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Filipino food finds a place in American mainstream

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Filipino dishes at a potluck hosted by poet J. Mae Barizo in New York on Feb. 24. Though other Asian cuisines have been part of the American landscape for decades, Filipino dishes are only now gaining recognition outside immigrant communities; the flavors still have the power to startle.

In 1883, José Rizal, the future hero and martyr of the Philippine Revolution, was a homesick medical student abroad in Madrid. His longing for bagoong, a paste of seafood salted and left to ferment until it exudes a fathomless funk, grew so great that his worried family in Manila dispatched a jar. But it broke on the ship, releasing its pungent scent and, reportedly, terrifying the passengers.

Today, bagoong and other Filipino foods are finally entering the American mainstream, more than a century after the U.S. Navy sailed into Manila Bay, sank the Spanish Armada and took control of the archipelago, a restive colony of around 7,100 islands and 180 languages. Americans of Filipino heritage now make up one in five of all Asian-Americans, second only to Chinese in number, and the largest percentage of immigrants serving in the U.S. military were born in the Philippines.

Other Asian cuisines have been part of the American landscape for decades. But only in recent years have Filipino dishes started gaining recognition outside immigrant communities, at restaurants like Maharlika in New York; Bad Saint in Washington, D.C.; and Lasa in Los Angeles.

The flavors of Filipino cooking, like Rizal’s broken jar of bagoong, still have the power to startle those unfamiliar with them.

Although Filipino food draws on early encounters with Malay, Chinese and Arab traders as well as centuries of Spanish occupation, its profile is distinct: salty and sour above all, with less of the mitigating sweetness and chili-stoked fire found in the cooking of its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Bagoong — ranging from muddy brown to plumeria pink in color, commonly made of tiny krill, anchovies or bonnetmouths — brings to soups and stews a depth of flavor that evokes cheese interred in caves and aged steak, with an extra dimension of ocean floor.

It also may be eaten straight, daubed on rice or anointing slices of green mango. Along with its byproduct, patis (fish sauce), it’s an essential seasoning that claims a place on the table next to suka (vinegar) and banana ketchup (bananas cooked down in vinegar and tomato paste), as much a condiment as an ingredient.

As such, it’s part of what the Manila-born food historian Doreen Fernandez termed a “galaxy of flavor-adjusters” that define how Filipinos eat: seasonings added to dishes after they’re served, in trickles and pinches, according to each diner’s taste. A chef feeding Filipinos must sublimate ego and accept that no dish emerges from the kitchen fully finished. A meal is a joint effort between cooks and eaters.

If bagoong is the salt, suka is the sour lifeblood of the cuisine. Extracted from sugar cane or the sap from coconut trees or nipa palms, it was originally a necessary preservative in a warm climate.

How to take the bounty of fish from the surrounding seas and make it last? Cure it in suka and it becomes kinilaw, an ancient recipe that may have been one of the earliest forms of ceviche. To this might be added the bite of ginger, the silkiness of coconut milk, or a sunny kiss of calamansi, which has a sharper sting than lime.

For another staple, daing na bangus, milkfish is relieved of its bones, splayed and soaked in vinegar overnight for tenderness, then crisped in a pan. You can eat the flesh with a spoon.

Lumpia, cousins to Chinese spring rolls, are dunked in sawsawan (dipping sauce), which may be as straightforward as vinegar with a stutter of raw garlic. The rolls come fried to a crackle or “fresh,” with uncooked, doughy skins that suggest crepes, and filled with anything from ground meat to hearts of palm to whole green finger chilies, a variation called, rightly, dynamite.

Vinegar is the undertow, too, in adobo, perhaps the best known of Filipino dishes, whose ingredients and method predate its Spanish name. (“It’s really ours,” said Romy Dorotan, the chef of Purple Yam in New York.) At its base, adobo is a long braise of meat in vinegar and garlic, but other ingredients are up for debate: Some swear by soy sauce while others dismiss it as an import; some stir in achuete oil (made from annatto seeds), coconut milk, sugar or squid ink.

Of all Filipino dishes, adobo “has the most leeway for a cook’s imagination, hubris, art or bigoted sense of one’s own mother’s love-and-greatness,” novelist Gina Apostol said. There are nearly as many manifestations of adobo as there are Filipinos.

But is adobo the dish that speaks most directly to the Filipino soul? Fernandez argued otherwise, in favor of sinigang, a soup she described as “the dish most representative of Filipino taste,” in part because it’s adaptable “to all classes and budgets.” Recipes differ, but the goal is the same: a sourness so profound that the first sip should make you shudder.

“Sinigang is what my mother would make for me when I was sick,” said Alexandra Cuerdo, director of the documentary “Ulam: Main Dish,” about the rise of Filipino food in America, which is set to premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival next month.

The souring agent in sinigang changes by the map: It might be tamarind, guava, alibangbang leaves, kamias (the fruit of the sorrel tree), batuan (kin to mangosteen) or unripe pineapple — whatever is on hand in the region. Place matters to Filipinos, who often have tangled roots as a result of internal migration and speak multiple languages.

At Lasa, chef Chad Valencia uses rhubarb for sinigang when it’s in season. “Our region is Los Angeles,” he said.

Still, no one dish can sum up the Filipino palate. “A feast of different flavors is optimal,” said Nicole Ponseca, who runs Maharlika and Jeepney in New York. “Sauces meld, complement, make whole.”

To balance the sourness of adobo and sinigang, she suggests kare-kare, a nutty-sweet stew of oxtail, bok choy, string beans and eggplant, traditionally simmered with ground peanuts and achuete oil; peanut butter, a modern substitute, lends voluptuousness.

The history of kare-kare is often traced to a 20-month interregnum in the 18th century when the British wrested Manila from the Spanish. Indian cooks attending the Royal Navy brought the name and notion of curry to the islands, and had to make do with local spices.

Kare-kare, sinigang and adobo are likely to appear on most Filipino menus in the United States, from turo-turo (point-point) steam-table joints to sophisticated restaurants. So, too, is dinuguan, a pork-blood stew that can pose a challenge even for Filipinos.

“When I was growing up, dinuguan was a kind of culinary boogeyman, a dish that adults would tell gory stories about to scare children,” said Genevieve Villamora, an owner of Bad Saint.

The opaque stew, classically loaded with offal, is often passed off by Filipino immigrant parents as “chocolate meat” to their suspicious children. King Phojanakong, the chef of Kuma Inn in New York, remembers wondering, “Why was it so dark?”

But the mineral-rich blood is what gives the stew its ballast and faintly metallic hint of a licked knife. It must be cooked carefully so that the blood doesn’t congeal; done right, it turns to velvet. At Bad Saint, dinuguan has become one of the best-selling dishes, without the veil of euphemism.

If cooking is a vehicle for memory, for many Filipinos the dishes of their heritage are inseparable from days of celebration. “Food marks the occasion,” said Angela Dimayuga, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and was most recently the chef of Mission Chinese Food in New York.

It’s considered particularly lucky to eat pancit (noodles) on birthdays, their uncut strands promising long life. The name of the noodles is derived from a Hokkien phrase for “fast food.” Like their Chinese antecedents, they come in different shapes and textures: miki (made with egg), bihon (rice), sotanghon (mung bean) and canton (wheat). Recipes might include sluices of soy sauce and calamansi and toppings of shrimp heads, quail eggs, shucked oysters or chicharron.

For the highest occasion — like the 99th birthday of Dimayuga’s grandmother last year — there can be only one centerpiece: lechon, whole roasted pig, its shining, lacquer-thin skin primed to shatter.

“It’s trendy here to go head to tail, but there it’s just a way of life,” Phojanakong said. After a party, the lechon is broken down: “You use the head for sisig” — a sizzle of jowl and ears — “trotters for adobo, make dinuguan with blood and innards and turn leftovers into paksiw,” a vinegary stew contoured with a pate-like liver spread.

The backdrop to these dishes is always rice. Its earthy scent is the constant when you walk into a Filipino home, almost a ripening in the air. To Fernandez, rice was “the shaper of other foods,” its soothing blandness allowing other dishes to be stronger in contrast.

Glutinous rice is used, too, for kakanin, a genre of snacks that includes puto, little steamed cakes of ground rice and coconut milk, often accompanying dinuguan; suman, logs of sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves; and thick, gilded rounds of bibingka, perfumed with coconut and somehow fluffy and chewy at once.

Wheat, which came to the Philippines with the Spanish, also has its place in daily life. At any time of day, pan de sal, a simple bread roll, is nourishment. Isa Fabro, a pastry chef in Los Angeles, slakes hers in butter suffused with ube halaya (a jam of purple yam) and latik, a coconut-milk concentrate close in spirit to dulce de leche.

Some popular desserts that have European origins are now thought of as wholly Filipino: wobbly leche flan, custard under a gooey drape of caramel; Sans Rival, a dacquoise-like palimpsest of cashews, meringue and buttercream, which chef Nora Daza served in the 1970s at her Paris restaurant Aux Iles Philippines to the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Simone de Beauvoir; and mango royale, a crema de fruta turned icebox cake, with layers of cream and mangos teetering on overripe.

Beyond these greatest hits are regional specialties, which Dorotan, a native of Bicol in southeastern Luzon, wishes would get more attention. At Purple Yam, he makes laing, taro leaves simmered in coconut milk (the trademark of Bicolano cooking) until lush.

But which regional specialties does he want to see more of? He laughed. There are so many islands.

“Even I do not know,” he said.

MANGO ROYALE

  • 3/4 cups/170 grams unsalted butter (1 1/2 stick)
  • 2 sleeves/269 grams graham crackers (about 9 1/2 ounces)
  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • 6 to 8 soft ripe Manila mangoes (aka Ataulfo or Champagne) or 3 to 4 soft ripe large mangoes (Haden or Kent)
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons lime juice (optional)

In a small pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Cook the butter, occasionally scraping the pan, until it turns deep golden brown, being careful not to let it burn. Remove from the heat and let cool.

Pulse crackers in a food processor until finely ground. Pour into a medium bowl and add brown butter. Mix until well combined and texture is like wet sand. Let cool.

Generously spray a 9 1/2-inch glass pie plate with cooking spray. In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, pour the cream into the mixing bowl and whip on medium speed. Slowly drizzle in sweetened condensed milk, then beat to stiff peaks. (Beating on medium takes longer, but helps build a stable structure.) Set aside and chill until ready to use.

Cut cheeks from mangoes parallel to center pits. Scoop out flesh from cheeks with a spoon and slice flesh from pits. Coarsely purée fruit in a clean food processor. Measure 2 cups (save extra for other uses). If you like, add lime juice so puree tastes sweet-tart.

Sprinkle about 2/3 of the graham crumbs into the pie plate. Using your fingers and the palm of your hand, press to create an even layer on the bottom and sides of the plate.

Dollop half the whipped cream mixture on top, carefully spreading the cream evenly without stirring up crumbs. Spoon half of the mango puree on top and spread evenly.

Sprinkle all but a few tablespoons of the remaining crumbs on top. Repeat cream and mango layers. Sprinkle top with remaining crumbs but don’t smooth down.

Loosely wrap dessert with plastic wrap and freeze until firm, about 8 hours, or overnight. Can be made ahead up to this point and kept frozen for 2 weeks.

To serve, let thaw in fridge the night before serving, or let stand at room temperature for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Serve in wedges or scoops, making sure to scrape up the crumbs from the bottom of the plate.

Yields one 9 1/2-inch pie. Total time: 30 minutes, plus freezing and thawing.

OXTAIL STEW IN PEANUT SAUCE (KARE-KARE)

  • 5 pounds oxtails, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 7 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 red onions, cut into large dice
  • 2 celery stalks, cut into large dice
  • 1 carrot, cut into large dice
  • 1/2 bunch fresh thyme sprigs
  • 4 cups red wine, like a cabernet sauvignon (about 1 1/4 bottles)
  • 1 cup Shaoxing wine or sherry
  • 4 to 6 cups stock, plus more as necessary, preferably beef
  • 2 Japanese eggplants (about 1/2 pound), sliced 3/4-inch thick
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 6 ounces Chinese long beans or green beans, stems removed and cut into 2-inch lengths
  • 2 to 3 pieces baby bok choy, quartered lengthwise
  • 1/2 cup commercial creamy peanut butter, such as Skippy or Jif
  • 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
  • Sugar, to taste
  • 3 tablespoons achuete (aka achiote or annatto) oil

>> For serving:

  • Bagoong (optional)
  • 4 to 6 cups cooked white rice

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Season the oxtails well with salt and pepper.

Heat 3 tablespoons vegetable oil over medium to medium-high heat in a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed, ovenproof pot with a lid. Brown the oxtails on all sides then remove them to a plate. (You may need to do this in batches, so as not to crowd the pan.)

Remove all but a tablespoon or so of the fat in the bottom of the pot and reduce the heat to medium. Add the onions, celery and carrot and cook them until they are soft and aromatic, about 3 to 6 minutes.

