May 30, 2007

LP 18: Squash & Shrimp in Coconut Milk


I couldn't resist joining the Lasang Pinoy 18: Oh My Gulay! event. I took one look at the icon (below) and signed up. I mean look at this guy,he's adorable! I wanted to hug him and squeeze him and and call him George. And then I wanted to take him home because I had to have him on my blog.

Lasang Pinoy (lasa meaning taste and Pinoy is slang for Filipino) is a Filipino food blogging event that was launched in Aug. of 2005. Since it's inception, LP has been successful at setting the stage for promoting Filipino cuisine and ingredients native to this country, as well as providing a venue for the sharing of ideas and discoveries related to Filipino food. Though this is my first time to contribute to LP, I have eagerly followed many of the past events and round-ups.

This month's LP is all about vegetables or gulay in our native tongue, and is hosted by Toni of Wifely Steps. For those who aren't familiar with the expression, "Oh my gulay!" is a Taglish (Tagalog+English) version of "Oh my God!", "Oh my gosh!" or "Oh my goodness!". I may be wrong and may be speaking only for myself when I say that I think our Taglish version was born out of the fear of taking the Lord's name in vain. We were always scolded and admonished by our elders when we did, so when shouting it out in front of them, we grab hold of ourselves at the last minute and make that crucial switch to "Oh my G-gulay!!!"

According to Jeffrey Steingarten in The Man Who Ate Everything, we are omnivores by destiny and food aversions are not something we are born with but something that is learned. A food aversion is no different from a phobia or fear which can only be overcome by exposure. The more we are exposed to something at moderate amounts and at regular intervals, the sooner we conquer the aversion. Steingarten asserts that "most babies will accept nearly anything after eight or ten tries." (So don't give up, moms!) I think he is definitely on to something here.

Now I love vegetables big time but I didn't always like kalabasa or squash, in fact I hated it as a kid almost as much as I hated ampalaya (aka bitter gourd, bitter melon or amargoso). And because I was never forced to eat it, I didn't. But you see, when I was growing up I idolized my older sisters. I worshipped the ground they walked on and I wanted to be like them in every way. So I followed them around, mimicking their movements, their fashion sense and their expressions. What I didn't realize was that I was also unconsciously taking on their likes and dislikes.

So when one day I noticed my sister Ginny eating kalabasa during lunch, I did a double-take. But-but we both hated kalabasa!? What is she doing? I was confused and even felt slightly betrayed. Ugh! Now I have to eat kalabasa too!? I barely remember how I liked it the first time because I was pinching my nose throughout the ordeal. On the second try, I had to admit it wasn't half bad. On what was probably my fifth encounter with kalabasa, I could taste the beginnings of an amicable relationship which gradually evolved into a full-blown love affair. Steingarten and those scientists were right! And if it weren't for my crazy sibling idolatry, maybe I still wouldn't be enjoying those creamy pumpkin soups today or those nice roasted butternut squashes, or even this dish below.

This is something I learned to make while still living abroad and craving home-cooked Filipino food. It is a modified version of a recipe I had found online many years ago, and in which I originally used butternut squash. It is not your usual ginataang kalabasa (squash in coconut milk), it has a pinkish hue from the tomato paste and the chili gives it a nice punch. But it's still smooth and creamy and flavorful like mom's. If you like squash and you like things cooked in coconut, I guarantee you will love this.

Squash & Shrimp in Coconut Milk
Ginataang Kalabasa't Hipon

1 cup chicken broth
1 1/2 tsps brown sugar
2 tsps tomato paste
1 tsp chili flakes
1 can coconut milk (I used Nestle coco evap this time)
2 cups squash, cubed
1/2 kg shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 tsp patis or fish sauce (optional)

Mix together the chicken broth, brown sugar, tomato paste, chili flakes and coconut milk in a saucepan. Add the squash and bring to a boil. Slow it to a simmer then season lightly with salt and pepper, simmering until squash is tender. About 15 minutes or so. Throw in the shrimp and calamansi juice and continue simmering until shrimp is cooked.

Best served with steamed white or brown rice.

Check out the other delicious entries on the LP 18: Oh My Gulay! round-up here.

May 28, 2007

Bistro cooking with Chef Migne

Chef Jean-Pierre Migne handling the phyllo pastry sheets

The word bistro conjures up cozy images of friends or lovers sipping wine in between bites of simple and traditional French food. Bistro fare is not haute cuisine nor is it modest cafe food, it falls somewhere in between. According to Chef Jean-Pierre Migne, Executive Chef of Restaurant Le Bellevue at the Manila Diamond Hotel, there are four basic types of French restaurants: the cafe that offers only drinks, the guingette which is an old cafe that is usually situated on a river bank with a dock for dancing, the bistrot or small restaurant serving simple traditional fare and the brasserie which is larger and more elaborate than a bistro.

I learned all this and more during a French Bistro Cooking class I attended last Saturday thanks to Vina, who offered me her slot because she felt I would appreciate it more. I can't thank you enough, Vina, you're such a sweetheart! I was happy to see familiar faces such as Nina, who I first met over at BootsnAll and had dinner with while Christina was in town and Rachel, Anton's wife. We shared a front-row table, a basket of croissants and a hunger for good food.

Chef Migne teaches us how to plate the salad and phyllo pockets

The class was headed by Chef Migne, a jovial Frenchman with over three decades of culinary experience spanning three continents. He has prepared state dinners for the King & Queen of Spain, Pres. George Bush and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and also prepared an elaborate banquet for the APEC summit. He entertained us with his delightful sense of humor and savvy manner in the kitchen.

