We eat what we are
By Mary Ann Quioc Tayag
Updated February 26, 2009 12:00 AM
MANILA, Philippines – Two days ago, Claude and I had guests over for dinner. As I was coming from Manila, I arrived just before he served them dessert. It was made of three balls of macapuno, ube and glazed kamote baked in pure carabao milk pastillas and then blow-torched for that nice, golden-brown caramelized crispiness on top. When Claude served this dessert for the first time in 1999, he called it tatlong bola, an easy name to remember albeit a naughty one. The late doyenne Doreen Fernandez, who was among the firsts to try it then, gasped and said: “Gosh, Claude, this is paradise!” Since then, we have simply called it Paradiso. It is, till today, my favorite dessert that Claude makes.
In Pampanga, many of our desserts are cooked with carabao’s milk, which is super linamnam because of its high butterfat content. We also pour it over hot rice and eat it with tuyo or tapang kalabaw for breakfast, which freaks out non-Kapampangans. (Strangely enough, Filipinos are reluctant to drink it solely because of lacto-intolerance.) I grew up with carabao milk and it is still to me the best way to enjoy tuyo (especially yung makaliskis) in the morning. Our Caucasian guests cringe when they see me eat this way. I tell them it is just like their Rice Krispies with milk in the morning — but of course, ours taste better. To this day, I have not been able to convince a single one of them to just try it. But then, I, too, find the Batangas breakfast of hot coffee over rice so weird in taste and look.
We eat what we are. People’s food preferences are very cultural. And that is why I often say no one has any right to criticize anyone else’s food. Dishes are influenced mainly by what ingredients are abundant in the locality and the cooking styles that can even date back to prehistoric and colonial days.
Recently, Claude and I were so privileged to be guests of Ateneo University professor Dr. Fernando “Butch” Zialcita and his students in his “Culture and the Senses” class. For the young to better understand and appreciate the varied aspects of cultural heritage, Prof. Zialcita has them look at the works of Amorsolo, listen to Philippine music and that of our neighbors, try our hilot and other different foreign massages. And to prove that, indeed, there is Filipino cuisine and we are not just copycats, he coordinated with chef Gene Gonzales of Café Ysabel to prepare Philippine dishes that have similar counterparts in other cuisines. And that is when he invited us to join them.
The printed menu excited me. For appetizer, there was kinilaw na tuna and the Spanish boquerones. I do not eat kinilaw because I always think my stomach will churn as it is cooked only in vinegar but I like boquerones. Boquerones, according to chef Gene, is marinated for a long time with lemon, then parsley while vinegar and sili are added to the tuna 30 minutes before serving. No wonder my stomach could take boquerones more than kinilaw. The vinegar, he said, is used not to cook the fish but just to kill the bacteria in the same way the Japanese put wasabi in their sashimi. Hearing that the vinegar supposedly killed all the parasites, I dared try the kinilaw and it was surprisingly good albeit less tasty than the boquerones.
Then we had pancit molo and won-ton soup. Pancit molo originated in Molo, Iloilo City, the district where the Chinese lived. Won-ton soup has sesame oil, Chinese herbs and cilantro while our pancit molo has more Malay attributes, such as toasted garlic on top.
We had Spanish and Filipino adobo as well. It is appropriate to point out that we had adobo even before the Spanish came and that is why our adobo is very different from our colonizers’ version. In fact, a Spanish chef we had lunch with one time says he prefers our version to theirs. Spanish adobo is meat marinated with paprika powder, less saucy and, if you ask me, the taste is closer to our apritada because it is cooked with tomatoes. The six college students at our table all agreed that our adobo surpasses the Spanish adobo in look and taste.
Our chicken inasal was compared with the Malaysian ayam panggang. Inasal is orange in color because of achuete and we naturally dip it in vinegar. Ayam panggang is blackish and is cooked with lots of spices. Unlike us, the Malaysians and Indonesians will never sawsaw their food in vinegar.
Kare-kare was interestingly compared with Thai massaman curry. Our kare-kare, a name that must have come from curry (in Filipino, when the word is repeated, it means “like” as in “bahay-bahayan”), lost something in its journey from centuries of assimilation by the Indian sepoys (soldiers) who opted to stay behind in Cainta and Taytay when the British left Manila in 1764, then a short two-year takeover from the Spaniards. Our kare-kare, compared to the massaman, is rather bland without the bagoong and other strong flavors. Although both were cooked with peanuts, I could not detect the peanut taste in the Thai dish.
Our Pampango bringhe (known in other regions as Valenciana) was compared with Indian biryani. Both are rice dishes cooked with coconut milk and turmeric. Though I am a true-blue Kapampangan, I surely like biryani more than bringhe. Growing up, I never developed a taste for bringhe, which I always thought of as a dish served not for its great taste but more as a filler, since it can literally feed an army with little expense. It was a dish I often saw during wakes and feasts of farmers. In my mind then, if it was not expensive, it was not good. Of course, I was young and silly. And I did not have a professor like Dr. Butch who could open minds and taste buds in and outside the classroom. (Wish I could be young again.)
Food and culture are what make a country interestingly different. God gave India approximately 25 different spices and it is just naturally wise for our Indian brothers to fully use them in their cooking. Spices like mace, garlic, cardamom, cinnamon and chili, fenugreek, coriander and bay leaves, turmeric, cloves, cumin, and coriander seeds make their food exotic and distinctively Indian.
A cultural dinner I unfortunately missed was the Thali dinner hosted recently by Spices Restaurant of The Peninsula Manila for the media to launch their coming Indian Thali promotion. Thali is a common style of meal in India and the word refers to the type of platter on which it is served. The basmati rice and chapati are placed in the middle with many different small dishes around. The balance, presentation and aromas are studied carefully and one drools in anticipation as he approaches the thali.
I love Indian food. The menu of saag gosht (diced boneless lamb braised in creamy spinach), gulab jamun (deep-fried cheese dumplings macerated in sugar syrup), rawa fried fish (mackerel coated with semolina and deep fried), andhra chicken curry (boneless chicken pieces braised in tomato gravy chili and coriander) and lemon-flavored basmati rice made me very hungry. Of course, they have lots of vegetarian dishes but I am not hugely into vegetables.
The Peninsula’s Thali festival will be from Feb. 16 to 28 and I will surely have my fill of Indian food at Spices by Indian specialty chef Avanish Kumar Jain. Though we do a lot of cooking in the house, Indian cuisine is one that Claude would rather leave to the experts. And no amount of fresh Indian spices and cajoling will change his mind. He insists one must master the properties of each spice to successfully blend them together. As we Filipinos love to say, “nasa Indian, wala sa pana.’