Fried tamban (saltwater sardine) is served with young corn and moringa oil at Toyo Eatery in Manila (Photo: George Tapan)

To understand a culture is to taste it.

Over the course of four days it would become clear to us—a ragtag assortment of greedy food writers with varying experience of Filipino flavours—that the food culture of the Philippines is being excavated as much as it is undergoing an evolution. Thrillingly, there is a generation of chefs who are simultaneously redefining and rediscovering the pillars of the country’s culinary identity, channeling their curiosity and creativity into a vibrant dining scene where fermentation, organic farming and hip bars hidden behind convenience stores are just small parts of the whole.

Thrillingly, there is a generation of chefs who are simultaneously redefining and rediscovering the pillars of the country’s culinary identity, channeling their curiosity and creativity into a vibrant dining scene

Reflecting on my time in the Philippines, attempting to neatly wrap up my experience was futile. Yet  there was one thought that would resurface time and time again: there is an infectious and overwhelming sense of optimism and pride, that surges forward despite whatever else may be stacked against the Philippines—socially, culturally or politically. It’s embodied through everyone we meet, from Raphael Teraoka Dacones, who left a steady job in Tokyo to promote organic farming in Pangasinan, to Mecha Uma's Bruce Ricketts, the 27-year-old chef and martial artist who weaves seasonal Filipino produce into his interpretation of Japanese traditions—including sushi—through the lens of a Californian upbringing. We understand what's at stake through the eyes of food writer JJ Yulo, who invites us to a potluck lunch where an Avengers-worthy line-up of young, passionate chefs such as Edward Bugia and Him Uy de Baron add freshness and innovation to their dishes. 

 

Raphael Teraoka Dacones, Nicolo Borromeo Aberasturi and Enzo Pinga

It’s experienced through an energetic gastronomic gathering of up-and-coming young chefs and the Philippines’ cohort of farmers at the triumphant Tagaytay estate that is Antonio’s, where we witness firsthand the alchemy that occurs when talented cooks are supported by exceptional local produce, harvested in Silang a few short hours prior. I still remember Gerardo “Gejo” Jimenez, the former fencer and now owner of Malipayon Farms—supplier to many of Metro Manila's top restaurants—who still refers to himself modestly as a gardener, using the medium of free-flowing watercolours to illustrate his approach to biodynamic farming and permaculture.

There is an infectious and overwhelming sense of optimism and pride, that surges forward despite whatever else may be stacked against the Philippines—socially, culturally or politically

At mealtimes, we tuck into freshly shucked oysters from Negros that are judiciously sprinkled with tart tuba, a lip-smacking vinegar fermented from coconut sap (the Filipinos are obsessed with vinegars, or suka) while deeply coloured wild raspberries called sampinit are the crown jewels of pastry chef Michael “Miko” Aspiras’ dessert of cashew nut tart with rosella cream. We're enamoured by the yin-and-yang energy of Quenee Villar and Nicco Santos, who bring fun and finesse to the tables at Hey Handsome and Your Local respectively. Josh Boutwood, a rising star of the Manila food scene and alumnus of Raymond Blanc’s Le Manor Aux Quat’ Saisons, nonchalantly offers us lamb prosciutto—cured for four months until the rich gamey flavour is rounded out with a salty nuttiness.

 

 

 Oysters from Negros served at Antonio's (Photos: George Tapan)

We experience whimsy at Gallery Vask, where Spanish chef Chele Gonzales is pushing the traditions of the Filipino culinary canon into new realms. Our culinary crash course on Manila and its surrounding regions was intense, gut-busting and enlightening; and while the locations and cast of characters are diverse, our taster is perhaps best understood through three distinct acts. 

Breakfast At Asiong’s, A Filipino Institution
“Breakfast is probably the only unifying tradition among all Filipinos,” says Cathy Feliciano-Chon, the Managing Director of marketing consultancy CatchOn, co-organisers of this particular Filipino food odyssey. And so we begin our education at breakfast, at the decades old Asiong in Cavité, a province on the southern shores of Manila Bay. Located on a small patch of isolated farmland, the carinderia (a kind of Filipino diner) is cooled by a light breeze, which on this particular morning carries with it the gentle tinkle of wind chimes—and the off-pitch warbling of Asiong’s karaoke-loving neighbours. We’re joined by Sonny Lua, the interior designer-turned-restaurant manager and chef, plus Ige Ramos, food writer and historian with an unparalleled knowledge of the foodways of the Philippines.