He showed us how to make four typical French bistro dishes, two appetizers, a main course and dessert. Shown below are the finished products, clockwise from top left:

  • Fried Camembert and Crabmeat in Pocket-Phyllo pastry and Mesclun Salad with dressing
  • Pan-fried Chicken Breast stuffed with Cured Ham & Emmenthal Cheese and Pont Neuf Potato
  • Flambeed Strawberries with Green Peppercorns and Basil wtih Vanilla Ice Cream
  • Gratinated Oysters & Mussels with Mushrooms and Garlic Herbed Butter

(Should you want the recipe of any of the above items, let me know and I'll be happy to e-mail it to you.)

Although it wasn't a hands-on class, I learned a lot from it. Chef Migne was generous with his advice and encouraged us to ask questions. Here are some things I learned during this session:

  • Anything frozen is usually bland, let it soak in brine the night before you use it.
  • Avoid food processors like the plague - they break the fibers of food and result in pulverized ingredients
  • Never cook your soup with water, always boil the water or stock separately from the ingredients
  • To wash lettuce, put 2 tsp vinegar in the water to kill any bacteria that may be present
  • French cooking usually involves the two major components, fat and acid, for example butter and wine, cream and vinegar.
  • Always cook chicken skin-side down first
  • Always cut basil and other herbs with scissors and not knives which have the tendency to squeeze the juice of the herb out and onto the chopping board
  • The liver is the only part of the chicken that the King of France eats
  • Pagudpud in Ilocos Norte is a good source for fleur de sel locally

He emphasized that recipes are merely a guide and not meant to be followed to the tee, unless of course you're working on pastry. I agree. Everything we make should reflect our own style and personality and champion our uniqueness. We should be flexible and allow our creative juices to flow while we cook.

After the three hour session, we were escorted upstairs to Le Bellevue at the 27th floor for lunch where we dined on the bistro fare that Chef Migne had previously demonstrated but which were prepared and plated by the skilled kitchen crew. During lunch, I had the chance to get to know some of the other attendees, such as Ajay who was kind enough to coordinate my attendance. After lunch, there was a simple ceremony wherein we wore our aprons and toques and had our pictures taken with the Chef as he handed us our certificates.

As if I didn't already feel extremely lucky for having attended Chef Migne's class and partaking of the superb lunch for free, my name was drawn from a bowl and I won a gift certifiate from Jewelmer too! Yay!

This is only the second in a series of International Cuisine Culinary Classes organized by the staff of Manila Diamond Hotel. Future classes include Japanese cuisine with Chef Junichi Sekiyama and Thai & Vietnamese cuisine wtih Chef Mel Taylo. For more info, you may call the hotel at +632 5283000 and look for Bernie.

May 21, 2007

Pomelo Salad

Pomelo Salad

To go with the Thai green curry, I made a pomelo salad using a recipe also from At the Table with Jim Thompson. The pomelo salad is one of those things I've made a mental note to try at home someday. It's a salad I enjoy immensely and will order it automatically at my favorite Thai restaurant, it's as delicious as it is refreshing.

The pomelo salad, like most yams (Thai salad) showcases Thai cuisine's four basic flavors: tangy, salty, sweet and hot. The blast of lime provides the tang, the fish sauce infuses in the saltiness, and if the pomelos are in season they would make the salad juicy and sweet. But the real secret is in the dressing, a blend of contrasting ingredients dominated by the naam plaa or Thai fish sauce. The naam plaa is the main source of salt for the Thais, used in cooking and as a condiment. It is fermented into varying grades and colors and is used in practically all Thai dishes.

I was really excited about this and was very happy with the outcome. The only thing I would do differently is separate the pomelo into smaller segments, add more chili paste (I held back for my mom's sake) and make it sooner so it has time to cool in the fridge longer.

Pomelo Salad (Yam Som Oo)

1 tbsp thinly sliced garlic
1 tbsp thinly sliced shallots
2 tbsp grated coconut, roasted
1 cup (150g) pomelo segments
1 to 3 cooked shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 tsp chopped red chilies
1 tbsp ground roasted peanuts
2 tbsp coriander leaves

For the dressing:

1/2 cup (125 ml) coconut milk
2 tsp grated palm sugar (I used muscovado sugar)
1 tbsp naam plaa or Thai fish sauce
2 tbsp lime juice
2 tsp roasted chili paste

To prepare the dressing, boil the coconut milk, palm sugar, fish sauce, chili paste and lime juice in a wok for 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Stir-fry the garlic and shallots separately for 1 minute, the combine them in a bowl. Add the roasted coconut, pomelo, shrimp, chilies and ground roasted peanuts. Dress the salad and garnish with coriander leaves.

May 19, 2007

Thai green curry

Thai green curry

For Mother's Day, my 2 sisters and I prepared lunch at home for the family. My mom's favorite cuisine is Asian, so that's what we went with as a theme, it's her day after all so we wanted to make her happy. It made me happy too because it meant I could finally try some recipes from At the Table of Jim Thompson , the cookbook I purchased form The House of Jim Thompson during a recent trip to Bangkok.

It is an elegant book of Thai recipes, some in their traditional form while others sporting a Western twist, contributed by chefs of the Jim Thompson restaurants. The pages are adorned with beautifully-styled photographs, masterpieces in their own right. I spent hours admiring them, wistful, and with a yearning for the skills of the food stylist that prepared them.

At the Table of Jim Thompson

I chose a salad and a curry from the book and my sister, Ginny, complemented this choice with MarketMan's spicy eggplant which was excellent. My younger sister, Diane, helped with the chopping, toasting, and grinding and it was nice to have someone to bark orders at and not feel guilty about it because she really seemed to be enjoying herself.

