Beyond the Filipino diaspora, the extent of the public’s awareness of what Filipino cuisine is and the diversity of its shapes and forms are still rather limited. Rama Ariadi breaks this mindset when he meets two Filipino culinary experts at the Academy of Culinary Arts Cambodia.
The Thais – and to a certain extent, the Lao – are known worldwide for their mastery in the art of balancing the five dominant flavours on the palate. Vietnam has its pho and banh mis, while Indonesia and Malaysia, are known for the popular backpacker’s fare nasi goreng and the ubiquitous nasi lemak, but the profile of the pan-Malayan cuisine has been on the rise long before the rendang controversy at the Masterchef UK sparked, as it claimed the top spot on the CNN’s poll on the world’s best food.
But what about Asean’s most northerly relative – the Philippines? Unfortunately, beyond the Filipino diaspora, the extent of the public’s awareness of what Filipino cuisine is and the diversity of its shapes and forms are still rather limited. To many, it conjures up a somewhat condescending image of a cuisine whose flavours are dominated by the taste of soy sauce and vinegar. To others, the image that appears is a whole roasted pig – lechon. Worse still, there are people out there that seem to think that Jollibee is the epitome of Filipino food.
In any case, these are definite misconceptions that need to be straightened out. After all, how could a fried chicken franchise be the face of a proud country with a complex history? To break the misconception, the Philippine Embassy along with the Academy of Culinary Arts Cambodia (ACAC) organised a cooking demonstration event on Monday, where two culinary experts from the Philippines were flown in to showcase the unique flavours from the archipelago – beyond the popular shaved ice sundae that is halo-halo.
“The problem of raising the profile of Filipino dishes lies with the categorisation – everything, no matter how distinct – is often lumped together into an umbrella category of ‘Filipino cuisine’,” said culinary expert Ana Park, one of the chefs invited to perform the demonstration. “No regards were given to the regional variations, of which there are so many.”
“If we were to choose a dish to cook – adobo, for instance – the end result will be different because of the differences in palate preferences,” continued Ms Park. “Up north, adobos are likely to be sweeter compared to an adobo cooked by someone from Luzon and/or the southern islands, and it is a real shame that these variations are not often acknowledged.”
Paolo Roxas, the sous-chef for Raffles Makati, concurs with Ms Park. “For many years, we were exposed to so many different influences – the Spaniards, the Americans, even the Japanese,” he said. “What our ancestors did was take the best of these influences and incorporated them into local cuisines as we know them today.”
Simply put, continued Mr Roxas, Filipino food is just food for sustenance sake, as from the cuisine one can gage the history of the Philippines. The food tells a story of how everything came to be.
With all that said, the duo chose three quintessentially Filipino dishes that can easily be replicated at home. The reason behind it is quite simple – an introduction should not be too complicated so as not to scare away people who might want to try their hands on it. As such, the menu didn’t seem to be especially flashy – Ms Park was responsible for the soup starter and the main, chicken binakol and adobo, while Mr Roxas was responsible for the dessert, palitaw.
But don’t let the simplicity of the offering fool you. All of the dishes served were prepared with a traditional imperative – that nothing shall go to waste. And the ingredient that served as the tie that binds the dishes were coconuts.
“Coconuts are widely used in Filipino cooking, whether it is the meat, the water, or the milk, it is used in all kinds of dishes – may it be savoury or sweet,” said Ms Park when she began the demonstration. “And since coconut is everywhere in Cambodia, it is a good way to introduce the versatility of the fruit in the kitchen.”
And a versatile ingredient it is. Ms Park used the flesh of a ripe coconut to add a very mellow touch of sweetness to her binakol, a delicate, clear chicken soup that is the Philippines’ answer to the Jewish penicillin – minus the matzo balls. The broth is also made out of coconut water, creating a rounder mouthfeel on the palate – but balanced ever so delicately with the addition of astringent lemongrass and shredded chilli leaves. Served in a bowl fashioned out of a coconut shell, not only does the presentation look appealing, but the flavour alone is a far cry from that misconception that equates Filipino food with table grade acetic acid.
Ms Park’s adobo – which inevitably has to feature vinegar – was also prepared with a twist. Traditionally made with chicken or pork, her version used lean beef instead. “This is where we use both coconut milk and coconut cream to compensate for the leanness of the meat,” she explained. Indeed, the coconut milk and cream do not only act as base that the meat stews in — the creaminess of the coconut acts as a perfect counterbalance to other, stronger, more robust ingredients in the dish. The result is a creamy, melt-in-the-mouth chunks of beef that immediately breaks apart with a gentle nudge of a fork. If this were an opera, the vinegar wasn’t the solo soprano. It was more like the triangle player at the back of the orchestra – present but unobtrusive.
Then came the turn of Mr Roxas, who was responsible for the palitaw – boiled glutinous rice flour balls, served simply with a light sprinkling of sugar, crushed cashew nuts, and last but not least, shredded coconuts. “Palitaw literally means ‘to rise’ – because when the dough is done, it rises to the top of the pot, hence the name,” he explained. The result is a sweet doughy dessert – with the base light enough as to not overpower the main star that is the coconut.
By the end of the demonstration, there were no coconuts left – bar the husks and ones that were put up for decorative purposes. “Come to think about it, Filipino preparations are not too dissimilar to the approach that brought French cuisine to the forefront of the haute cuisine – not a single part should go to waste,” finished Mr Roxas.