I dream of Warung

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It’s an iconic greeting that’s often shortened to “Pah – gee – Pak!” We would leave the residences as early as 6 a.m. specifically to avoid the morning rush hour. If we hit the road any time after 6:15, a 30-minute drive becomes a two-hour nightmare. That facility we conduct our business in had a buffet of homey cooking with soup, main course, vegetables, sambal and of course, rice. I can tell you, the exotic aroma of spices pervading the dining hall was rather intoxicating.

I still recall that first day ever, and the only word that came into my mind before entering that dining hall was curry. Each mouthful was always a different kind of curry. One day nutty, smooth and saucy, next day pasty, fiery and fibrous, then later a saucy and savory soup. But there’s always something more – something special about all that spice that makes it a new discovery at every encounter.

Indonesian roots

On the day we came to visit, Ma. Teresa “Tess” Doctora and Ma. Luisa “Louh” Decena emerged from the kitchen in matching batik tunics and batik bandana, which we later learn is mandatory headgear in the kitchen. The prospect of retiring apparently did not sit well with them because their first question was “What are we going to do now?” They did not need a referendum to what they will do. After 28 years, the sisters decided to call it a day and retire back to the Philippines, deciding to just cook Indonesian food simply because they liked it. “We are the COO with a K . . . or cook!!” says Tess, between bouts of laughter and a snide retort from Louh. “Our mother was also a cook and we acquired that”.

‘Appetize’ this

The Martabak is a roadside stand that one would typically find on the streets of most Indonesian towns, right alongside the mie goreng (fried noodles) and the bubur (rice porridge) stands. Unlike the rest though, they can be sweet (manis) or savory with eggs (telur). The batter is set on a round, large pie pan and left to cook covered for a few minutes, with ingredients liberally sprinkled over it before lifting the whole chef-d’oeuvre out of the pan where it is set down and split down the middle. This is where the single fold transforms the cake into a half moon sandwich where it is cut into neat little squares. With the eggs incorporated into the mixture and sprinkled with seasoned ground beef and onion leeks, it is at once a heady concoction of the slightly sweet cake, the saltiness and the creaminess of the amalgamated eggs, and the beef and leeks, all producing textures on different levels and with just the slightest bite of customary chilis.

 

In all its difficulties

It all started just off Katipunan, almost directly across the Ateneo. Right from the beginning, they were committed to do all the cooking. It wasn’t until 2006 when they ventured into the Legaspi Sunday Market. Fast forward 10 years later and you will still see them, diligently serving up paket after paket (loosely translated as Package) as a testament to its popularity. “Usually by 11 we have to make changes because we usually run out of the Bakwan (Veggie fritters) because it’s like “okoy”.

The idea behind Warung Kapitolyo as a restaurant started sometime in 2014. The area was purely a residential enclave, and there was simply no way a restaurant would get a permit to operate in a residential area. Without exception they still stuck by it. Contractors were still called in, interior designers dealt with, raw materials sourced in spite of everything.

Making it authentic

The work is organized into three distinct teams: the kitchen operations where the sisters lord it over the staff, the dining area where the guests are entertained, and the commissary that holds the ingredients. Without an executive chef, Louh and Tess determine what goes into the menu and where the ingredients come from. Part of the authenticity rests in the use of actual Indonesian ingredients. “The cabe (chilis) are the real problem because there are four or five different kinds” according to Louh. “That’s why we decided to grow our own,” says Tess. In family-owned plots in Batangas and Bulacan, the Indonesian finger chilis are propagated and grown by relatives. There are no other clients except Warung and as the saying goes, the food can only be as good as the ingredients they are made with.

To dish out the popular

One of the more popular items in both the Legaspi markets and Warung Kapitolyo restaurant is the Beef Rendang. At the Legaspi market, you get the saucy stew that has a spicy and heady aroma, redolent with the faintest essence of lemons, citrus, a bit of cinnamon and the lightest hint of chili. Although many recipes require blitzing the spices in a food processor, the more traditional approach to creating a spice paste is using a mortar and pestle, but at Warung Kapitolyo, they use the even more traditional Cobek grinding stone. One grinds the spices against the smooth basalt which surprisingly is more efficient at transforming the spices into a pasty sambal or bumbu. The version of Beef Rendang at Warung Kapitolyo has much less liquid gravy but the scent of lemony and citrusy spices blended with that spice islands aroma slowly wakes up our nostrils. Each mouthful reveals the flavor layer by layer. First, the coconut creams cover the tongue, then suddenly the chilis creep up on you, lighting up just the tip of your tongue, then spreading throughout while the lemongrass and kaffir lime starts slowly wafting, quickly followed by the antiseptic assault of the chilies.

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Heirloom fried chicken

Ayam Goreng Ibu Wiwiek means fried chicken. Ibu Wiwiek is a lady that traveled to the Philippines just to prepare this dish behind closed doors. It’s not a restaurant dish common in Indonesia but is instead an heirloom recipe. Coming all the way from Surabaya, the recipe and technique is a closely guarded secret. The dish arrives looking like one gigantic taro puff. As you gingerly break through the flakey outer web, the chicken revealed underneath is not a battered item but instead a light golden brown chicken that surrenders easily to a butter knife cutting through it. The juices flow right out of the meat, coating every flavor sensor of your tongue. It’s at once more salty than sweet, but there’s a mild sourness, and then the scent tells you there’s more in store.

Living the dream

Tess and Louh talk about Warung Kapitolyo as something for their children. One daughter took culinary, another daughter resigned to take care of HR, while another took care of the marketing for the restaurant. To them, it’s the fulfillment of a dream to cook, to share. It’s a tireless dream that reveals itself as they reflect on how they love the place they dreamed of and built, and dream to keep.

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