Kaffir lime leaves

It was delicious, the kaffir lime leaves (ma-krut to the Thai) imparted a fragrant citrus tartness to the creamy curry. They could make a perfume out of this leaf! Even my mom who struggled a teensy bit with the heat of the curry loved it. She loved everything actually and was mmmm-ing the entire time, grateful to us for the wonderful meal made even more enjoyable by the fact that she didn't have to lift a finger to make any of it. :)
It was a hot summer day, not exactly the perfect day for a hot curry. But with the refreshing pomelo salad and the cold drinks, we hardly noticed. I had made a pitcher of lemongrass iced tea and Ginny made a large tub of sago't gulaman (a local syrupy refreshment made with tapioca pearls or sago and gulaman or agar-agar). And to finish things off, there was a box of frozen brazo de mercedes sitting coolly in the ice box for dessert.

So here's the recipe I used. I tripled the ingredients to feed our party and tempered the heat for my mom's sake by adding a little bit more coconut milk. Because the green curry paste I used was hot enough, I omitted the red chili from the recipe. You'll love how simple it is to make how quick. Thai curries, unlike Indian curries, do not require long cooking times.

Green chicken curry (Gaeng Gwuio Warn Gai)
adapted from At the Table of Jim Thompson
Serves 1-2

1/2 cup (125 ml) coconut milk
1 cup (250 ml) coconut cream
2 tbsp green curry paste (photo at right)
2 tsp grated palm sugar
1 tbsp naam pla or Thai fish sauce
100 g skinless chicken thigh meat
3 kaffir lime leaves, torn
2 small eggplants, cut into sections
a handful of basil leaves

Pour the coconut milk and coconut cream into a wok and bring to a boil. Add the curry paste and mix well. Add the palm sugar and fish sauce and cook for 1 to 2 minutes or until fragrant. Add the chicken, lime leaves and eggplants, and simmer until the chicken and eggplant are cooked. Garnish with basil leaves to serve.

Up Next: pomelo salad recipe

May 17, 2007

Feijoada and pão de queijo


The first time I had feijoada (Brazilian black bean stew) was at a graduation party hosted by my two Brazilian friends in their flat off Oxford st. in London. They had prepared a veritable Brazilian feast but the feijoada took center stage as it usually does at most Brazilian feasts. It was accompanied by other typical cuisine from the land of samba y gol and everything was chased down with glasses of caipirinha or wine. The second time I had it was at a Brazilian restaurant across from where Jerry Springer: the Opera was playing. I had insisted on eating there before the show started and was so glad I did because it was to be my last feijoada for a while.

Feijoada is a black bean stew that is typically served with side dishes such as rice, fried collard greens and presented with orange slices which is used to counteract the fat of all the pork thrown in the feijoada. The bowl is then topped off with a soft cheese which they like to call Romeu e Julieta.

Marina & Malena's feijoada was very chunky, replete with beef, salted pork trimmings, bacon, sausages and other parts of the pig I couldn't recognize. It was not soupy but there was just enough of the soup to cover the everything and then some. This was no wimpy little thing, it was thick, and heavy and strong. It was incredible and it knocked my socks off! It went beyond the gastronomic frontiers of anything I had ever experienced before.

Pao de Queijo

As if that wasn't enough, they handed me a basket of cheese rolls or pão de queijo which sent me over the edge. At first glance I thought they were ordinary rolls because they had nothing on them or in them. Oh my, they were heavenly, so soft and still warm from the oven. The flavor was just right, not too subtle not too overpowering.

Sadly both remain elusive to me. The one and only "Brazilian" restaurant in the country does not even have it on the menu, ? Well, I f I wanted to have some again, I had to make it. I resisted for a long time, worried I would ruin one of my top 5 things to eat before you die, but I couldn't wait any longer. I had half a dozen recipes but they usually just varied in the types of meats thrown in, and their quantities. For my first attempt, I did not want to overdo it so I chose the recipe with the most variety of meats (feijoada completa), and cut down from there. Keeping to what I had on hand and what I could easily find at the deli that day.

Feijoada 2

adapted from this recipe

220 g smoked bacon
300 g pork shoulder
230 g lean beef chunk or rump

4 pcs chorizo bilbao ( I used my Uncle's homemade chorizo from Dumaguete)
2 cups black turtle beans, soaked overnight and drained
2 tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs parsley
1 sprig thyme
6 cups water
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

In a large heavy stock pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally until translucent. Add the garlic and cook a little more, until the aroma is released. Add the bay leaves, parsely and thyme along with the all the meats and the water. Bring slowly to a boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat and skim the fats and scum from the top.

Cook for about 30 minutes then add the beans. Simmer for another hour. As each piece of meat becomes fork tender, remove it, starting wiht the beef and finishing with the salted meats. Place the cooked meats on a platter , cover with aluminum foil and keep warm in a low oven.

Continue cooking the beans for 20 minutes more, or until tender. You can either serve the meats and
beans side by side on a platter, or mixed back in all together in a big bowl. I prefer the latter.

The feijoada was very very good and I was very proud of my first attempt. It was chunky and thick and heavy, just how I wanted it. Hearty, comfort food, sould food. The best kind. But there was still some room for improvement as I felt there was something lacking but couldn't quite put my finger on it. The flavor wasn't as strong as how I remember the others to have been.

The pão de queijo, though perfect in flavor, did not come out as soft as I hoped. It did not melt in my mouth like Malena's and Marina's did. Even after the recommened time in the oven, the insides did not bake well through so I had to keep it on a little longer. This is the recipe I used and most of the recipes I've seen and bookmarked are identical, but I obviously did something wrong. I used cassava starch which is our equivalent of manioc starch that all the recipes called for. I could try using tapioca starch next time, but isn't that just the same?

