The secret, complex flavors of Philippine cuisine

Montage of fresh produce

Many years ago, I asked a good friend, the American food scholar Ray Sokolov, why it was taking so long for Filipino food to claim its place on the American table. I was based in the United States, running a restaurant and wondering why, in a country that’s home to the biggest chunk of the Filipino diaspora, the cuisine of the homeland was slow to move beyond individual homes and into the mainstream dining scene.

Ray told me that it was because Filipinos like to keep their food hidden, close to the vest. That observation was puzzling to me then and, to be honest, I deemed it to be way off base from reality. Little did I know that in these last few years, as I immersed myself in the local produce markets looking for hidden treasures to create degustation meals at Purple Yam Malate, I would come to this same deeply profound conclusion: Many of us simply do not know what grows around us and those who know do not talk about it.

So where does one start? It was obvious that creating a meaningful Filipino meal starting with classic dishes was putting the cart before the horse. One must start with identifying what grows around us and then create dishes and a meal around them. The unknown, ignored and undervalued were my starting points of discovery. And if Ray was right, all of these hidden gems grown and produced by local rural folk in remote areas or on the fringes of urban areas exist and can easily be accessed. One need only look beneath the surface and see. Many of our ingredients, cooking techniques and recipes hide before us in plain sight.

Within a few months, I amassed a collection of 22 kinds of heirloom and native rice varieties from the Cordilleras, Mindoro and Bukidnon. There were fruit vinegars (mango, tamarind), palm sap (coconut, nipa and kaong) and sugarcane (sukang Iloko, basi vinegar). There were the disappearing palm sugars of buri and nipa because producing palm sugar is a dying art. Gradually the Philippine meal began to take shape: native green salads of alugbati, wild baby piping and sayote tops in a kalamansi, dalandan and dayap dressing; chicken, pork and beef adobos braised in sugarcane and mulberry vinegars and marinated in turmeric or achuete oil; crab claws in tamarind black peppercorn sauce; and ice cream flavours of nipa pandan, sineguelas and ube varieties (Sapiro and Deep Purple) from Benguet. The possibilities were endless.

In early June, my kitchen crew and I were invited by the owners of Holy Carabao Farm, a supplier of organic and holistic food to select retail stores in Metro Manila, to forage in one of the last remaining rainforests in Luzon. Batulao Forest, a privately owned expanse of 30,000 hectares in the heart of Nasugbu, Batangas, is a natural stand – whatever grows in the forest does so without human intervention. With the help of highly trained forest guides, we were introduced to what could be safely foraged and eaten: tree mosses and grasses, mushrooms, flowers and fruits. My most thrilling discovery was the “baging” or bamboo-like vine containing true mineral water between each node. I asked if I could taste the water and I was politely told that cutting off parts of it could kill it.

Below an open sky partially shaded with forest canopy, the Holy Carabao Farm team and the Purple Yam kitchen crew set up several picnic tables and propane gas stoves, and cooked with provisions from Malate and foraged Batulao ingredients. We shared a meal of vegetable fried Tinawon from Ifugao and black Mindoro rice topped with the ulasiman bato, paragis and gotu kola; Holy Carabao native black pig trotter braised in sukang Iloko, native Cassia bark (Philippine cinnamon), and Costeno (dried Mexican chile) sweetened with the honey from the native ligwan or laywan bee; chicken binacol with the banana trunk (ubad) and coconut heart (ubod); and sweet potato noodle in tamarind chili sauce, chopped Katmon (Elephant Apple) and woodear mushrooms. For dessert, we served our homemade milk ice cream, watermelon ice and passion fruit sorbet topped with Batulao Farm mulberry compote.

Our conclusion? The genius of Philippine food is its simplicity, which hides rich, complex flavors that it willingly shares with those who know how to look for them.

This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Smile magazine.

Written by

Amy Besa

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