A few weeks ago, I reminisced about growing up in the Philippines. That post did not mention food, but after a high school friend e-mailed me this week an article about Philippine cuisine I realize that it’s the food I miss most now. And what food we had….!
Growing up, I focused mostly on the fruits and “dessert” options. After i left, I gained more appreciation for the main courses.
The variety of fruits was amazing. I ate lots of them, much more than I did typical “snacks.”
We had a papaya tree in our backyard and I regularly enjoyed papaya salads as a snack. When I saw my first “papaya” here, I wasn’t sure what it was. When I realized it was a papaya, I laughed. That scrawny thing is NOT a papaya! A real papaya is about 18 inches long and a good six inches high. In other words, if a papaya fell off the tree and hit your head, you’d be seriously hurting. I’m definitely an Asian papaya elitist!
Then, there were the fruits I’ll never see here…at least not fresh. My favorite is jackfruit, known in the Philippines as nangka. It is a yellow, fibrous fruit shaped somewhat like a tulip bulb. The taste is somewhat bland with a slight sweetness. I’ve found it canned at Mike’s Seafood, a local Asian food store.
Santol is about the size of an orange; its white meat is somewhat sour. I love it with some salt to bring out the tartness. But for tartness, nothing beats hard green mango with salt and rice. When mango is on sale at the grocery, I pick the hardest, greenest ones I can find and live it up!
Two Chinese fruits I love are Mandarin oranges and lychee. The “oranges” are actually huge tangerines the size of a softball. Very easy to peel and very sweet. Lychee is a milky white fruit about the size of a globe grape with a delicate, slightly sweet flavor. I’ve also seen it canned at Mike’s but fresh is so much better.
On the dessert / snack side, it was rice cakes, more rice cakes, and even more rice cakes. Puto is a steamed rice cake that I can eat all day. There’s also an orange, sticky rice cake called kutchinta which is more glutinous, and sweeter, than puto. Kutchinta is traditionally eaten with grated coconut on top. Masarap! (Delicious!)
Moving up in size we come to bibingka. This is a pancake style rice cake the size of a dinner plate, although I now see it in a “mini” size. It is also traditionally eaten with grated coconut. I can get bibinkga in Vegas and look forward to it on our annual visits.
The mother of all rice cakes is the “sticky rice” cake biko which comes from the northern provinces where my mother’s family is from. This monster is the size of a sheet cake. It is little more than white rice and coconut held together by a coconut milk syrup poured over it. But, the coup de gras is a layer of sticky brown sugar put on top. This is a huge sugar buzz! My grandmother brought me one of these whenever she visited and I gobbled it down way too fast! I get this in Vegas too!
Halo-halo is a concoction of ice cream (traditionally a purple sweet yam flavor called ube), sweet beans and fruits in a sundae style glass. I never took a great liking to it but my wife loves it. At a San Francisco reunion last year, there was a “you make it” halo-halo table and she went crazy! (I gorged myself on the rice cakes!)
Guinataan is mixed fruits in coconut milk and sugar. Now even I admit that guinataan’s visual appeal is below zero but the taste is marvelous!
In the entrée department, the “big three” are adobo , pancit and lechon. Adobo is a pork or chicken stew in a sauce of vinegar and soy sauce.
Pancit is a rice noddle dish which comes in a variety of forms but I prefer the thin noodles with veggies and shrimp and pork bits. Squeeze on some juice from a calamansi, a sort of Philippine lime, over the noodles and, as my wife would say, “it’s mighty fine eatin’!”
Lechon (spit roasted whole pig) is the Holy Grail of Philippine cuisine. Any important event must have a lechon. The best part is the crispy outer skin! I always have lechon when we’re in Vegas.
Now enjoy a taste of Filipino Flavors! (Warning: You’ll be hungry aftewards.)
(Next Sunday: I’ll be in Vegas for Thanksgiving week and some of you may be traveling that week too. So next Sunday I’ll give you my proven techniques for avoiding the BOHICA you often encounter as everyone tries to “tax the tourist.”)