FILIPINO FLAVOUR FUSION

Sweet, sour, salty and purple — the complex fare of this Southeast Asian nation is what we’re hungry for right now.

FILIPINO FLAVOUR FUSION - YAM Apr/May 2024
At Ate * A Restaurant, the chicken lugaw (a savoury rice porridge similar to congee) comes topped with crispy fried chicken skin and a fried egg. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

By Cinda Chavich

Whether it’s crispy-skinned pork lechon from a small mom-and-pop shop, glamorous purple-ice-cream-topped halo-halo pictured on Instagram or the sophisticated modern fare at a Michelin-starred restaurant like Kasama in Chicago, Filipino food is having a major moment worldwide, its popularity travelling well beyond the borders of this islands nation. After all, Filipino food is masarap — the Tagalog word for “tasty” — and just the kind of globally flavoured fare we’re craving these days.

A cultural melting pot

A scattering of some 7,000-plus islands stretching across the South China Sea, the Philippines is a maritime country with a melting pot of culinary influences from Chinese, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Spanish, Portuguese, Mexican and American cultures. 

Some say Filipino cuisine is the ultimate fusion food. Typical sauces combine tomatoes with soy sauce and chilies. Rice dishes are made with saffron and spicy cured sausages similar to chorizo. Fast food leans toward fried chicken and burgers, served with fruity banana ketchup. There’s even a popular take on spaghetti and meat sauce, made with ground pork and hot dogs. 

Add tropical ingredients such as purple yam (ube), fermented fish paste, tamarind and coconut or sugarcane vinegar, and you have a decidedly distinct cuisine that goes far beyond the familiar chicken adobo and crispy spring rolls known as lumpia.

Filipino cuisine also features a proud tradition of street food, fast food and what’s known as the “boodle fight” or kamayan, a communal feast where guests enjoy grilled and roasted bites spread out on a banana-leaf-lined table.

It’s these portable, eaten-by-hand foods that inspire the menu at the new Ate (AH-tay) * A Restaurant on Douglas Street, where co-owner Jonna Deutscher fuses her memories of the street food she enjoyed as a child in the Philippines with her mother’s home-style recipes and the nose-to-tail philosophy of Hanks and Nowhere, the other restaurants she co-owns with her husband Clark. 

One section of the menu is devoted entirely to the “Purple Sandwich,” ube burger buns topped with crispy fried fish, roasted “lechon” (pig) or a lumpia patty inspired by the ground pork filling usually found in spring rolls. 

And, because so many Filipino stews and sauces include offal, Ate can make the most of the Island-raised animals the Deutschers break down in their other restaurant kitchens for a modern, zero-waste approach to this traditional cuisine.

The Pinoy Pantry

Filipino food is rich and savoury, but not generally too spicy. (That’s why dishes are typically served with “sawsawan,” small dishes of dipping sauce that let you make it as salty or spicy as you like.) Sweet, sour and salty notes dominate many dishes, including chicken adobo, kare kare (a stew of meats and vegetables in a creamy peanut sauce), sinigang (seafood soup made with tart tamarind juice) and pinakbet (vegetable stew seasoned with fermented shrimp paste).

Souring agents include calamansi (a tropical citrus fruit), atchara (green papaya pickle) and, most of all, vinegar, which is used as a marinade, dip, seasoning and — importantly in this hot, tropical climate — as a preservative. 

For instance, like Spanish adobo, Filipino adobo starts with a vinegar-based marinade, but soy sauce and fish sauce are also part of the recipe. Escabeche is another dish that traces its roots to Spanish and Portuguese colonists, featuring fish that’s quickly seared then topped with a sweet-and-sour sauce of slivered sweet peppers, carrots and vinegar.

Beyond these tangy specialties are savoury dishes inspired by Chinese cooking, such as lumpia or pancit, a noodle dish similar to chow mein, with many regional variations.

Pork is king in the Philippines. The famous Filipino lechon may be a roasted suckling pig or a rolled pork belly stuffed with lemongrass and slow-cooked until tender, then deep-fried to create a bubbly crisp skin. Pork is also used in lumpia and the oddly sweet meat sauce for pasta. Longanisa, a pork sausage that may be sweet or salty and garlicky, turns up in many dishes, too, such as silog, the typical breakfast dish of crispy garlic rice (or sinangag) with fried eggs.

And nothing is wasted, especially when it comes to meat: crispy sisig is made with chopped pork and chicken liver; beef or pork heart are minced and sautéed in fiery bopis; stews and sauces are thickened with ground liver; and popular Manila street snacks include skewered heart, tripe or other offal grilled over charcoal.

The Sweet Kitchen

Gerald Tan, the executive pastry chef at the Fairmont Empress, grew up in the Philippines and says desserts and pastries there are often inspired by Spanish sweets. Among them: creamy leche flan (similar to crème caramel), almond cakes, cream-filled pastries and even halo-halo, the exuberant, Instagram-friendly sundae cup featuring layers of ice cream, flan, tapioca pearls and fruit. 

