A group of high-profile Filipino foodies have come together to create an e-book celebrating the distinct flavours of the country's cuisine.
Cuisinero – Taste the Philippines was spearheaded by author and Dubai resident Flavel Monteiro, whose previous works include Come Together and Home Comforts: Simple Lockdown Recipes from the World's Best Chefs and Bartenders, which was produced in partnership with The World's 50 Best Restaurants.
For Cuisinero, Monteiro enlisted the help of co-author Keesa Ocampo, an Emmy Award-winning director, writer and producer, as well as two big-name chefs, John Buenaventura, executive chef at Hilton Abu Dhabi Yas Island, and Nouel Omamalin, aka The Nifty Chef. "I connected with John and Nouel in May, telling them that I planned to do a book on Filipino cuisine, but something different and with a twist, taking Filipino cuisine to a totally different level. And they jumped at the idea," Monteiro tells The National.
The result was unveiled on August 15, on www.filipinofoodmovement.org, with proceeds going to the non-profit organisation, to benefit Filipino-American food businesses affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as to Philippine International Aid, in support of education for disadvantaged children in the Philippines.
“There are 7,641 islands in the Philippine archipelago and several ways of cooking popular dishes in different provinces, making it a very diverse and inclusive cuisine,” Monteiro says.
Everyone involved with the book recognises how food can be infused with love, memories and a sense of belonging. It can offer solace for those far from home, and act as a source of pride for people wanting to share a little slice of the Philippines with those around them.
“Over the years, the kitchen has become my place of joy and refuge,” says Ocampo, who is Filipino-American, reminiscing about the food she used to cook in her late teens – roasted chops with apples, lapu-lapu al cartoccio cooked in oranges and dill, minaggang adobo, or her family nacho recipe.
After leaving the Philippines for the US, she would cook dishes that reminded her of her mother’s kitchen – aubergine parmigiana, French apple pie with butterscotch sauce and sinangag. “It always made me feel less lonely, like I belonged somewhere,” she says.
Today, Ocampo’s cooking reflects her multicultural experiences, which is entirely fitting for a cuisine that has long been a melting pot of international influences. “Now, I cook what reminds me of who I am as a Filipinx Cali girl,” she says.
“My Filipino side insists that if a friend wants to try Filipino food for the first time, they come to my home. The Cali girl cooks with fresh, locally available ingredients. Both sides dictate that I cook by memory, with love, because when anyone eats my food, they will get to know a part of my culture and more of who I am.”
Unexpectedly, Cuisinero starts on a sweet note. Pastry chef Omamalin crafted 50 dessert recipes infused with Filipino flavours, including yema, a thick, gooey, custard-like mixture that is rolled into spheres and coated in sugar, ground nuts or syrup; ube chocolate halaya, which combines purple yam with coconut milk, chocolate and palm sugar; mango-moringa bars; a durian tart; and a dense chocolate cake made richer by the addition of Barako coffee, a variety grown in the Philippines.
The book's savoury section, meanwhile, features such delicacies as tinolang halaan (clams in ginger broth); inihaw na hipon (tiger prawns marinated in calamansi, a citrus hybrid predominantly cultivated in the Philippines); kingfish ceviche; and a host of other seafood dishes cooked in intriguing ways. A hearty bulalo, or bone marrow broth, is "best enjoyed in cold weather and moderation", while pisngi ng kalabaw transforms buffalo meat into a tender centrepiece braised in root beer and beef stock.
“This book is an opportunity for us to go back to our roots and apply the techniques and experiences we have learnt through years of cooking on the global stage,” says chef Buenaventura. “My objective is not only to cook Filipino cuisine, but to create a desire for the world to ‘Taste the Philippines’, using our prized raw materials and products, and applied with modern and classical techniques.”
Monteiro serves up a version of sardinas at bangus (sardines and milkfish) with a Spanish-Filipino twist. The award-winning author talks with relish about the food of his homeland. “Filipino cuisine is all about character and personality, in addition to being a fusion of many international influences,” he says.
“This is a cuisine where technique and ingredients shine with the balance between flavours – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savoury – in one bite. Some of its main techniques, adobo (to braise in vinegar), sigang (to boil with a souring agent) and kilaw (to prepare in citrus juice or vinegar), are thought to be names of dishes but rather, refer to cooking techniques.
“Hence, one may find a hundred variations of an adobo, and all are probably and legitimately the best in town. Rice is part of almost every household meal in the Philippines, transformed into a steady accompaniment, snack and dessert. Fresh catch from waters around the islands or backyard produce lend a freshness that needs not be masked by heavy spices, but rather, allowed to shine,” he adds.
The book includes a foreword by Hjayceelyn Quintana, Philippine Ambassador to the UAE, which strikes a typically humble note. “Talking about our native cuisine to other people does not come naturally to Filipinos,” she says. “We would be the last to think there is something others would find interesting in the food we eat.
“All we know is the gustatory delight we feel from the flavours and ingredients we have grown accustomed to as part of our daily living. That is why when a foreigner begins to see something special, unique and promising in Filipino cuisine, we are both amazed and grateful at the same time.”
Cuisinero – Taste the Philippines goes a long way in highlighting all that is special and unique about Filipino cuisine. And Monteiro is already working on a sequel, Cuisinero II – The Flip Side, which is scheduled to come out in time for Christmas. A book focusing on food that is a little closer to home, called The Best of Dubai – A Dining Experience, is also in the works.