Amy Besa, food scholar, riled up the crowd’s enthusiasm as she revealed undiscovered flavors of Filipino dishes with her detailed dissection of each ingredient.
Last October, we walked into Ela Restaurant, the venue where Philadelphia’s culinary enthusiasts had gathered, eager for the Hidden Flavors of the Philippine Kitchen reception to commence. Amidst a casual, energetic setting orchestrated by Pelago Philly’s Neal Santos, Resa Mueller and Jillian Encarnacion, the crowd in attendance was raring to savor the food offerings of the Purple Yam team – NYC restaurateurs and cookbook authors, husband and wife team of Amy Besa and Chef Romy Dorotan with their Malate Chefs Rap Cristobal and Alvin Cruz, who flew in from Manila.
“Filipino food is from memory and the food we continue to discover. Tonight, is about experiencing re-discovery and re-invention, “said Consul General of New York Maria Theresa Dizon-de Vega as she welcomed the packed room. “There is no better authority to introduce these unique flavors to us than the twin architects of Philippine cuisine.”
Ela’s dinner tables, joined end-to-end, featured full spreads of ingredients. Further into the room, the rich aromas and colors immersed in the appetizers, beverages, entrees, and desserts overcame our senses, enticing us to sniff and taste every item.
There were coffees from the islands of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao: Arabica from Benguet in the Cordilleras; the Ephemera- Arabica beans grown in a valley between two volcanoes in Bukidnon whose origins Amy described: “These beans had been there before the Spaniards came in the 16th century.” And the Robusta, from the Baslay forests outside of Dumaguete, in Negros Oriental.
“The international cuppers, judges of coffee beans globally proclaimed these Philippine varieties are the best in the world, “Amy said.
“We have coconut sap vinegar from Sorsogon in Bicol, where Romy is from. The lubi vinegar from Samar, used in kinilaw (ceviche) to enhance the dish’s rawness appealing to distinct palates. And the Sukang Iloko, made from sugar cane in Ilocos. All these aged a year.”
Amy teased our taste buds describing the Duck Leg Adobo sa Dilaw, by Chef Romy in yellow turmeric, braised in coconut sap vinegar, with Kalumata leaves, lemongrass, shallots, chilies and coconut milk.
“Adobo which means ‘to braise in vinegar’ is a cooking method ours alone. Raymond Sokolov, food journalist and columnist singled out our cooking process as unique to Filipinos.”
“You will enjoy the balance of the salty and the sour,” Amy reminded the crowd that the Philippines is an archipelago with some 7,100 islands surrounded by salt. “Salt is our primary source of flavor.”
As the chefs indulged our palates with food, our tongues were pricked by the tartness of vinegars, soothed by the sweetness of the honeys, and comforted by special heirloom rice. These gastronomic dishes were paired with spirits and liquors proudly Philippine-made: nipa lambanog from Infanta, Quezon and tapuy (rice wine) from Conner, Apayao. Cocktails and drinks flowed thanks to gifts from the Philippine-owned Destileria Limtuaco: Very Old Captain Artisan Crafted Dark Rum, Manille Liquer de Calamansi, Manille Liquer de Dalandan, Vigan Basi Philippine Sugarcane Wine and Intramuros Cacao Liquer.
Chef Rap Cristobal plated the Pancit Malate for each guest: silky sotanghon noodles lay on a sweet-savory sauce of coffee and gata (coconut milk), topped with shrimps and locally-sourced crisp vegetables.
Chef Romy Dorotan swiftly cut up cubes of the pork belly lechon, served with the crackling balat (pork skin). Diners dipped the crisp lechon into the varying vinegars – all aged a year, ranging from sharp, sour, spicy, acerbic, cutting, biting, tangy, full-bodied, slightly bitter to a shy sweetness.
Heaping portions of heirloom rice, long-grained with a slightly nutty taste, complemented the cabcab, the crisp danggit, the creamy Eggplant Kulawo, the spicy Bicol Express. Amy described the heirloom rice grains were from generations of farmers who use the same rice DNA their forefathers cultivated.
The meal ended sweetly with three ice creams made of mangosteen jam, Robusta coffee sweetened with Baslay honey and the chocolate-macapuno. The coconut sport preserves were made by Chef Romy and the chocolate he used were from Tigre y Oliva, an artisan brand that uses pure cacao from Davao, formulated with Purple Yam’s specifications.
When Amy announced the Halo-Halo bar, the crowd went wild with shrieks of “yahoo.” There is nothing like the traditional Filipino iced dessert to make heads spin. Halo-halo means “mix-mix.” Diners plunged their spoons into the deep, multilayered, fruity tropical condiments of watermelon ice (in lieu of the plain ice), ube (purple yam), langka (jackfruit) and crisp rice pinipig (rice crispies) topped with the ice creams. Foot traffic was heavy at that end of the table as Chef Alvin Cruz feverishly filled the glasses.
Philadelphia was the last stop for the Purple Yam team, ending a multi-city tour from September to October, which took them from a New York City launch to sold-out dinners in Seattle, Chicago, Toronto, Canada and finally Philly. Consul General Dizon-de Vega explained, “Philadelphia is the city with the fastest growing number of new restaurants.”
“Philadelphia is where it started for us, where Romy and I met at Temple University, while he finished his PhD in Economics and I was in graduate school,” Amy reminisced. Romy was a chef at The Frog, while Amy, was a pastry chef hired by Temple during summers. Both knew then in the ‘70s, the city was a leader on the food scene and thus, their life’s passion came full circle that evening at the end of the Hidden Flavors of the Philippine Kitchen food tour.
Amy and Romy are experts at recognizing the potency of flavors in indigenous ingredients. They have over 20 years’ experience running restaurants in New York City – Cendrillon in Soho from the ‘90s to 2008, currently Purple Yam in Brooklyn, and in Malate and Estancia in the Philippines.
“You will not find these ingredients sold en masse. We source from small farmers we know so these are ingredients with integrity. We curate the best for our Purple Yam restaurants.”
True enough, even with familiar Filipino foods, our taste buds were awakened by distinct perspectives, depths and colors from the undiscovered ingredients. There was newness in classic dishes. Flavors were sharper, aromas bold and textures penetrating. The tour affirmed: “There are two kinds of Filipino cuisine: Food we know and food we borrowed, tweaked and made our own.”
The culinary experience taught us that once we know the distinctive effects of flavors, we can cook and savor more wondrous Filipino delicacies. “Let’s open our palates to the ingredients we taste so we can savor what we have in the Philippines,” said Amy.
As we sipped the last rounds of calamansi and dalandan spirits and liquors, stirred the robust cups of coffee and relished the earthy chocolate cookies made with Tigre y Oliva and pili nuts, one thing was certain: There will always be more to discover in Filipino food. These flavors are ours alone. The rediscovery reflected what Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan believe: “Our food is world-class because our ingredients are world-class.”
Elizabeth Ann Quirino, based in New Jersey is a journalist and author of the “How to Cook Philippine Desserts: Cakes and Snacks” Cookbook. She is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and blogs about Filipino home cooking on her site AsianInAmericaMag.com.
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