If any of you reading this, have any experience in making either of these dishes, I would love to hear from you and would appreciate your comments and suggestions. Thanks in advance! :)

May 15, 2007

Summer & Sardines

the Dumaguete Belfry,
St. Catherine of Alexandria Cathedral

To conclude this series on Dumaguete, I am posting this article written by my cousin, with her permission of course, which was published in the July 2006 issue of MetroPost, a local weekly paper in Dumaguete. Here she speaks fondly of one of my favorite childhood memories, playing Sardines with cousins and friends, as she laments how the city has changed over the years.

Summer & sardines
By: Jacqueline

Summer was always my favorite time of the year. It wasn't just the fact that school was out for two whole months, I also looked forward to all my cousins vacationing in Dumaguete. Every year, for as long as I could remember everyone came over.

Then, they just stopped coming over. Most of my cousins' parents realized that Dumaguete was no longer safer than wherever they came from. The kids now had to be kept inside… or nearby. This really defeated the whole purpose of coming to Dumaguete -- and that was to "relax". I thought then that they were all paranoid.

"Sardines" was the name of a game. Almost every night after dinner, all my cousins and friends would gather at our front gate. There would be about 20 of us (ages 13 to 26), and we'd each have to select a partner. We'd map our boundaries around our house covering three entire blocks -- that would be east until the Rizal Boulevard, south to Locsin St (Red Cross Bldg), north to San Jose St (Sans Rival Bakeshop) and west to Sta. Catalina St (UyMatiao Construction office). This was our playground.

All pairs, except for one, would run off and hide. We'd crouch behind the seawall, climb the Perdices' tambis trees, sneak into the parked UyMatiao trucks, or curl up inside one of the abandoned vendor's trolleys beside the Red Cross.

The last pair would have to find all of us…each "found" pair helps look for the others until all pairs are accounted for. The game would take more than an hour, and then we would start all over. This would go on until midnight. That was so much fun -- and safe.

Today, I am not even sure if I'd allow my nieces/nephews to play the same game. Would it still be safe? Every time Dumaguete's safety and security are discussed, those summer nights come to mind. I would tell that story to anyone who'd listen.

I realize now that I must sound the way my elders did when they'd recount the "good old days"; how they'd drive to Bais from Dumaguete (to attend a dance) on their cousin's jeep, with two of them seated upfront holding flashlights which functioned as headlights; or my aunt's story about playing "cowboys and indians" at the Boulevard when they were children: My aunt "captured" a six-year-old cousin, and tied him to a tree (just like what she saw on TV). About four hours later, a very frantic yaya came looking for the cousin. They'd forgotten all about him! Rushing to the boulevard, they found the boy still tied to the tree, taking his siesta.

Or the very amusing story about my grandmother Emilia receiving a letter from her former employee which the postman promptly delivered to her home. On the envelope was written "Inday Laling, Dumaguete City".

After college, I worked outside the Philippines for eight years. Coming back after my first year abroad, I was excited to get on my bicycle (which I rode to school sometimes). It didn't take long for me to drag my bike back inside our house.

Sadly, I realized it was no longer practical to go around the City on a bike with
motorists crowding the roads, overtaking from the right-hand side, buses
speeding, tricycles loading and unloading passengers left, right and center,

And the noise level was terrible! Would you believe only 10 years ago, we could actually hear the Silliman University bell every 7 am all the way from our house -- a good four blocks away from the University?! Each time I came back for a visit, a negative encounter/experience made me feel like Dumaguete was slowly being taken away from me.

During one of those breaks, I woke up early to watch the sunrise at the boulevard. Walking to our front porch, I was surprised to find our wrought iron furniture gathered on one side, and locked together with a large chain! My uncle later explained that the original set had been stolen (all four heavy pieces), and this was a replica I was looking at.

There was that other time I bought a newspaper from a sidewalk vendor downtown. As I took some coins out, someone bumped into me which made me drop my purse. A friendly-looking man squatted beside me to "help" pick up my belongings…then he casually walked away with my P500 bill!

Walking home after that incident, I passed by an old refrigerator repair shop, now closed. Stopping right in front, I recalled one of the scariest days of my life. A stranger was following me walk home from school. When I turned the corner to this ref repair shop, the old man (who owned the shop) and his three sons were seated outside. I rushed to their side, and explained what was happening. All four men sprang from their seats, and "took care" of the stalker as I turned to run home.

I wonder where those men are now. Kindness and helpfulness were so common then, I had forgotten to thank them. We see, read, and hear about them every day….the strangers and dangers (everything from fraternity fights to pedophilia) …lurking about our once-gentle surroundings. Now I wonder if coming back to Dumaguete -- to live here, and to raise my children here -- was the right move.

Are there enough Dumagueteños speaking out about our unsafe streets and demanding that something be done about it? Does our leaders' vision include
leaving behind a Dumaguete that their great grandchildren would still like to live in? Can their grand kids share their own "in the good old days" stories to the younger generation of the future?

There are still things, places, events, and characters in Dumaguete that reassure me... … The comforting acacia trees at the boulevard and Silliman campus; the Rizal Boulevard itself; panulo at Piapi Beach (spear fishing in ankle-deep water at night); caramel-covered banana cue sold behind the SU Ballfield; the annual writers' workshop which is the pride of many Dumagueteños; my ever-reliable neighborhood seamstress; tartanillas; the efficient Silliman Medical Center staff; Makiling's chicharon; the well-organized public market; hard-working Amor who comes to our office daily selling home-made merienda; Sumalinog ice cream; the Ms. Cambagroy Pageant (basta I enjoy it); the melts-in-your-mouth silvanas of Sans Rival; the offering of fruits and eggs to the Carmelite sisters and requesting them to help us pray for a specific intention; the knowledge that most of the ingredients we can't find anywhere else in Dumaguete is just stocked at Times Mercantile.

May 14, 2007

Big shoes to fill

Mamaita's recipes 1

Mamaita's handwritten recipes

I mentioned before that my grandmother, or Mamaita as she was fondly called, was an amazing cook who was famous for many dishes. Gaining at least 5 lbs. every summer was a given. We couldn't help it, the house was always filled with food, everything revolved around food, even the family business. Some of her delicious creations were available in the restaurant and the hotel she used to own and manage.

Dumaguete chorizo

Just like the old days: home-made chorizo, bulad and maize

Every morning, we would wake up to the aroma of home-made bulad (salted dried fish) and chorizo frying in the kitchen, staples on our breakfast table. Squeezed around the table, my cousins and I would stuff ourselves silly. Eating the bulad and chorizo with either garlic fried rice or maize and our choice of sunny-side up or scrambled eggs. There was always hot pan de sal (bread rolls) accompanied by assorted jams and butter and of course, budbud kabog.

Diets and restraint were unheard of then; healthy meals and light eating were things of the future. The kitchen staff, well trained by Mamaita, cooked with careless abandon and we ate in the same fashion. If breakfast was a feast, lunch, merienda and dinner were no different, perhaps even more so. Desserts were aplenty, there was never just one but a variety. Hot chocolate was available any time of day, the super thick kind, none of that watered down stuff.

Mamaita's Recipes 2

My trip to Dumaguete included a mission: to copy Mamaita's precious recipes while I still could. I reminisced a lot when I was there, as you can probably tell from my previous posts, especially as I lay in bed in the dark. I was sleeping in Mamaita's room, something I hadn't done since way before she moved on seven years ago. Her room remained untouched, except for the presence of the high-back chair that used to be in the living room and the paint that was peeling from the walls.

Mamaita's recipes 3

Must handle with care!

But it was while I copied her recipes that I felt her close. I couldn't believe my eyes when my aunt handed me her recipes. It came bunched together and wrapped in plastic. The day before my uncle had joked that I would need to open the package in an airconditioned room and using tweezers and gloves to protect the paper from my bodily oils. I pulled out the notebooks and loose papers slowly, realizing he may have been only half-joking. The pages were brittle and stained with age and tiny fragments that had crumled over the years came spilling out.

My hands shook slightly as I lay them down carefully on the table in the corner of her room. Two notebooks, some newspaper and magazine clippings, scraps of paper with tasting notes, and a book on Cured Meats - a book that taught you pretty much everything you needed to know from butchering to cleaning to cutting and curing, dressing, canning and cooking pork, beef and lamb.

I slowly opened the notebook and felt a wave of nostalgia. I touched her familiar neat cursive on the yellowed page. They were rounded and leaned slightly to the left. At the head of the table, I watched her write so slowly and deliberately, as if time stood still for her. I found most of what I was hoping to find here. Some were written in Spanish and the rest in English.

There was the recipe for my favorite salchichon de pili, and the chocolate ice-box cake my mom made me promise to get, the tocino del cielo which I love so much, her flan, sans rival, food for the gods, maja blanca, lengua de gato, canonigo, tarta de fruta, banana brunch cake, cheesy cassava cake, bread pudding, - wait - these are all desserts. Where are the recipes for her different chorizos? And bacalao? Apparently, I am to learn the next day at the breakfast table, my grandmother never needed to write any of the savory recipes down because she had them memorized and she made sure Basil, our cook, had them down pat. My uncle was kind enough to give me his recipes instead.

So I went to work, burning the candle at both ends, copying the recipes. And as I tapped away on the keyboard, I imagined her speaking to me through the written words. In my mind I saw her patiently teaching me in her pale yellow kitchen while I stood on the chair next to her. She had her grey hair in a neat bun as she always did, and she carefully weighed each ingredient, describing each one to me as she did so. I heard her speak to me, explaining each step of the process while she worked with her skillful hands. And I did my best to write it all down, without missing a beat.

I'm a little nervous but very excited about trying the recipes. But while I would like to chronicle the attempts here, they've asked me kindly to keep the recipes in the family for the meantime. Although I am not the type to hide cooking or baking secrets and love to share great recipes, I totally understand and respect this request because most of the recipes were used in the family business and may possibly be used for that purpose again in the future.

This is a picture of Mamaita in her 20's. I hope I make her proud. :)


PS: I just found out my dad has become a regular reader of my blog and is especially enjoying all these posts about his hometown and his mom, so HI DAD!! :)

May 13, 2007

Jo's Chicken Inatô

Jo's Inato by the Sea 2

In the past, going out to restaurants for lunch or dinner was not something we did very often in Dumaguete. This is largely due to the fact that, for the most part, restaurant food could never compete with the meals so lovingly prepared at my grandmother's house. We didn't have it for the rest of the year, so we enjoyed it while we could. If we weren't eating at home, that usually meant we were enjoying other home-cooked meals in a relatives house. That was just the way it was.

In the recent years, however, and with all the new restaurants that have opened around the city we find ourselves venturing out more often. My cousins took me to Jo's Chicken Inatô in the town of Sibulan on our way back from Lake Balinsasayao. I was told the founder and owner of this famous barbecue chicken restaurant chain, Josephine Ng, lived just across the street.

Jo's Inato by the sea

The word inatô means 'to feel at home with' and that's exactly what it felt like dining here. The staff was warm and friendly and the ambience was rustic and very casual. The restaurant was by the sea, and we chose one of these tables outside (pic above) so we could enjoy the sea breeze and the view. The tables here were shaped like bancas (canoes) and the seats were the "outriggers". Very cute.

Jo's Inato

There are other items on the menu but we all ordered the house specialty which is grilled chicken served with puso (rice packed and steamed in coconut leaves) and atchara (pickled papaya strips). It looked just like Bacolod's chicken inasal and even tasted similar. At least until you dunk the chicken into their dark, special sauce and then it totally blows your mind! The achuete oil of chicken inasal has nothing on this. I don't know what's in that sauce and if by some stroke of luck someone that knows reads this, I beg you, please tell me.


Puso (rice packed & steamed in coconut leaves)

Not only was it delicious, it was darn cheap. A little over P 100 ($2) for a chicken leg, one puso and a Coke. It's no wonder then that since it's inception in 1985, at least 10 other branches have opened in other cities such as Iloilo, Cagayan, Roxas, Cebu and even Manila! Why is it I had never heard of this before? There's supposed to be a branch in Jupiter St. Has anyone been? I gotta check this out soon.

I really enjoyed myself, using my hands to pull the meat off the stick, dunk it in the sauce and to pop it into my mouth, followed with a pinch of rice. I licked the sauce off my fingers, sighing contentedly with the sound of the waves lapping against the shore in the background. What I would have done for a banig (woven mat) to crawl into right there for a nice afternoon siesta.

Click here for a list of Jo's Chicken Inatô branches.

May 11, 2007

Manang Siony's Tocino

Manang Siony's was a little tocinohan (place that sells tocino 0r cured pork) two blocks away from our house in Dumaguete. It was nothing more than a makeshift charcoal grill set up on the sidewalk but it was famous. Manang Siony and her slivers of tocino on bamboo skewers were legendary around these parts.

During those summers when we were already spiking our Cokes with Tanduay rum we relied on Manang Siony for pre-dawn nourishment. We'd troop to her little spot on the sidewalk and stand there with a puso (rice packed and steamed in coconut leaves) cracked open in one hand and three, four or five tocino sticks in the other. The combination was perfect. The tocino straight from the grill was juicy and tender, and addicting. It was easy to have ten in one sitting. The puso was always steamed just right, not too sticky but not dry at all (I don't like my rice dry and separated).

Until recently, Dumaguete was a place that time forgot. She was like that loyal, dependable friend who you knew would still be the same the next time you saw her. Though Dumaguete held on for as long as she could, her growing popularity made progress inevitable. The cityscape remains free of high rises, there is still only one movie theater and Lee Plaza still stands proud as the city's biggest department store. But now McDonald's has opened and Robinson's Dept. Store has broken ground. Foreigners have moved in and set up camp, opening resorts and even restaurants such as Le Chalet for fine Swiss cuisine and deli products (of course this I am happy about). And where the tartanillas (horse-drawn carriages) once dominated the boulevard, sadly you will be hard pressed to find one today. This last one broke my heart the most.

With each new development comes new job opportunities of course, which is always good. But I feel that with every new place that sprouts up and with every old haunt that disappears, a piece of me goes along with it. On top of this, many of my cousins and friends who used to live here have relocated elsewhere for reasons of their own. So it may have been a subconscious effort on my part to hang on to the old days when I went to visit Manang Siony for some tocino to take home for dinner.

My aunt suggested I take Nelfa, our long-time household staff, with me to guide me there because she had moved her business a couple more blocks down from its original location. Imagine my surprise when I pulled up into the driveway of a two-story structure with not one, but two, brightly lit signages on the facade claiming that this was now Manang Siony's! I felt so proud of her. It's so inspiring to see how far she's come from her humble beginnings on the sidewalk (I am told she used to sleep there too, under the table). She now has a dining area for her customers and offers a wide variety of grilled meat including chicken, pork and gizzard. Out front is the grilling area and where the pusos are cooked. Though the building lacks a coat of paint and the second floor is still under construction, it is a far cry from the original.

left photo: the new grilling area
middle & right photo: puso steaming in the pots

With one look, Manang Siony knew instantly from which family I belonged and I was surprised that she actually remembered me. From behind the tall counter where she weaved various types of raw meat into bamboo skewers and arranged them neatly on trays in front of her, she told Nelfa and I that she will always remember my mamaita with fondness and could never forget her "blond" grandchildren.

Manang Siony

While I waited for the rest of my order, I took a stick of tocino out of the first batch and slid a piece of meat into my mouth. A rush of memories came flooding back, happy ones mostly, but also a slightly scary one - I had a bad motorcycle accident in front of her stall once when I was driving. The meat was still tender and delicious (though just like the tapsilog in Rufo's it somehow tastes infinitely better after imbibing some alcohol), and I smiled. Happy that though nothing is constant except change, some things are above that law.

Manang Siony's Original Tocino
Lower Luke Wright St. , Dumaguete City
Tel. (035) 225-1125
Cell phone: (0920) 435-0224

May 10, 2007

Picnic in the forest

Picnicking and swimming in the river was something we did a lot of when I was younger. This is one of life's most simple of pleasures, a back-to-basics activity that is so rewarding and enjoyable. We didn't need much, a small basket with basic picnic fare, a cooler for our drinking water and sodas and Mother Nature.

The Forrest Camp is a 2 hectare property situated along the Banica River which flows clean and pure through Valencia (a municipality about 9 kms west of Dumaguete City). Before this resort was opened to the public in 1990, my dad would take us to his friends private property through which this same river cut through further upstream. I loved swimming among the rocks and playing with my cousins in the current. Sometime in the late 90's I took a bunch of my friends from Manila up there to experience this simple joy, and they loved it. For most of them who knew only what it was like to swim in man-made pools, the sea or a lake, it was a truly an unforgettable experience.

