From October 1-4, 2017, the "Hidden Flavors Of The Philippine Kitchen" food tour took place in Toronto. It was the third stop of a five-city North American tour by Amy Besa and Chef Romy Dorotan of Purple Yam Restaurant, in partnership with the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs.
Why was it significant to be involved with these events? Because, simply put - it felt amazing to be part of something bigger: a community of Filipino-Americans and Canadians, (re)discovering food traditions and learning about foods from the Philippines.
That we got ingredients I myself had never tasted while growing up in the Philippines was revelatory. It came with intense excitement - that we would taste these vinegars and heirloom grains, these sweet and savoury preserves with an incredible depth of flavour, that people in the Philippines have used for generations in their cooking. Sampling native spirits, coffee, chocolate, honey, nuts that many Filipinos, even in their homeland, may not know of or get to taste for a variety of reasons - beyond amazing!
As a proud Filipino-Canadian, it was undoubtedly an enriching experience that I will forever be thankful to Amy and Chef Romy for. And the best part of all is that my experiences are by no means singular - not by a long shot.
After the events wound down, I chatted with other people who helped bring the “Hidden Flavors of the Philippine Kitchen” food tour to life in Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and Toronto. In a sense, it felt like we were kind of bound together by this search for what makes us who we are today - as migrants to North America, as Filipinos in heart and soul. Exploring our hyphenated identities - knowing we are where we are today because of what our families have done and gone through - is a similar story in many ways to how these nearly-forgotten ingredients from the Philippines are now finding themselves back in the hands of people telling today’s story of Filipino food across the globe.
The history of adlai grains (a type of millet), tapuy (rice wine), danggit (dried fish), macapuno (coconut sport) and palapa (a toasted spice mix) - among so many - are those waiting to be told.
Storytellers of Filipino Food - A Meet and Greet With Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan
Even simply knowing Tita Amy is quite a big deal. I first reached out to her in 2016 to send a short blog post I wrote about their book “Memories of Philippine Kitchens”. To my delight, she responded! Soon after she shared their plans for embarking on this culinary tour of five North American cities, to bring little-known (and hardly served) ingredients and food products to chefs and restaurant goers in the US and Canada. That this kind of a food tour - very much the makings of a documentary - was about to happen, thrilled me to no end.
In Toronto, Amy connected me with Socky Pitargue and Maripi Leynes. Altogether we spent several months reaching out to Filipino-Canadian chefs, restaurateurs, food producers and industry/media supporters. Our goal was to bring these movers and shakers of the local food scene together, to spark conversation on the challenges and opportunities of bringing "hidden Filipino flavours" into the mainstream.
We sampled things like:
- Native Philippine vinegars, such as mulberry vinegar, nipa palm vinegar (sukang sasa), sugarcane vinegar (sukang Iloko) and various coconut vinegars (like the traditional sukang lubi from Cebu, a balsamic-style vinegar and dark mother-of-vinegar gels)
- Condiments of very high quality, such as the best fish sauce (patis) I’ve ever had, fermented shrimp paste (bagoong), preserved Tagalog garlic bulbs and a chutney made from nata de coco (coconut jelly)
- Spice blends such as palapa, made with toasted coconut meat, chilies and spices from Mindanao province
- Pickled fruits and vegetables, like the addictive dikiam na manggang pajo made from tiny, tart pajo mangoes
- A bevy of sweet preserves, such as pure macapuno (coconut sport), caramelized bananas (made from different varieties - each with a different sweetness!), preserved santol (cottonfruit), candied kamias (bilimbi fruit) and jams made from sapinit (wild Philippine raspberries) and mangosteen
- Natural sweeteners like nipa palm syrup and honey from three different provinces, each carrying the distinct terroir of their land
- Various dried fish, a staple in the Philippine diet
- Heirloom grains such as the ominio (purple mountain rice) and adlai (Job’s tears), along with pinipig (toasted young rice grains) and taro flour
- Native spirits and alcohol, such as tapuy (rice wine), basi (sugarcane wine), aged Philippine rum, tuba and lambanog (made from coconuts) and native liqueurs of calamansi, dalandan and cacao
- Single-origin Philippine chocolate and coffee from the provinces of Benguet, Negros, Davao and Bukidnon
We invited not just people in the food industry, but also those who could help raise awareness of Amy and Romy’s advocacy toward preserving these largely underused, undervalued and fast disappearing ingredients.
