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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 17, 2006

TASTE
Cosmopolitan Filipino

 •  Saffron tints mild Thai-style fried rice
 •  Balsamic curry glaze adds style to salmon
 •  Try a simply elegant blanched salad or savory sari-sari stew
 •  Culinary calendar
 •  Passion for that lilikoi chiffon pie
 •  Miso flavor dresses up salmon dish

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Emmie Anderson prepares Filipino dishes at her Pearlridge home to show Advertiser readers how it's done.

Photos by REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Anderson served up a variety of "everyday" Filipino dishes. The cuisine of the Philippines incorporates influences as wide-ranging as Spanish and Islamic, American and Hindu.

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A stroll through Pacific Supermarket in Waipahu, one of the largest grocery stores in the Islands to specialize in Filipino foods, confirms what all the books will tell you: The cuisine of the Philippines is among the most multicultural and regionally diverse in the world.

Malay, Indonesian, Polynesian, Chinese, Hindu, Japanese, Spanish, Islamic and American elements combine in that country. And the range of products and the depth of offerings in particular categories tells you a lot about the tikim, the tastes, that Filipino cooks favor.

While the produce department is stocked with onions and garlic, carrots and bok choy, just like most local stores, a refrigerator case the length of a city bus is stacked with greens few non-Filipinos can identify: curly chayote shoots, the wisteria-like leaves of the horseradish tree, winged beans that look ready to take flight. There are four types of bananas two of them for cooking. Three types of taro. Packages of tamarind for flavoring soups and sauces.

As I filled my cart with new foods, two encounters made me smile.

A woman turned to me, having surveyed the whole vegetable case in vain: "No bitter melon," she said, sadly. I shook my head in sympathy. The squash, known as ampalaya to Filipinos, is a staple in the cuisine's vegetable stews, and its delicate leaves and shoots are used in salads. Recent rains had reduced the bitter-melon harvest, a disaster analogous to seeing tomatoes and lettuce disappear in conventional grocery stores.

Another woman stopped dead when she saw my cart piled with sayote, malunggay, saluyot, okra and long squash. "You eat that?" she blurted out, looking at my so-haole face. "I married a Filipino man," I said and she smiled, glad to have the mystery explained. In fact, my halfFilipino husband was raised on the Mainland and in Puerto Rico and knows less about Filipino food and cooking than I do. But the next day, he raved about the sari-sari vegetable stew and chayote-leaf salad I fed him for lunch.

My wandering continued as I prepared for an evening with Emmie Anderson, a radio announcer for KORL, AM 690 ("Pinoy OK! Hot Filipino Music"). Anderson had promised to show me some everyday Filipino dishes, and I was storing up questions.

SAUCY FISH

Filipinos make frequent use of salty and sour flavors. Half an aisle at Pacific Supermarket is devoted to vinegars coconut vinegar, palm vinegar, spiced vinegar, nipa-sap vinegar. Another aisle is home to a mile of salty flavorings: grayish bagoong, the famous Filipino fish sauce; pink shrimp paste; jars of oil in which tiny sauteed shrimp are suspended; deep-brown salty gravies that contain whole, silvery fish; and patis, a more refined, filtered fish sauce.

Later, Nita Ramos of Kalihi rolled her eyes when I asked about the stereotypes that cling to this fishy sauce. "I am so tired of jokes about bagoong," she said. "People don't understand. It's our shoyu we use it as a flavoring. Sometimes we might use it in a dipping sauce. But you don't just sit and drink it! And yes, it has a smell, but it's no more smelly than kim chee, or cooking cabbage or natto!"

Many people I talked to in the 40-and-up generation said they don't often use bagoong because their kids prefer patis instead.

Although Filipinos are far from being vegetarians, their everyday meals often make use of meat just as a flavoring or condiment. Mung beans whole, split, peeled or unpeeled, in green and yellow make up a significant portion of the protein in some Filipino diets. That night, Anderson, my hostess, steamed peeled yellow mung beans with water, just like rice or any other grain, and added it to sauteed vegetables for a dish that reminded me of polenta or milho, the cornmeal porridge with chopped cabbage in it that my grandmother made. Mung beans also are featured in soups and noodle dishes.

Canned and jarred fish take up another whole section at Pacific Supermarket, from sardines to bangus (milkfish, a ubiquitous product of Philippines' aquaculture) and there is a large fish department selling mackerel, mullet, sand goby, catfish, tilapia, pampano, uhu, miko, perch, anchovies and tons of shrimp in every form, including dried (used to flavor many dishes).

The range of spices is mind-boggling, from achiote and chili mixtures to Indonesian sambals, which are chili pastes. Longanisa (sausage) and tocino (cured, spiced meats) crowd the chill and freezer cases.

That night, I met Edna Butay, whose family owns the North Star Deli & Sausage chain, producing a spicy pork longanisa from her mother-in-law's recipe. Rough-ground and packed with vinegary flavor, this was one of the best sausages I've ever eaten, especially after Anderson showed me how to kick it up a notch with a splash of fresh calamansi juice.

(Calamansi, or calamondin, is sometimes called Philippines lime; it's a small, green citrus fruit with yellow flesh and a bright flavor.)

Anderson had asked her friend Butay to help prepare this supposedly "everyday" dinner (which turned into eight dishes, including two desserts Anderson was going to add a shrimp dish, but I made her stop).

SEXY SHALLOTS

It was an evening of learning. The women offered pronunciation tips, introduced me to vegetables I'd never tried and told me the secret of a good pinakbet (lima beans, particularly fresh local ones). Anderson made wonderfully tender rice half long-grain jasmine rice, half sweet mochi rice. They stressed that vegetables are very much at the center of the Filipino plate and should never be overcooked.

And they laughed and laughed and laughed, calling each other "atay" and "manong" terms of respect for an older woman in Tagalog and Ilocano, respectively, and joking that shallots are "Filipino Viagra," believed to promote virility.

The women freely admitted that their cooking is altered from the traditional. Anderson likes to throw around what she calls "Emmie Essence" lemon pepper. Butay uses tomato sauce instead of achiote in her sari-sari. Pork guisantes is traditionally made with peas, but when her children were young, Anderson started adding mixed peas and carrots to slip in a little extra nutrition. Butay gasp! adds oyster sauce to her guisantes. Anderson's banana lumpia are quirkily free-form: loosely folded instead of tight packets, and drizzled with a brown-sugar syrup of the sort used in making flan.

"In Filipino cooking, there's no measuring," said Anderson, pouring coconut milk into a bowl of mochi flour for the coconut-milk pudding.

Butay agreed. "You have to let your own taste buds go to work."

Reach Wanda A. Adams at wadams@honoluluadvertiser.com.