Filipino food will become the next big food trend, says Anthony Bourdain,” trumpeted a headline in The Independent back in June 2017. “An Asian cuisine that’s largely been ignored is about to take over America,” proclaimed Business Insider in October 2017, quoting TV chef Andrew Zimmern.
But while Filipino food is having a hipster heyday in the food halls of Los Angeles, the trendy pop-ups of New York City and even the supperclubs of London, closer to home, it’s sorely misunderstood. In Singapore, for example, with the exception of solid but scruffy eateries at Lucky Plaza, the number of Filipino restaurants geared towards an international or even local audience can be counted on one hand.
The truth is, Filipino cuisine is hard to pin down. Ask a Pinoy what Filipino food is, and they’ll likely default to the usual dishes – sisig (pig’s head and liver seasoned with calamansi and chilli peppers), balut (fertilised duck’s egg), lechon (roasted suckling pig). But Filipino food is far more than that, owing to the diversity of regional cuisines within the country.
In her iconic book Palayok: Philippine Food Through Time, On Site, in the Pot, historian Doreen Fernandez writes, “The land, the history, and the society have been the determinants of Philippine food, and its story is that of the country.”
Take Cebu, for example. Here, the cuisine is a reflection of the country’s colonial history, and the island’s role as a centuries-old trading post. Its best-loved dishes echo everything from Chinese and Malay to Indian and Arabic influences, and today’s dining scene points towards the city’s willingness to welcome the new and foreign while still preserving its heritage.
Cebuano cuisine resists borders, and definition. So how do you get to know more about this storied culinary tradition? Well, by sitting down at a table and listening to the individual stories.
1. Tsokolate at The Chocolate Chamber
Cacao goes as far back as the 16th century in the Philippines, coming by way of the Manila-Acapulco galleon routes that connected Spain to its colonies in Central America and Asia. In fact, the Philippine colony was actually governed by the Viceroyalty of New Spain from its capital in Mexico City.
Cacao was made into tsokolate (pronounced “cho-koh-lah-teh”), prized in Europe and sipped only by royalty and nobility. In Cebu, however, there was an unexpected reversal.
The first cacao plants – said to have been cultivated by Spanish priests – spread throughout the islands, and in Cebu especially, cacao left the monasteries and became a backyard plant, grown for family consumption. Tsokolate, here also called sikwate, was always an everyday beverage – thick and coarse, bitter and without finesse. But it was also rich and comforting, full of sustenance for the working man.
Cebu’s self-styled “Chocolate Queen”, the stylish Raquel Choa, has welcomed visiting dignitaries, celebrities and hordes of fans on a chocolate tour through Cebu City. Choa’s empire is built on tableas – oversized tablets made from cacao paste, traditionally sold in the markets to melt down with water and milk.
Over the past decade, Choa’s brand, Ralfe Gourmet, has become a favourite among Cebuanos, and its outlets across the city – The Chocolate Boutique, The Chocolate Chamber and Casa de Cacao – have become a modern focus for the once-lowly tsokolate. They even riff on the traditional tableas with flavours like orange, cinnamon and vanilla. There are chocolate chip cookies, chocolate bark in at least half a dozen variants and a full menu that incorporates chocolate in every single dish.
Choa’s repertoire is a long way from the gritty tsokolate that one can still taste in Cebu’s farmhouses, but at its heart it’s still her family’s recipe. “I wanted to honour my grandmother’s tsokolate by treating it with respect,” says the 41-year-old, looking at the tastefully packaged brown-and-gold rolls of tablea in the shop. “It’s what I grew up with.”
2. Spanish home cooking at Arano’s
As much as Filipino food is a fusion of Malay, Chinese and American touches, in Cebu, it’s also very Spanish.
But, as the food of the ruling class, Spanish cuisine was historically reserved for feasts and celebrations, rather than everyday dining. Take paella for example: in Spain, it’s a rustic farmer’s dish made of leftover scraps; in the Philippines, it is thought of as fiesta food. Similarly, humble Spanish dishes such as the potato tortilla or stews made from odds and ends like the tuhod y batoc (literally, knees and neck) are considered a luxury in Cebu. So while Spanish food is second nature to Filipinos, Spanish home cooking, strangely, is not.
