Came the big night and true enough the buffet featured a parade of Filipino greatest culinary hits. There was Lumpiang Ubod (julienned heart of coconut sautéed in aromatics with a syrupy soy dressing and sprinkled with minced peanuts and fresh garlic before being rolled in rice crepe); Pancit Bihon (rice noodles loaded with chicken and vegetables); Kare-Kare (beef tripe and knuckles simmered in peanut sauce); Sinaing na Tulingan (a type of tuna steamed and blanketed with mayonnaise, chopped pickles and carrots); and at the center of the spread, a platter of beef slices that had been braised in a sweet-tart-savory tomato sauce. And that’s the Mechado, the celebrant pointed triumphantly.
The hostess clearly nailed the Asian-influenced entrees, but where’s the “mecha,” whispered a guest whose editor father was known to scrutinize the family cook’s daily offerings as he would his reporter’s stories.
What’s “mecha?” queried another guest while scooping up two slices of the main dish prettied up with chunks of potatoes and carrots plus a sprig of flat-leaf parsley.
Never mind, the curious guest replied, contrite about her inquisitiveness. In her home, “mechado” was nothing if not a slab of beef impaled with a strip of fat or lard, therefore, “mecha,” Spanish for wick, the thread in candles. Hence the name. “Mechado” means threaded, fused, or wicked. Properly wicked, the glorious slab was marinated several hours to overnight in soy sauce and garlic before being seared in high heat on all sides to concentrate the beefy flavor. The browned beauty would then be salt-and-peppered, blessed with vinegar and doused with tomato sauce to braise away low and slow for at least another three hours in its fond (beef residue formed at bottom of pot from searing) until it filled the kitchen with a heady, complex aroma.
European chefs use a larding needle, a hollow gadget with a pointy tip to stab and “thread” of fat into the flesh, moistening it with buttery richness. Elsewhere, a long thin knife can likewise pierce meat followed by pressing in the fat manually to achieve the same outcome.
Not everyone has the time, dexterity and patience or a cook to lard beef for a dish whose flavor may be replicated by searing a strip of fat along with and not in the beef. Just don’t call it “mechado” because it is “sin” or without “mecha.” Enriqueta David-Perez instructed both wicking and adding a bit of fat to her mix in her pioneering cookbook Recipes from the Philippines. The Centro Escolar University College of Nutrition 1998 centennial commemorative cookbook Filipino Cuisine borrows the name but not the procedure or ingredients for a beef entry called Mechadong Tagalog. (See recipes).
Food is a matter of taste. To paraphrase the mantra of lately beleaguered (for dissing Chinese American food as inauthentic while opening his first Chinese food restaurant in his home state Minnesota) Andrew Zimmern: “If it tastes good, eat it.” Food, however, is more than its fleeting sensation on the taste buds. Besides engaging all the senses, it also broadens the mind.
Cooking has reached new heights where chefs, formerly considered kitchen help, per the late great Anthony Bourdain, now share celebrity stratosphere with film, TV and rock stars. Understanding the story behind a dish distinguishes a cook from a food lover. Looking into the root of the word, especially when it does not seem to belong to the native vocabulary, explains the recipe's origin, ingredients and evolution. As James Beard laureate David Chang reminds, master the basic recipe before riffing off it.
Understanding the provenance of recipes also connects peoples with shared histories.
Case in point: Adobo, the national dish of the Philippines, is not unique to Rizal’s patria adorada. The name is derived from the Spanish “adobar” or “to marinate.” While the archipelago classic requires vinegar, garlic, soy sauce, black pepper and maybe a bay leaf, most Spanish-speaking nations have their own version of Adobo using whatever indigenous herbs and spices are accessible to perfume a piece of protein. The Provençal French have a technique called “en daube” (pronounce a-dob) or simmering meats in a variety of herbs: same idea.
Manilans love a beef dish called Salpicado that’s on the menu in some Filipino restaurants in California. Made of beef medallions rather than steaks smothered in soy sauce and garlic, sometimes with oyster sauce; the dish is alternately called Salpicao, which makes it sound like something passed down by the hunks who landed in the Philippines with Portugal native Ferdinand Magellan, to whom most food blogs attribute the dish. Surely the Asian condiments were a later addition.
“Salpicar” is Spanish for “to splash out” as in the effect of room-temperature meat hitting hot oil. Similar to sizzling steak, yes? So it stands to reason that the Iberian neighbors cross-pollinated the dish. Then again Brazil, Portugal’s former colony, has a completely different iteration of Salpicao. That would be chicken salad often served with potato fries in the largest nation in South America. Even Martha Stewart has her version.
Afritada also sounds like something introduced by descendants of those who hopped on the galleons. Yet, such a dish has not popped up in a search of Spanish cuisine. “Freir” is Spanish for “to fry,” quite a stretch from afritada, usually pork or chicken stewed in tomatoes and embellished with potatoes and bell peppers.
Closer in name is the Italian “Frittata,” which is not a stew but an omelet. Could the dish be a marriage of Spanish meats with Italian love for veggies?
