Published in Conde Nast Traveller Middle East, July 2015
On a road trip to the culinary capital of the Philippines, PRIYANKA PRADHAN gets a glimpse into the past as she samples everything from cricket salad to seafood stew and market-fresh mangoes.
Are you going to eat that?” A curious tourist at my table asked, as my cricket (kamaru) salad arrived in style, dressed in jelly and salted egg, and garnished with hand-rolled cheese. This, along with river shrimp in guava soup and papaya with sticky rice, made up part of a seven-course, re-invented menu fromPampanga, Central Luzon, a province known as the culinary capital of the Philippines.
I was dining at Casa Roces (0063-2-735 5896, casaroces.com), a refurbished Spanish ancestral home-turned-restaurant in an upscale part of Manila, right across from the Malacañan Palace. Run by the Center for Culinary Arts
(CCA). Casa Roces attempts to introduce Filipino food to the global palate by tweaking and creatively enhancing traditional recipes.
“Our cuisine is perhaps the most underappreciated of all Southeast Asian cuisines,”says Chef Sau del Rosario, culinary director of the CCA and a Pampanga native. “And so far, even we’ve believed that our food is so distinct and unique that it won’t appeal to non- Filipinos. But now we’re getting creative to allow the world a peek into our kitchen.”
Inspired by this sentiment, I set out on a road trip from Manila to Pampanga, vowing to eat anything that was put on my plate. My first stop was at the colossal 12,000sqm Araneta Center Farmers’ Market (0063-2-911-3101), for an introduction to local ingredients such as the lemon zest or souring agent calamansi, as well as succulent palm heart, bitter melon fruit and arguably the sweetest variety of mango in the world. The market was a melting pot of sights and aromas: different types of eel (palos) – a local favourite – on display alongside stingray and dried fish (balad).
A pot of blood soup (dinuguan) arrived at my table at the market’s indoor stretch of restaurants. Admittedly squeamish but equally intrigued, I picked bibingka (sweetened rice cake served with grated coconut), papaitan (goat’s intestines) and a serving of dried fish to wash down with my blood soup – a meal for those unperturbed by questionable breath.
The soup was delectable, despite its gorysounding ingredient: sweet and sour with fresh chillies that gave it a depth of flavour.
While blood is not uncommon in other Southeast Asian cuisines (nam tok soup in central Thailand or the Taiwanese blood cakes,for example), the Filipino dinuguan can be distinguished by its strong vinegary aftertaste.
Forty-one kilometers north of Manila city,I found myself in the quiet, dusty countryside surrounding the historic town of Malolos in the Bulacan province. Jeepneys and cycles trudged along at an unhurried pace and the red-tile roofs of local homes seemed to glisten in the sun. At the end of a winding street, the neoclassical Bautista Mansion beckoned with the promise of war tales, relics from the country’s prei-ndependence era and a sumptuous lunch.
Built in the 1850s, the Bautista Mansion is now run by historian and antique collector Dez Bautista and is open to the public. A visit to the grand mansion offers a chance to dine in the same room that Philippines’ national hero José Rizal did just before he was arrested for attempting to garner support for his revolution against Spanish colonial rule. In addition to a slice of history, the kitchen serves up an array of curated heirloom recipes, passed down four generations of the Bautistas. A mouthwatering homemade meal of Sta Veronica Birang – a distinctive preparation involving small pieces of fish or meat, diced vegetables and cheese wrapped together, breaded and fried – and a lovely chat with the charming Bautista took care of both curiosity and hunger.
“The women of Malolos invented this dish during the revolution,” he told me. “It was accessible, took 20 minutes to make and had very inexpensive ingredients. It’s due to its simplicity that the dish has survived till today.” A short walk from the Bautista Mansion lies the Casa Real de Malolos, a museum dedicated to the 21 Women of Malolos, who fought for their right to higher education during Spanish rule. Learning to make traditional tea time snacks and intricate cutwork wrappers for confectionery called borlas de pastillas offered an insight into the life and times of working-class women in the Philippines during the 1800s.
Pampanga was my final stop on the road. An inland province, it is known for its freshwater delicacies – especially frog, mole cricket and lizard – used in ancient traditional dishes that have survived the test of time. Life in this province is so closely linked with gastronomy that the kitchen is the largest and most important room in the typical Pampanga house. With Spanish, Mexican, Cantonese and Malay influences, Pampanga’s cuisine has a unique set of flavours. Some of the delicacies that originated here include biringyi (chicken in saffron rice) and tidtad itik (duck stew), born out of the multicultural exchange.
At the culinary museum in Angeles City,Museo Ning Angeles (0063-45-887 4703), Chef Atching Lillian Borromeo explained how some of the region’s most iconic dishes were accidental inventions or born out of necessity:
“In the days of colonial rule there was no cement to build houses, so egg white was used as a substitute. As a result, egg yolk was a byproduct and given away free at churches. The women of Pampanga began experimenting with yolks in different ways in the kitchen – giving birth to the 250-year-old recipe for eggyolk biscuits: Panecillos de San Nicolas.”
For my last supper in the culinary capital, I made my way to Bale Dutung (0063-45-888 5163), home of Pampanga’s artist-chef-writer Claude Tayag who, on occasion, opens his home to the public for a sampling of his specially curated menus. While the sea urchin with mochi (rice cakes) and bringhe talangka (rice cakes with crab roe) were crowd favourites, from his 11-course menu, a surprise lay in the kare kareng lamang dagat.
“Did you know this dish – seafood cooked in a peanut-based sauce – was inspired by the Indian curry?” he asked
the gathered diners. “When the British army occupied Manila and Pampanga, they brought with them 500 Indian sepoys from the East India Company. These soldiers stayed back after the clash between the British and the Spanish and settled down in the Pampanga region, lending their culinary influence to Filipino food, seen in dishes such as kare kareng lamang dagat and biryingi, the latter of which is inspired by the Indian biryani.”
With a story behind every dish and a history that’s checkered with the spoils of war and cultural exchange, Filipino cuisine has an important legacy to carry forward. A large part of the cuisine could be considered an acquired taste, suited to adventurous foodies and travellers. Yet even for the more tentative taster, a plate of adobo or the curiously named, fruity halo-halo dessert will do the trick.
And to answer the wide-eyed tourist’s question about my elaborately dressed cricket salad – I didn’t just eat it, I did so with relish.