Monday, July 25, 2011

The Filipino Embutido: Not Just a Holiday Treat

In 1521 the Spanish set foot on Philippine soil and thus began the introduction of the natives to the Spanish influence in way of life and everyday cooking. The Philippines, having been a colony of Spain for almost 400 years, has brought about a unique quality in local cuisine. Many food historians say that about 80% of Filipino cooking is derived from Spanish roots.

Along with the introduction of spices, the Filipino tradition of sautéing garlic, onions and tomatoes in oil in daily meals can be traced to the very first governor general in the Philippines, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. He taught his household help how to make his favorite Spanish dishes, and they in turn passed on the recipes to other friends and relatives, thus establishing the beginnings of Filipino cooking. Soon the Spaniards migrated and inter-married and various twists were added to adapt to the other local ingredients in the country.

Today’s local cuisine have come from the many different cultural influences, but common Filipino dishes served on special occasions are of Spanish roots.

Christmas is the most celebrated holiday around the world, and in the Philippines, the preparation in anticipation of Christmas begins as early as August. Christmas songs start to hit the airwaves and Christmas decorations are put up in the malls in September. The preparations keep building until Christmas day, and festivities culminate on New Years’ day.

One of the favorite dishes served in the Philippines during the holiday season is embutido. Embutido is said to be known as a type of sausage which you can find in Spain, Portugal and in Central and South America. In the Philippines however, the embutido is known as a traditional Filipino meatloaf only it’s more complex in terms of ingredients, moreover, it isn’t encased in sausage skin. The typical ground meat is used, in this case it’s ground pork. An assortment of components are then added to the meat. There is cheese, raisins, chicken, pickle relish, hard boiled eggs and Vienna sausages. Salt and pepper is added. The concoction is then rolled into long logs then wrapped in aluminum foil and steamed until cooked. This can be frozen and when ready to be eaten, just slice some, about half an inch thick. I use Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce and Tabasco for dipping sauce. Embutido today is a more common viand that is not reserved for just the holiday season. It makes any day feel almost like Christmas.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Dinuguan: A Vampire’s Feast


Filipinos make use of anything and everything edible from a pig, that includes pig's blood. Let's begin your introduction to Filipino food ethnicity by delving into one of the most common, well loved, yet unimaginable way of cooking dinuguan (pork blood stew).

The term 'dinuguan' is derived from the Filipino word for blood (dugo). Because of the blood in the dish, it can be shocking to some, but it’s similar to the blood sausage in Europe or even the British black pudding made into a stew. The origins of dinuguan can be traced to that of melas zomos (black soup) which was an ancient Spartan dish that is similar in preparation and ingredients such as pork, vinegar and blood.

When I was a child, my mom and dad were ever so bold as to actually tell me what dinuguan was, which made me squirmish about eating this particular dish. However, as I grew older, I got braver, which got me curious and made me want to try dinuguan. Believe me, if you don’t know what’s in it, you’ll love it.

When preparing dinuguan, you have to get up early, preferably at the crack of dawn so as to get pigs' blood fresh from slaughter (the word alone gives me goose bumps). Its ingredients are the usual basic ingredients in making a common Filipino dish such as pork, pork liver, green finger chili, garlic and vinegar. This is served in most of the Filipino restaurants but I prefer eating my own home made dinuguan (not that I ever made this dish, I leave this particular one to the cook), because I want to be sure of its freshness. The way I like this dish to be made is cooking the blood until it curdles. Others make the sauce really thick. I have the cook put a lot of green finger chilis to make it spicy, I use lean pork and I have the cook put the liver during the last few minutes of simmering so it will still be tender. Dinuguan is served with puto, which is a native sweet sticky rice cake that complements the sometimes sour taste of the stew, or with steamed white rice. My sister’s children in the States love this and they call it brown rice because my sister mixes the dinuguan with their rice. Unlike our parents, my sister and I refrain from telling the kids what’s in the stew because we wouldn’t want to spoil a perfectly delicious dish with bad thoughts.

I often fantasize about having dinuguan for dinner with candle lights with none other than a famous vampire named Edward sitting in front of me, and I am Bella, lest he mistakes me for dinner instead.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Filipino Dining at the Aristocrat Restaurant


It’s amazing how familiar tastes and smells remind you of a particular time and place in your past. Just like your own personal time machine. Just like restaurants you used to go to when you were a child. One of the most popular and beloved local restaurants in the Philippines is none other than Aristocrat Restaurant. Growing up, whenever there was a birthday or celebration of some sort, Aristocrat Restaurant would be one of the familiar places we would go to celebrate an occasion. Or when my dad would come home late from work, he would bring us their barbecued chicken with java rice and atchara with the special sauce that made their barbecued specialties taste even better.

