterfl ied and simply grilled, basted with calamansi, garlic, and achuete oil, in that Ilonggo way with inasal or grilling. Its meat has a somewhat milky quality to it, moist and juicy, with a glob of fat (yummy Omega-3 fatty acids), held together by a crisp brown skin underneath. It has been our benchmark for a perfectly grilled fi sh. Request for its liver and fat intact (the frozen ones have none of it,) and specify that you want it toasted a bit on top (they cover it with aluminum foil and top it with live coal, while being grilled underneath—talk about an improvised broiler or salamander.)

The imbao, on the other hand, is a large bulbous clam found only in the Visayas. When eaten raw, the clam meat is like a little blown balloon, and has a lusciously fatty, jellybean-like texture, with a tendency to be rubbery when cooked. Once placed whole in one’s mouth and bitten into, it gives a burst of seawater, with all its freshness and salinity. Breakthrough’s live white meat abalone (it was still squirming out of the plate when shown to us) comes from the nearby island Guimaras, and can be served as sashimi (its texture is like boiled octopus, but less rubbery, with a sweet and salty taste,) cooked in coconut cream (surprisingly very tender,) or placed in a sotanghon soup together with imbao and diwal or angel-wing clams. Its clear broth is so redolent of the ocean’s smell and fl avors, a magical soup in all its simplicity.

Breakthrough Seafood Restaurant – Villa Beach, Brgy. Sto Niño Sur, Arevalo, Iloilo City. Tel: +63-33-337-3027.

Bicol Express

Of all the regional Philippine cuisines, Bicolano cooking is perhaps the only one that can be homogenously characterized by its heavy use of coconut milk and copious amount of chilies, be it in the meat, seafood and vegetable dishes. The Bicol region encompasses the four southeastern Luzon provinces of Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Albay, and Sorsogon, and two island provinces of Catanduanes and Masbate. No self-respecting establishment in Bicol worth its coconut (pun intended,) from the humblest turo-turo to any upscale bistro, would be caught dead without its iconic laing, pinangat, and Bicol Express. The latter, a.k.a. gulay na lada (gulay in Bicolano means cooked in coconut milk or ginataan, while “lada” means chilies), it comes in so many variants, as countless as there are households.

Bicol Express got its name from the express train that used to ply Tutuban Station in Manila to the southern terminal at Legazpi City in Albay and back. Legend has it that the late restaurateur Tita Cely Kalaw, the big-hearted lady from Lipa City, Batangas, who grew up in Naga City, where she developed her Bicolano taste buds, started her cooking career back in 1970 with a four-table hole-in-the-wall karinderia in the garage of an uncle’s house in Malate, Manila. Here, the legend goes, her brother Kuya Itring introduced the Bicolano dish gulay na lada to the uninitiated Manileños, naming it after the express train from Bicol, which they could hear coming and going from their kitchen. The fiery dish literally caught fire in Manila and spread all over the archipelago, such that today, even in the region of its origin, it is now popularly called Bicol Express, albeit in so many variants.

Waway’s Restaurant, served with balao or shrimp paste and pork — Peñaranda Ext. St., Legazpi City, tel. no. 052-480-8415.

Cherry’s Karinderia, with dried dilis or anchovy fries — Victory Village Market, Legazpi City .Alamo’s Eatery, with creamy balao with pork and pineapple chunks — Elizondo St., Brgy. 30, Pigcale, Legazpi City, tel. no. 052-480-7258.

First Colonial, with grilled pork belly, and served creamy — Rizal St., Old Albay District, Legazpi City, tel. no. 052-481-1212.

Amy’s Karinderia, with balao only, served dry — Victory Village Market, Legazpi City.

About the author:

Claude Tayag is an accomplished artist, a handy chef, writer and columnist in the Philippine Star. His best-selling books include “Food Tour,” a collection of his food and travel essays, which won the Best Philippine Culinary Travel Guide in the Madrid-based Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2007, while the second one, “Linamnam – Eating One’s Way Around the Philippines,” which he co-authored with his wife Mary Ann Quioc, also won the same award in 2012. He is also a coauthor and the food stylist of “Kulinarya – A Guidebook to Philippine Cuisine” launched in October 2008. He has been written about as the most influential Filipino food writer in 2012.

Together with his wife, they run the by-reservation-only Bale Dutung Restaurant, where they also reside, in Angeles City, Pampanga, serving sumptuous traditional Pampango spread. It has been listed by local bloggers as one of the Philippines’ top ten restaurants, making it also to Miele Guide 2009-10-11 as one of Asia’s Top 500 Restaurants. They have hosted meals for such international luminaries like Anthony Bourdain (author, TV host), Tom Parker Bowles (food editor, Esquire UK), Simon Majumbar (author Eat My Globe) and Australian chef/TV host Peter Kurovita. www.baledutung.com’

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