On the morning of Easter Sunday, Basil (my grandmother's loyal cook) and my aunt prepared a picnic basket for us and we set out to Forest Camp where my cousin had reserved a hut for us by the river. There was pancit, pork chops, puso (rice packed and cooked in coconut leaves) and brownies and assorted beverages. We picked up a box of sans rival cake and half a date & walnut dacquoise from Sans Rival and off we went.

Forest Camp is a lush tropical oasis that would make a nature-lover weak in the knees. All the huts are built with indigenous materials such as bamboo and nipa, and come with picnic tables and chairs which you can rent for a small fee. Available also are provisions for grilling. Aside from the picnic area, there are also cottages and guesthouses for overnight stay, camping grounds, a main hall which can accomodate up to 250 people, a tree house, a restaurant and a mini suspension bridge. All of this is surrounded by natural pools, a waterfall, towering coconut trees and bordered by wild forest. It is obvious they took great care in preserving the natural surroundings and built around what was already there. For the more adventurous, Forest Camp offers guided treks to Casaroro Falls and Lake Nailig as well as ATV rentals.

Despite the large Easter Sunday crowd, the experience was almost Zen-like. The green landscape so soothing on the eyes, the hypnotic sound of the leaves on the trees rustling in the wind (albeit pierced by the occasional squeal of a kid splashing in the river) and birds chirping merrily, the experience heightened by the sound of the cascading water. Oh and the delightful food too, of course!

I happily nibbled on a bag of juicy sineguelas, (this and duhat/lomboy are fruits I will forever associate with summers in Dumaguete). Even after our heavy brunch and sinful desserts, I couldn't resist ordering a buko halo-halo after seeing it being enjoyed by a group of people near the restaurant. I love halo-halo and having it in a buko (coconut) is a treat I don't have very often. It was the perfect ending to our lovely picnic in the forest.

Buko Halo Halo

The Forest Camp
Telephone: (035) 423-4017
Telefax: (035) 422-7027
E-mail: ; website:

May 6, 2007

Sans Rival Cakes & Pastries

sans rival bakeshop

Sans Rival Cakes & Pastries

I mentioned before how my family would spend summers in Dumaguete with the rest of the clan and it was a time of year we always eagerly awaited. Under one roof, four big families were squeezed in and when we were not at the beach or by the river, we found ways to entertain ourselves in my grandmother's house. My older siblings eventually formed other groups to hang with, made up mostly of cousins (it seems everyone is related to each other over there) who they would go to discos with. Not long after I followed suit. I spent less time in my grandmother's house and more time on the streets with my group.

We did a lot of things together, moved around in our posse of motorcycles and jeeps letting the wind take us where it wanted. We enjoyed the company so much it didn't matter where that day would take us. I especially loved riding on the backseat of a motorcycle cruising along the coast or climbing mountains and chasing sunsets. But mostly we just kind of happily hung around.


delicious silvanas

Without trying, we formed a daily routine. In the mornings after breakfast, time was dutifully spent playing with the younger cousins, making a mess helping out in the kitchen, reading, chatting on the front porch with family and restlessly pacing the house. After lunch with the family, usually by 2:30, my 2 cousins and I would stroll out the old wooden gate and head down the boulevard towards Speedmeals - my grand-aunt's cantina which had become our meeting place and hang-out. But first, we would buy packets of my grandmother's peanuts from her restaurant North Pole which was just 2 houses away, stuff them in our pockets and continue along.

Usually we were the first to arrive at Speedmeals but by 3pm, the rest of the gang would show up. Their motorcycles and cars would noisily pull up outside, each arrival announced by a slam of the screen door. For the next few hours we'd be surrounded by laughter and a constant stream of food: flan, spaghetti, burgers, and avocado or mango shakes. Then we'd hop on the bikes and cars and drive to Silliman University to hang out outside Luz Auditorium for a while.

Sans rival

Still the best sans rival I've ever tasted

Before dark, we'd all head back home with a promise to see each other again after dinner. But not before making a quick stop at Sans Rival Cakes & Pastries, my tita's bakeshop which is only two blocks from home. We'd peruse the glass cabinet for whatever would tickle our fancy that day, but more often than not, we'd walk away with either a slice of sans rival or a sylvana wrapped in wax paper or foil which we would put away before we reached home. We were still dependent on our parents for money, so we had 'signing privileges' in all three places. At the end of our vacation, they'd send the bill over for our parents to settle.

cake cabinet

Though Speedmeals and North Pole now exist only in our hearts and memories, Sans Rival still remains. What was once a tiny take-out bakeshop by the garage is now a homey and bright cafe that now also served lunch and merienda (afternoon snack). I was impressed with the variety of cakes on display and with the efficient ordering system they had in place, and then pleasantly surprised when I saw Annie, my tita's loyal staff, still behind the counter taking orders. Being the creature of habit that I can sometimes be, I ordered silvanas and sans rival. Yes, both. I can never decide between the two, I love them both equally! Silvanas are the cookie verison of sans rival, both are made with delicious layers of crunchy meringue, rich buttercream and cashews.

Inside Sans Rival bakeshop

Tita Trining Teves-Sagarbarria first opened her shop in Dumaguete in 1977. She always loved to cook and bake for her family and friends and her passion was evident in the cakes and pastries she would create. Her children inherited this passion and helped in the success and expansion of the business. Her daughter Chining now runs and operates Sans Rival Cakes & Pastries in Dumagute. Her son Cholong moved to Manila in 1978 with his wife Mary Anne armed with his moms recipes and took orders from their San Lorenzo village home. This was wonderful news for those of us who lived in Manila! I still recall visiting my cousin and how we would sneak silvanas from the chest freezers and take them up to her room. Because there was a large clamor for their cakes, they expanded with more branches of The House of Silvanas around the city and eventually opened 3 branches in California where they have since taken up residence.

If sans rival or silvanas isn't your thing, try their Brazo de Mercedes or Blitz Torte, cheesecake, Concorde or the amazing Date and Walnut Dacquoise! I loved the Dacquoise so much I bought an entire cake as a present for my cousin on her birthday and brought half a cake to a picnic by the river the next day.

date & walnut dacquoise

Amazing Date & Walnut Dacquoise

Sans Rival Cakes & Pastries
#3 San Jose st., Dumaguete City ; Tel. 225-4440 / 422-9482

The House of Silvanas branches in the US:

Daly City: 2055 Gellert Blvd. Ste. 3, Daly City, CA 94015 ; Tel. (650) 878-8700
Carson City, CA: 21822 S. Main St. , Carson City, CA 90745; Tel. (310) 522-4509

For other branches in the Philippines, click here.

May 2, 2007

The Twin Lakes of Balinsasayao

I don't know why I had never been up here before. I thought that I'd seen all there was worth seeing around Dumaguete, but how wrong I was. The island is so rich in natural beauty that apparently much has yet to be discovered and developed for visitors.

It was my brother who had first told me about the Twin Lakes of Balinsasayao, and how I should make it a point to go this time. He had never been either, but had heard so much about it. So I sent my cousin a message and she agreed I shouldn't miss it. So she gladly arranged everything. It was too bad my brother couldn't come earlier to join us.

They picked me up at 9 am, armed with a bag of assorted junk food and a cooler filled with ice and drinks. We made a quick stop at the Swiss deli (a product of the surge in foreign residents in the city, I was pleasantly surprised with their items which would rival those of Santi's!) to pick up some sandwiches she had ordered for our brunch and we were on our way. The first half hour of the drive was familiar, it was one I loved. We drove north along the coast to the town of Sibulan, before turning west to ascend the mountain.

The view got more impressive the higher we went. I could see Cebu in the distance across the sea. It was a clear day with a few tufts of clouds here and there. In some places, it was hard to tell where the sea ended and the sky began. It took my breath away.

Chapel on a hill

Chapel on the hill: Sto. Nino Cambaloctot

We stopped briefly at this cute pink chapel on the hill. It was empty. There are five rows of pews on each side of the aisle that leads to the altar made of rock. Behind the altar is a grotto with the statue of the Virgin Mary. I am told that the chapel is built on the very spot where a group who was doing civic work for the villagers in the area had seen what, for them, could only be explained as a miracle. The sun began to spin in a whirl of color, almost blinding them, spinning and growing bigger as if coming closer then receded again. Then the sun split in half momentarily before becoming whole again and continued to spin and dance. This went on for about 10 minutes, during which the group stood staring and praying. The entire story is also painted on a wall next to the chapel.

Sto Nino

the grotto behind the altar

We continued our way up the winding gravel road for another 20 minutes. We drove past the sign pointing to the first of the twin lakes, Lake Danao,the smaller of the two. We arrived at Lake Balinsasayao soon after. Until only recently, one had to hike up the mountain to get to the lakes and depending on the hiker's stamina, the hike could last up to 2 days. No wonder I had never been up there before, there wasn't a road yet then.

Horses by the lake

We parked the car at the side of the road near a sign which was the only indication that there was a lake hidden beyond the thick forest. We were about 1000 feet above sea level and the air was balmy. As we trudged down the rocky steps, the lake slowly came into view. It looked like a painting!

Lake Balinsasayao 4

My first glimpse of the lake

The lake was much bigger than I expected and so much more beautiful. From where I was standing, the view reminded me very much of the Swiss countryside. I half expected to see a chalet nestled among the trees across the water. In fact, I have a picture which I took from the train to Interlaken that looks just like that one above but with a Swiss chalet on the foreground. It was simply gorgeous!

There were only two other groups there aside from the local bankeros (boatmen) so it was relatively quiet and gave you the feeling of seclusion. There are kayaks, bancas (outrigger canoes), pedal boats and cottages for hire at very reasonable prices. We hired a bankero who, with strong and seasoned arms, rowed us around the lake while we sat back and relaxed. It was so peaceful with only the occasional sound of birds and the whoosh-whoosh of the oar in the water.

Lake Balinsasayao

My cousin's husband told us about how he and his buds would hike up to this lake way back when and they would set up camp on the shores across on the other side where we saw the remnants of a camp fire. Some of them would sleep on their bancas, under the stars, lulled to sleepy by the tiny ripples on the water. They would have boat races in the nude just for the hell of it. Ahh yes, the days before Brokeback Mountain. Heehee.

The boatman tells us that by 5 pm the fog starts to roll in and the temperature plummets. All around us the water is different shades of green, like an emerald glinting in the sun. We see a heron swoop down low near the water's surface, barely skimming it before soaring back over the treetops. The lake is surrounded by lush vegetation and when we were close enough to land, I saw giant ferns, the biggest I'd ever seen. After about an hour, we stopped for brunch on the other side and ate while my nephew swam in the water. The water was cold so none of us waded in after him. We were content to sit on the rocks with our pastrami sandwiches and apple streudels and the view.

Lake Balinsasayao 2

Lake Balinsasayao 3

Local kids fishing

Chicken and Sandwiches at Balinsasayao

left: someone's lunch; right: our brunch - yummy deli sammiches