There are a few exceptions, and it’s no surprise that these exceptions are found in Cebu – the point of first contact for the Spanish. If there’s somewhere in the Philippines to find home-style Spanish cooking, it’s going to be here. Arano’s has been serving Spanish home cooking in a Spanish-Filipino home for almost a quarter of a century, to friends and family alike. Although Angel Arano Ibarlucea, the larger-than-life former Basque pelotari player, who was the restaurant owner and family patriarch, passed away last year, his wife, Elizabeth, and son, Iñaki, carry on the tradition of serving hearty fare.
What comes out of the kitchen is emblematic of la comida española (Spanish cuisine) that’s been lovingly indigenised: a squid-ink paella laden with seafood and chorizo, beef lengua (tongue) stewed in tomato sauce until buttery-soft, a baked chicken with olives and chorizo suelto (loose, rather than encased, sausage).
The recipes have been tweaked here and there by Elizabeth to suit the local palate, but always to her late husband’s high criteria. “If it passed his standards, I knew it was good,” she says.
3. Eel at Entoy’s Bakasihan
Jenalyn Escabas will tell you that eel – known in Cebuano as bakasi – used to be everyday food in the fishing villages, eaten because it was plentiful and easy to catch. Fishermen would settle for bakasi while reserving the other fish caught for sale, because nobody wanted to buy eel, which is small and very bony, and – unless properly gutted and cleaned to remove its bile – bitter and unpleasant to taste. It was humble food, not something anyone would seek out.
Florencio “Entoy” Escabas, Jenalyn’s father, remembers the moment that this changed. In 2005, he and his family were eating bakasi by the shore when a curious TV producer decided to film him. That small spot on national television led to instant celebrity status, and his modest eatery became famous.
The Cebuano fishing town of Cordova, about an hour south from the town proper, even went as far as to declare an entire festival to celebrate the eel: the Dinagat-Bakasi Festival, held every year in August. It was just the Bakasi Festival, but in 2013, the town also include other seafood (dinagat means “of the sea”).
Entoy’s Bakasihan is still just a shack by the shore, but it now has a geotag to help visitors find it, as well as a TripAdvisor entry. Eel, of course, is still the heart of the place; there are several dishes served turo-turo style (pre-cooked). There’s eel sinugba, in a clear broth with onions, chillies and tomatoes; deep-fried eel, crisped up in clumps; and sour sinigang (soup). There is even live eel for sale, which customers can take home in plastic bags.
If the novelty of bakasi wears off, the other seafood items are also worth a look. There’s almost always the seaweed called lato, which is shaped like bunches of tiny green grapes that burst in the mouth with a sweet, briny flavour. Octopus or squid, sautéed in their own ink, are a staple and if you’re lucky, you might find saang (spider conch) on the menu.
4. A modern take on Cebuano pork at The Pig & Palm
Pork is ubiquitous throughout the Christian parts of the Philippines. And of the many quintessentially Pinoy pork dishes (think adobo, liempo, crispy pata), there is none more special than the lechon. The presence of a lechon at a gathering instantly signals it a truly significant occasion.
The word comes from the Spanish, and it refers specifically to a suckling pig (the root word is leche, which means milk) that yields the most tender, most delicately flavoured meat. But the Filipino lechon comes in many sizes, and at feasts, one would be more likely to find a fully-grown pig. Lechon has come to mean the method of cooking: by roasting whole, turning on a spit over an open fire.
Food historians are reluctant to attribute lechon to the Spanish, however, as Asia has had a long tradition of roasted whole pig, and Cebu lechon may well pre-date the Spanish era. In any case, Cebu cuisine puts lechon front and centre. It’s likely the first thing you see when you land at the airport, and boxes of it are ready to carry away with you when you leave.
It’s therefore both apt and risky for a foreign restaurant like The Pig & Palm to even attempt to feature a roast pork dish on its menu. British celebrity chef Jason Atherton opened The Pig & Palm in 2016 as his first and much-anticipated venture in the country, and sure enough, it’s the pork belly that has proven to be his new audience’s entry point into this brave new dining experience.
The Pig & Palm’s confit pork belly is not meant to compete with the lechon, of course, but it’s given Cebu loyalists a bit of pause. Cooked perfectly until fork-tender, with clean, clear flavours that bring out the sheer quality of the meat, the dish offers The Pig & Palm’s casual diners a whole new level of pork.
The chic new restaurant is emblematic of where the Cebu dining scene might be headed. As the city opens up to the rest of the world with the expansion of its international airport this year, Cebu cuisine can also expect a whole new set of foreign influences and interpretations on local food.
This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine.