8theWorld Dinner #1: Filipino Comfort Food

This post was supposed to be a light-hearted romp through Filipino cuisine. I was going to write a story or two about the days when I stayed in a nipa hut on Boracay Island (spoiler alert, the island has been de-nipa-fied and maximum resort-ed), or how I bravely sustained myself in Cebu for three days consuming nothing but lechon (roast pig) and San Miguel Light beer.

Sadly, circumstances changed.

Yesterday, I got an email from an old friend that read, “Taal volcano. I think it’s the one in the lake where we hiked that’s just erupted. Happy new year!”

Last year I was in the Philippines over Easter weekend and was looking for an adventure. My friend suggested a trek, so I reached out to Hikemanila.com, which offered an obscenely early morning van ride from Manila, a guide to take us up the mountain and a lunch afterwards.

The hike was a challenge. The trail was uneven and steep, all covered in ashy dirt that made my boots slide. Occasionally, a rope connected a string of trees as a hand grip, but it was a long slog up. All the while, we were buoyed by the cheerfulness of our trail guide Joyce and the support of dozens of Filipino hikers greeting us with ‘good morning’ as we ascended to the summit.

The payoff was a kilometer-high view of Lake Taal. In the center of Lake Taal was a dormant (at the time) volcano.

Nature has blessed the Philippines with deep blue seas and lush green tropical forests. Nature has also given the islands killer typhoons, earthquakes and from time-to-time dangerous volcanic activity. Now is one of those times.

My heart goes out to the Filipino people, particularly those in Batangas, and the folks at Herman’s Paliguan in Cuenca where we ate for lunch. Stay safe.

I was in Metro Manila last November and I organized a meet-up with fellow foodies to learn more about Filipino food. With my two new friends Kerwin and Loricar, we sat down at Manam restaurant in Bonifacio Global City, the new financial and lifestyle district.

The first 8theWorld dinner – Manila.

Manam bills itself as modern comfort Filipino food, and the menu cleverly lists items as “classics” or “twists,” which are reinterpretations of traditional dishes. We put the kitchen to work ordering nine dishes between the three of us. Maraming salamat Kerwin and Loricar, for helping me with the history of the dishes and the scoring of the charts.

Chicharon Bulaklak

I ordered this dish expecting to get chicharon (fried pork rind). I should have read up on bulaklak. Bulaklak means flower or bloom in Tagalog, and the combination of fried pork and “bloom” described a part of the intestine called the mesentery, the ruffles of connective tissue and fat that adheres the intestine to the abdominal wall. It’s called a flower because of the shape, I guess.  The flavor was meaty but not muscular. The texture alternated between a hard crunch and a flaky crunch. A vinegary dipping sauce accompanied the dish.


Crunchy Salt and Pepper Squid

This dish looked like the Salt and Pepper Squid found in Chinese cuisine. The taste was relatively warmer owing to toasted garlic and chili flakes that slowly heat the mouth. A chili lime dipping sauce added tart and sweet tones.


Sinigang na Baboy sa Sampaloc

Loricar told me that sinigang was the Filipino equivalent of a “cold-weather” food — just substitute rainy for cold. It looked like a soup, and the sampaloc, or tamarind in English, gave the broth a bright, fruity sour taste. I’m convinced that it was as much as a thin sauce for rice as it is a soup. As a sauce, it did its job masterfully, converting plain white rice into something mouthwatering and savory at the same time. I scored this dish as a sauce with rice, thus the 3 rating for ‘starchy.’


Corned Beef Belly Kansig

This recipe was also a ‘twist’ as the traditional Bacolod Kansi is usually served with marrow bones. The corned beef (which reminds me of a Jewish deli) and sour gravy was a winning combination. Unlike Sinigang, the sauce in Kansig was thickened with starch and topped with crunchy toasted garlic.


Pinakbet

Pinakbet was a free for all of vegetables. Three flavors dominated the mix. The bitter gourd sucked the sweet from my mouth. I had eaten bitter gourd before, so I knew it was coming. It was sharp and nutritious in a bitter medicine sort of way. With one bite, it wiped my palate clear of the memory of previous dishes in a manner that a glass of water could not. The second sensation was the slimy texture of okra. The last was the funkiness of bagoong, a salty condiment made from fermented shrimp. The entire dish was a counter-note to everything sweet, sour or starchy on the table.


Ensaladang Pako

The fern salad tasted like a rain forest. The vinaigrette dressing was accentuated with slivers of sharp red onion and sweet tomatoes. The salad was topped with a salted egg (usually a duck egg that has been sitting in brine for a long time) and flakes of tinapa (smoked fish) which added an earthy saltiness to the dish.


Prawns with Aligue Butter

The grilled prawns were sweet and carried the scent of the burnt shell. It reminded me of the beachfront seafood restaurants in Thailand. The prawns were coated in a rich layer of aligue which is the fat and roe (and possibly innards) of a crab.


Pancit Sisig

This was a constructed meal in one bowl. The basement layer was stir-fried Pancit Canton noodles made from flour and egg. The mezzanine was mayonnaise-coated cabbage and green beans. The penthouse was made from sisig, juicy pork jowls and cheeks seasoned with calamansi lime and crisped on a hot pan. The roof had a dusting of bread crumbs and toasted garlic. The cabbage, meat and garlic/breadcrumb combo were all crunchy but in different ways. If I was a solo diner, with an appetite for one dish only, I would order this.


Kare Kare with Oxtail and Tripe

Kare Kare was a peanut stew. Your imagination may lead you to think that it was like a satay sauce, but it was not sweet, sour or spicy. It was not even salty. The saltiness needed to balance the stew came from the small side dish of salty bagoong. There were many versions of Kare Kare in the Philippines such as oxtail or seafood. This version contained oxtail and tripe. The tenderness of the meat suggested that it was cooked for a long time.

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