Aristocrat is owned by Reyes family. It started in 1936 by Aling Asiang Reyes who had an ingenious idea of having readily prepared Filipino dishes. The restaurant still stands where it originally began along Roxas Boulevard in the historic district of Malate in the city of Manila. Malate is an old district, its name is believed to have been derived from the Tagalog word ‘maalat’, meaning salty. This was before the lands by Manila Bay were reclaimed to make room for more commercial and residential places. The salt water from the ocean would reach the wells in the area making the drinking water taste salty. Malate is now known for its cultural landmark, the Malate Church.

The restaurant specializes in serving favorite Filipino dishes. The atmosphere is friendly and familiar. Over the years the restaurant has added a bakeshop and a convenience store that’s open 24 hours. The structure of the restaurant has undergone several renovations but the food always stays the same.

I remember my personal favorite, barbecued chicken, usually the thigh part, with java rice and atchara. Java rice is prepared in several ways. The easy way we used to do it at home is just garlic fried rice with ketchup. However, this is one way of cooking java rice that I would not recommend. Other variations are garlic fried rice with atsuete oil (annatto seeds), or garlic fried rice with tomato sauce and some ground beef or pork. Either way, rice that has a reddish tinge is almost always called java rice in the Philippines. Atchara is pickled unripe papaya. It’s always pickled with vinegar and sugar. I mix carrots, red bell peppers and raisins with mine. Filipino food has a tendency to be too salty and it’s always balanced with something sweet or pickled.

Aristocrat used to wrap their take-out food in a paper plate with the chicken barbecue still skewered on a stick. The java rice would be wrapped in wax paper and the atchara in a small plastic container. These were wrapped in a plastic bag and then over that was a paper bag. It was like unwrapping a present trying to get to all the food. But the one thing that adds that special zest to the barbecued dishes of Aristocrat is the sauce. It’s called barbecue peanut sauce. It’s thick, dark and heavy. You can’t even tell from looking at it that it has peanuts but you get a hint of the nutty flavor when you taste it. Luckily the sauce can be bought at any Aristocrat restaurant and it’s always great served with your own homemade barbecue. It’s always a trip down memory lane and it makes me feel like a kid again.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Tempting, Mouthwatering Chicharon


Chicharon or ‘tsitsaron’ as it is known in the Philippines, is made from pork skin or rind after it has been dried, salted and deep fried. The word chicharon is derived, like many of the other Filipino words, from the Spanish word chicharron which is also made from pork rinds; but sometimes, mutton, beef, or chicken is also used.

Popular varieties of chicharon are the chicharon bulaklak and chicharon bituka. Like all types of chicharon, they are all mostly eaten as a side dish to go with an alcoholic beverage. The term used for side dishes that go with alcoholic drinks is ‘pulutan’ meaning, ‘something that is picked’. It is derived from the English term ‘finger food’. It is also considered as an appetizer but in the Philippines, like most appetizers such as sisig, it has found its way to be a viand that is served with steamed white rice. Chicharon is commonly eaten by dipping it in vinegar or with atchara (pickled papaya).

Chicharon Bulaklak is mesenteries of pig intestines that are dried, salted, then deep fried to a crisp. It is called chicharon bulaklak because of how it resembles a flower after frying (bulaklak means flower in Tagalog). Variations of chicharon bulaklak are also made from chicken omentum, which is a fat- filled sac covering the small intestines of the chicken.

Chicharon bituka (intestines) is made from deep fried cow or pigs’ intestines that have also been dried, seasoned and deep fried. Unlike the chicharon bulaklak, it doesn’t resemble a flower. All chicharon varieties are similar in taste, being salty, so it’s in the texture that each one can be differentiated. The regular pork rind chicharon is a lighter shade of brown and can be stored longer. The chicharon bituka and bulaklak have to be consumed the day you buy them because they will lose their initial crispness and flavor. They both have a tendency to form sebo (hardened grease) when they cool so you always have to eat them either fresh from the pan or still warm.

Chicharon bulaklak has always been my personal favorite because of its texture. I remember buying it fresh from a place that makes it special in Quiapo (a district in Manila). It doesn’t look appetizing at all when you see it being prepared, because it looks like a long, brown creature when it comes off the deep fryer. It is then cut into bite sized pieces. To describe its texture, the petal part (looks more like fringes to me) of the chicharon bulaklak is delicate and crispy; the middle is creamy because of the fats. If I knew better then I’d say it was a heart attack coming. But I was young and I could indulge in just the pleasure of the taste of it which is oh so delicious. Now, as much as it tickles my appetite, I try to eat it in moderation. Yes, ‘try’ is the operative word here because once you start eating chicharon, it takes superhuman willpower to stop.