Located on a small patch of isolated farmland, the carinderia  is cooled by a light breeze, which on this particular morning carries with it the gentle tinkle of wind chimes—and the off-pitch warbling of Asiong’s karaoke-loving neighbours

Over the best part of two hours, Ramos and Lua would give a comprehensive account of the Philippines’ food evolution over the centuries, from the pre-Hispanic era to the growth of rice, coconut and sugar crops under the order of the Catholic church.

A traditional breakfast is set among cups of strong, murky coffee where the beans have been roasted with rice—the original way of ‘extending’ the drink when the coffee supply was scarce. To start, we spread snowy quesillo (as dubbed by the Mexicans), a raw cheese made from carabao milk, onto toasted rounds of pan de troso flavoured with garlic, rosemary and basil that are eaten between bites of immensely garlicky longganisa—the sausage based on Spanish chorizo.

 An egg omelette with pickled mustard greens is a classic breakfast item at Asiong's (Photo: George Tapan)

The smell of garlic permeates the air as a plate of sinangag (garlic fried rice) arrives at the table. “That’s our version of bacon frying in the morning to get you out of bed,” jokes Ramos. We feast on tamales that are strikingly similar to Chinese zhong, or rice dumplings, and scrambled egg omelettes speckled with burong mustasa, pickled mustard greens.

As it’s not strictly a breakfast dish, we make a special request for Asiong’s most famous creation. Pancit pusit is a dish dreamed up by Lua, and consists of thin glass noodles flavoured with squid ink, their sultry saltiness brightened with slices of astringent kamias and topped with a flurry of crisp chicharron. As it’s served, Ramos drops a bombshell: in his ten years of researching and travels to Europe, he is ready to posit the theory that it was the Filipinos, and not the Italians, who discovered the use of squid ink.

 

 Asiong's signature dish is pancit pusit, made with thin rice noodles and squid (Photo: George Tapan)

It’s backed up by Dr Fernando Zialcita, an anthropologist who shared his research during the 2016 edition of Madrid Fusion Manila, a festival celebrating the shared foodways of Spain and the Philippines. According to Ramos, the first record of squid ink being used in Spain did not occur until around 1750—well after the movement of Spanish galleons—and that in Italy, squid ink was once considered toxic. Zialcita and Ramos pinpoint the Jesuits, who were expelled from the Philippines to Italy and Spain in the 18th century.

At Home With Margarita Fores: A Market Lunch In Cubao
Chef Margarita Fores apologises to the squirming shrimp in her hand as she quickly dispatches it, pulling off its head and deshelling it in quick succession. The flesh is roughly chopped up, and dunked into a bowl that houses a mixture of coconut vinegar, brown sugar, green chilli and slices of kamias. We’re in the Farmers Market in Cubao, Quezon City, which is Fores’ home base just a short drive from the centre of Manila.

 

 Asia's Best Female Chef 2016, Margarita Fores, shows us her freshly-made shrimp kinilaw at the Farmers Market in Cubao (Photo: George Tapan)

The kinilaw that Fores creates on the spot, barely a step away from the fishmonger herself, is an exclamation point of flavour. She smiles as we dig in, greedily. “I’d love to open a kinilaw bar right here in the market one day,” she says. She then proceeds to create more variations: with slipper lobster, fresh Filipino uni, and gurnard, which heeds the call for more vinegar. Then it’s back to zipping around the market, where this ‘daughter of Cubao’ is recognised at every turn. When we leave, it takes an entire supermarket trolley to ferry back the heaving bounty of fresh produce to Fores’ ancestral home 10 minutes away on foot.

Soon after, lunch is served. We bite into the pale, soft sugar-laced lumpiang ubod filled with fresh, young palm hearts—bought just hours earlier—the delicate sweetness enveloped by paper-thin rice wrappers. We take slow sips of velvety pancit molo, flavoured with chicken and coloured golden—not by saffron, but the far more economical annatto seed. The broth swaddles an assortment of tiny dumplings, strikingly similar to our Chinese wonton. Both dishes may not be widely known outside of Filipino communities, but they speak clearly about the role of foreign influence—from Chinese traders to the colonial Spaniards—in the culinary history of the Philippines. Over many dishes in Fores’ family dining room, we discuss the recent rise of Filipino cuisine, including the challenges that are yet to come. 

 

A dish of Bago river eel (Photos: George Tapan)

“Right now, there is this wealth of regional cuisines that are still undiscovered,” says Fores. The increased interest in Filipino cuisine over the past few years may have experienced starts and stops, but the momentum is building, she adds.“I think that we’ve come in at a good time and at least after the world discovers the adobo and the sinigang and the kinilaw, there is a lot more we can show the world. And there is a collaborative community that is reviving the food industry.