We hoped that by bringing these food products to the table, literally, in Canada - our guests would leave with tangible memories of what those foods really tasted like and how they might incorporate those flavours into their restaurant and pop-up dinner menus.
A Culinary Demo at the George Brown Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts
Together with two chefs from their Purple Yam Restaurant in Manila, Amy and Chef Romy next held a culinary demo/public forum on bringing these hidden flavours of Philippine cuisine further to light.
Guests sampled their Sous-Vide Beef Shortrib Adobo, prepared with a native Philippine vinegar and local Canadian beef sourced from nearby St. Lawrence Market, along with a savoury pilaf using adlai grains.
We tried a dish called Kulawo, made with charred eggplant and burnt coconut cream. Very rich and tasty! I loved learning about this distinctly Southern Tagalog technique of first burning coconut meat until it literally turns black, then squeezing it to extract coconut cream. Though I was born and raised in that part of the Philippines, I’d never had this particular regional specialty. Their sous-chef, Raphael Cristobal, explained that in their restaurant kitchen they “burn” the coconut cream by broiling grated coconut meat in a 400 degree oven, then finish off by torching the browned, crisped coconut even further. Ang sarap. There’s an irreplaceable sweetness to burnt coconut that you just can’t get any other way.
Finally, we sampled Chef Romy’s famous Mangosteen Ice Cream. What a pleasant end to the tasting!
Culinary Cities of the World: Manila - A Four-Course Dinner at The Chef’s House
I looked forward to the following night pretty much the entire year. That dinner was quite extraordinary!
We had Cabcab, a Visayan specialty made of mashed cassavas dried into thin wafers, generously topped with the Kulawo we sampled the night before. There was homemade bagoong on the side - briny, funky and delicious.
And Bicol Express - oh my - which I kept helping myself to heaping spoonfuls of. It was rightly spiced (read: not overtly bursting with chilies) and so full of linamnam (a Tagalog word that closely translates to umami).
Next was Oyster Kinilaw, from Malpeque Bay on Prince Edward Island. Chef Romy sealed his take on transforming oysters from Canada’s east cost into a dish with distinctly Filipino flavours, using a "bath" of watermelon ice, citrus and sorrel, elegantly served and topped with slivers of bright red radishes. It's the perfect example of how conversations around how "authentic" or traditional a particular dish is, sometimes isn't even necessary - particularly when the flavours work so beautifully, and you begin with the best ingredients available.
The first main course was a plate of the Shortrib Beef Adobo - just as delectable as yesterday, this time with a full serving to myself!
It came with a side of adlai grains and vegetable pinakbet.
There was Banana Leaf Wrapped Fogo Island Cod, a perfectly cooked, incredibly aromatic catch, sourced from the equally beautiful yet stark island of Fogo, along the mystical shores of Newfoundland and Labrador. How you could taste their pristine waters, and perhaps dreamily, even the quietness of that landscape in a bite…delighted me to no end. Unwrapping the charred banana leaves let out a smoky whiff of air, spiked with coconut cream and a subtle hint of coffee. Was I now in the tropics? That delicate cod, studded with Canadian high bush cranberries, oyster mushrooms and leeks, was easily my favourite dish of the evening.
Finally, we had the Pili Maple Syrup Tart - a dessert crafted by Chef Romy and his team specially for this dinner, served no place else before. As some of you may know, I really have a thing for chocolate - seeing cacao trees and tasting Philippine chocolate while standing on the land they grow in really transforms you! Tigre Y Oliva’s 80% Dark Chocolate paired so wonderfully with maple syrup. Topped with ice cream made from unadulterated, pure macapuno that even Chef Romy finds difficult to source in the Philippines, it’s a dessert to fly across the world for.
It’s the kind of thing to savour and wish you could instantly have more of, but also maybe not, because there’s something innately gratifying about how special this is - and how this kind of marriage between a Canadian and Filipino flavours just works.