Then there’s Chicken Pastel. Americans would recognize it as pot pie. Philippine tradition would have boneless cuts of chicken sautéed in butter, garlic and onions with mushrooms, carrots, peas, slices of hard-boiled egg and Chorizo de Bilbao, the Basque sausage that turns a dish “Spanish” in the Philippines. (Imagine what Sevillanos of Southern Spain would say should they hear that their prize Paella is studded with the intensely spiced Northern link?) Glenda Barreto, founder of Via Mare parenthesizes that particular preserved meat as "garlic sausage" in her 2006 Flavors of the Philippines. Any sausage spiced with de rigueur pimenton or dried roasted sweet pepper powder and garlic might do. But skipping the pastry topping totally upends the recipe, because “pastel” is Spanish for pastry or cake or pie. Minus the crust, it ain’t Pastel but chicken stew.
Better documented is the Ensaimada, a beloved Philippine pastry available all year round but especially ubiquitous at Christmastime.
Born in Spain’s Balearic Island of Mallorca, the original sweet bread vaguely resembles its Philippine cousin today.
Leave it to Filipinos to gild the lily. Our “ensaymada” makes the mother pastry seem almost mundane. Some are filled with ham (alerting US Customs to ask what’s in those carry-on boxes) or jazzed with tropical flavors like ube or pandan, and topped with Edam, and only Edam. Maybe because the Dutch cheese comes in a ball wrapped in red wax and cellophane, the iconic queso de bola that for Filipinos bodes happy holidays and symbolizes prosperity. Cultural appropriation police would have a field day blasting Filipinos for profiting off a Spanish product, if they knew.
Ask a Filipino what “ensaymada” means and you’ll probably see shoulders shrug. By changing its spelling, they’ve consigned the origin of their celebration pastry to oblivion.
“Saim” (pronounced sa’yeem) is a derivation of “shahim,” Arabic for “lard,” a key ingredient of the bread, Asturias-born humanitarian chef Jose Andres corroborated in one of his early PBS shows. Made with lard, yeast, flour, lots of eggs and water, kneaded and left to double in size for a few hours, the original is then shaped like a coil and dusted with sugar. Es todo. That's it.
After Christians reconquered Spain from the Arabs in 1492, store owners began prominently displaying pork legs to identify their religious affiliation. Lardy ensaimada probably got swept in the custom and gained fame as well.
Butter has replaced lard in the Philippine specialty. In fact, some creative Fil-Am bakers describe their ensaymada as brioche, the French pastry that has more butter than egg required by ensaymada but demands as much folding and judicious kneading (too much handling overdevelops the gluten, responsible for the rubbery inedibles sold in Bay Area bakeries).
We who have savored good ensaimada often take advantage of travelers from the Philippines to courier the cheesy, buttery clouds.
Did the Iberian colonizers bother to explain their cuisine to the Indios and Insulares, or did they deliberately deprive descendants of the history of their delicacies because knowledge is power? How Philippine cultural historian Doreen Fernandez is missed today!
Touting her heritage at an office potluck, this editor’s daughter chose to present Philippine pastries. When she identified the goodies as “mamon” and “puto,” her Latina co-workers thought she was kidding and cracked up when she swore she wasn’t making up the names.
While munching on that round velvety and moist sweet bread or the small rice cakes, look up the translation of the names and ask what the Spanish ancestors were thinking.
Ninang Etang's Mechado
Ninang Etang's Mechado leaves required threading of the fat to the cook's imagination. From "Recipes of the Philippines" by Enriqueta David-Perez, pioneer food editor of Manila. The book was in its 19th print as of 1973.
1 kilo beef, lean
4 big onions, whole
1/2 cup vinegar
Strips of pork fat
1 can tomato sauce (small)
6 potatoes, cut in halves
1/2 laurel leaf
2 tbsps. fat
1 tsp. pimenton
Salt to taste
Insert fat strips lengthwise in beef. In a deep pot or pan, place the meat, laurel, tomato sauce, vinegar, salt to taste and water to cover. Cover and simmer until tender. Add potatoes, onions and pimenton and continue cooking. When most of the broth has evaporated and potatoes are cooked, add the far and stir well. Serve meat sliced crosswise.
2 T cooking oil
1/2 k lean beef, cubed
1/2 k beef liver, sliced
1 head garlic
2 pcs onions, chopped
1/2 k tomatoes, chopped
1 t soy sauce
1 t black pepper
2 T achuete, annatto seeds, soaked and extracted in
1 c warm water
2 pcs red bell peppers, sliced
2 pcs green bell peppers, sliced
6 pcs potatoes, quartered and fried
1 stalk celery, sliced
Heat oil in a frying pan. Stir-fry beef and liver. Set aside.
Saute garlic, onions and tomatoes in hot oil until soft. Combine the meat mixture and season with soy sauce and pepper. Mix well. Pour 1 cup annatto extract. Cover and let boil. Lower heat and simmer until meat is tender. Add the bell peppers. Serve hot. Garnish with friend potatoes and celery.
Cherie M. Querol Moreno is a Commissioner with the San Mateo County Commission on Aging and executive director of nonprofit ALLICE Alliance for Community Empowerment. She is editor at large of Philippine News, columnist for Philippines Today USA and contributor to Rappler and GMA News Online.
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