“I think we ourselves have to continue to be in love with our own cuisine. That’s what started it all. It has a lot to do with our national identity and how we became who we are. In the end, it comes full circle.”

At Toyo Eatery, A Dinner That Sings Of Modern Manila
The spirit of collaboration and that feeling of deep respect for the roots of Filipino cooking couldn’t be better encapsulated than at Toyo Eatery, a contemporary restaurant helmed by chef Jordy Navarra. The venue is named after the word for soy sauce in Tagalog; but it’s also a slang for being a little bit crazy, and perfectly describes Navarra’s undefinable way of cooking, which extracts the essence of Filipino flavours, techniques and traditions which are then interpreted with locally sourced ingredients and Navarra’s personal point of view. The chef, who has worked in the kitchens of Bo Innovation in Hong Kong and Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in Bray, returned to Manila in 2014 to work as head chef for the restaurant Black Sheep before opening Toyo in early 2016 in order to dedicate himself fully to the exploration of Filipino food culture.

 
The team, which is helmed by Jordy Navarra (Photos: George Tapan)

The references run deep in the 12-course meal, which we seek to understand every time the Filipino guests on the table—including Feliciano-Chon, acclaimed photographer George Tapan, and food consultant Joey Suarez—raise their voices in excitement. “The Filipinos love their bottled iced tea!” exclaims Feliciano-Chon, as a dish of lightly-grilled mackerel with semi-ripe guava and kamias is paired with a chilled oolong tea that has been steeped for 24 hours. In another photogenic dish, young saltwater sardines are fried and served atop a puree of young corn and deep, grassy moringa oil—an elevated take on the pairing of fish and moringa (malunggay in Tagalog) broth.

“I’m taken by old techniques. They inspire us to try and understand how Filipino cuisine started, and how it evolved.”—Jordy Navarra

“I’m taken by old techniques,” says Navarra, who makes his own pastis (the Filipino answer to fish sauce). “They inspire us to try and understand how Filipino cuisine started, and how it evolved.” He explains that he had wanted to start a restaurant like Toyo for a long time, but that his only setback was whether he thought he truly understood the cuisine. “The flavours were things I grew up with and felt connected to, but to break that down and try to understand technique was a whole process that was jumbled together. Now, we’re still trying to understand things every day. There’s always something new, something we don’t know yet.”

The commitment to preserving and promoting Filipino food culture is the main driving force among Navarra’s brigade, and we experience a beautiful moment in the meal where a young staff member arrives at our table as the seventh course is served. Titled simply as “Salad”, we’re served wooden bowls that appear topped with soil. Then the man begins to sing, his voice reverberating gently across the room.

Bahay kubo, kahit munti
Ang halaman doon ay sari-sari.
Singkamas at talong, sigarilyas at mani
Sitaw, bataw, patani.
Kundol, patola, upo’t kalabasa
At saka mayroon pang labanos, mustasa,
sibuyas, kamatis, bawang at luya
sa paligid-ligid ay puro linga.

It’s Bahay Kubo, a folk song that is traditionally sung by children to welcome the harvest, and tells the modest tale of a small nipa hut with a garden full of vegetables. The lyrics reference the very ingredients that we uncover under the aubergine and peanut ‘soil’: jicama, winged beans, radishes among them. Navarra sums up the direction of the dish simply. “It shows that we’re small but humble, scrappy but resourceful.”

A Toyo chef puts the finishing touches on the Salad course (Photo: George Tapan)

On building the future of Filipino cuisine, he is determined. “In the Philippines, recipes just die with the people. They’re not written down, and they’re not something that is openly shared.” With Toyo, these ingredients, techniques and traditions will live on—in exciting forms that still manage to stay true to their roots.

As for what is next for this country of over 7,000 islands, where we have already witnessed an acceleration of newfound interest, of an optimism and hope for the visibility of their indigenous culture? Fores said it best. “Even we haven’t discovered a fraction of what regional ingredients the Philippines has to offer. There are different tribes and religions, and each has their own way of doing things. I can’t even imagine what cuisines and ingredients they have to offer. There’s so much to look forward to in the future.”

Madrid Fusion Manila takes place April 6—8, 2017. www.madridfusionmanila.com

This article originally appeared on hongkongtatlerdining.com

Tags: Filipino cuisine, Madrid Fusion, Margarita Fores