Stir in the thyme sprigs, letting them just soften, then add the red wine and stir with a wooden spoon or spatula, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pot.

Add the oxtails to the pot with the shaoxing wine and enough stock to fully cover the meat. Cover the pot and let it cook in the oven for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, or until the meat is fork tender but not falling off the bone.

About 15 minutes before the oxtails are done, prepare the vegetables: Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the eggplant, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another 5 minutes until eggplant is softened, then set it aside.

Prepare the beans: Wipe the skillet clean, increase the heat to medium-high and add 1 tablespoon oil. Add the beans, season with salt and pepper and quickly stir-fry for 3 to 4 minutes, then set aside.

Prepare the bok choy: Add the remaining oil to the pan, cook the bok choy with a pinch of salt until bright green and tender, about 2 minutes, then set aside.

When the oxtails are tender, remove the meat from the liquid in the pot and set it aside on a plate. Strain the fat and any other matter out of the braising liquid and discard it. You should have 5 cups of liquid; if you have less, add additional stock to total 5 cups, then simmer the liquid over medium-high heat until it has reduced by half.

Turn the heat to low, and using a hand blender, mix in the peanut butter and soy sauce and sugar, to taste. Add the achuete oil, blend again and let simmer for 2 minutes to thicken slightly.

Return the meat to the pot and let it cook until heated through, a minute or two. Serve hot with the room temperature vegetables on top, rice and bagoong on the side.

Yields 4 to 6 servings. Total time: About 3 3/4 hours.

PORK SINIGANG

  • 2 pounds St. Louis-style pork ribs, separated and cut in half crosswise
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 ounces dried shiitake mushroom caps
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
  • 5 dried bay leaves
  • 3 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 large white onion, thinly sliced (about 2 cups)
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 3 large Roma tomatoes, cut into eighths (about 3 cups)
  • 1 long pepper or jalapeno, stemmed and halved
  • 7 ounces tamarind pulp
  • 2 Thai eggplant, quartered or 1 Baby Italian eggplant, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1/4 pound small whole okra, stems trimmed without cutting into pod
  • 1/4 pound Chinese long beans or green beans, cut into 2-inch lengths
  • 2 watermelon radishes or a 4-inch piece of daikon, sliced into 1/8-inch discs
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce

Wash ribs and pat dry with paper towels. Season generously with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Snap or pinch off any remaining stems of the dried shiitake mushroom caps and discard. Process mushroom caps to a fine powder in a food processor; you should have 1 1/2 cups of mushroom powder. Set aside.

Tie the peppercorns and bay leaves in a sachet made of loose cheesecloth and set aside.

In a large Dutch oven or large heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, add oil and saute the onion, garlic, tomatoes and long pepper. After the onions have softened and the tomatoes have started to release their juices, reduce heat to medium and stir in the mushroom powder and 1 cup water. Cover and cook for 3 minutes.

Add pork ribs to the pot and stir to combine with aromatics. Cover and cook for 3 minutes.

Add 9 cups water and the sachet containing the peppercorns and bay leaves.

Put tamarind pulp in a fine mesh sieve and submerge sieve in pot. Cover and bring to a boil. Once the pot has reached a boil, break up the tamarind pulp with a wooden spoon. It should have softened considerably. As you’re breaking it up, take care to keep it contained in the sieve.

Reduce heat to a low simmer and cook ribs for about 60 to 75 minutes, or until the meat is soft and pulls easily off the bone. Meanwhile, keep the pot covered, removing cover only to skim foam off the top, as necessary, and to periodically stir the tamarind pulp in the sieve to help release its tartness. To increase the tartness of the broth even more, force pulp through the sieve with the back of a wooden spoon. Once broth has reached the desired level of tartness, remove the sieve from the pot and discard the tamarind solids. (Depending on the taste of the cook, the tamarind pulp may be removed well before the ribs are tender.) Season broth with salt to taste.

Add eggplant and okra; cover and cook for 5 minutes. Add long beans and radishes; cover and simmer for 3 more minutes. Check the seasoning of the broth and adjust, if necessary.

Turn off heat and discard the sachet. Ladle into bowls, and serve immediately with steamed jasmine rice. Put fish sauce in a small bowl on the table for people to add to their soup, as desired.

Yields 6 to 8 servings. Total time: About 2 hours.

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