Ube is a popular ingredient for bakers, and adds a distinctively vivid violet hue to breads, cakes, cookies, pies and frostings. Tan even uses it in a luscious white chocolate cheesecake (see recipe on the opposite page).

Tan suggests making a sweet purple “yam jam” (halaya) to incorporate into desserts by cooking fresh ube with sweetened condensed milk and cream. You can also use dried, powdered or frozen purple yam to make halaya, or find halaya ready-made in jars at Filipino groceries. Meanwhile, purple yam concentrate (an artificial colouring) is a good way to boost the amethyst colour in ice cream, bread and baked goods.

At Benjamin’s Café in Esquimalt, chef Ervin Maliwanag makes his own creamy purple halaya, and layers it with ube pancakes and French toast for a sweet and decadent breakfast dish. It’s also folded into the custard fillings for his tender Brazo de Mercedes meringue rolls and pastries. 

At Friends & Family Bakery in Chinatown a variety of sweet pastries feature ube, too, whether the deep purple crinkle cookies, buns topped with creamy ube jam, warm ube-filled rolls, or colourful frosted cupcakes and layer cakes.

All-Day Dining

A little sweet, a little sour, a little salty and always savoury, Filipino foods offer a comfortable melting pot of flavours. Go for the crispy pork belly and stunning purple ube desserts, but dig deeper and discover a world of delicious dining.

Ube White Chocolate Cheesecake

For the base of this colourful cheesecake, Gerald Tan, the executive pastry chef at the Fairmont Empress, creates his own version of the unbaked shortbread-like Filipino cookies known as polvorón.

FILIPINO FLAVOUR FUSION - YAM Apr/May 2024
The Ube White Chocolate Cheesecake by Fairmont Empress pastry chef Gerald Tan wows with its bright purple hue and delicate flavour. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

Polvorón Crust:
• 1½ cups (180 g) flour
•1 cup (184 g) powdered milk (whole milk powder)
• ½ cup (100 g) sugar
• 1 cup (222 g) butter, melted

Place the flour into a large sauté pan or wok and stir over medium heat until the flour is lightly browned and toasted. Place into a bowl to cool.

Add the powdered milk and sugar and stir to combine. Drizzle in the melted butter and stir to form a crumbly mixture.

Pat polvorón mixture firmly into a buttered 9-inch springform pan in an even layer and set aside.

Ube Cheesecake: 
• 500 g cream cheese (2 packages), at room temperature
• ½ cup (100 g) sugar
• 4 tsp (13 g) cornstarch
• ½ cup (100 g) sour cream
• 2 large eggs (106 g)
• 2 Tbsp (33 g) heavy cream
• cup (50 g) ube halaya (purple yam jam)
• 1 tsp ube flavour
• ¼ tsp (1 g) purple food colour
• 2 ½ oz (66 g) white chocolate, chopped
• Whipped cream to garnish

Preheat oven to 225°F. 

Place cream cheese, sugar and cornstarch into the bowl of a stand mixer. (If you don’t have one, use a large bowl and electric hand mixer instead.) Mix well on medium speed, scraping the sides of the bowl every so often, until you reach a nice, smooth consistency.

Add in sour cream and eggs, and continue beating until well combined. This is the cheesecake base; set it aside while you make the white chocolate ganache.

Pour the heavy cream, ube halaya, ube flavour and purple food colour into a small pot over medium heat and cook until warm, about 180°F. 

Place the chopped white chocolate in a heatproof bowl and pour the warm ube mixture over top, stirring until the chocolate melts and the mixture is well blended, to create a ganache. 

With the mixer on low, slowly add the white chocolate ganache, a bit at a time, into the cheesecake base. Continue mixing until smooth.

Pour cheesecake batter over the polvorón base. Place in the oven and bake for about 40 to 45 minutes, until centre is set.

Cool the cheesecake completely before serving it; refrigerate it for several hours or overnight, then unmould and cut it into wedges to serve. Garnish with whipped cream.

Makes one 9-inch round cake.

Chicken Lugaw

Lugaw (also known as arroz caldo) is a comforting rice porridge made with chicken and similar to Chinese congee. Serve it for breakfast, lunch or as a first course. Short-grain rice and bone-in chicken thighs are best for this dish. If you have skin-on thighs, remove the skin, chop it and fry until crisp to garnish the porridge. 

Recipe by Cinda Chavich.

• 1 cup short or medium-grain white rice
• 8 cups water, divided
• 2 Tbsp concentrated chicken stock base 
• ½ tsp salt
• 3 bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed
• 1 Tbsp minced ginger
• 3 dried Chinese shiitake mushrooms (optional)
• Fish sauce to taste
• White pepper to taste
• 2 Tbsp neutral oil or chicken fat
• 3 large cloves garlic, sliced thin
• 2 green onions, finely chopped
• Juice of ½ lemon or lime
• Optional: an egg, fried or hard-boiled, peeled and halved

In a large pot, combine rice with 7 cups cold water, concentrated chicken base and salt, then bring to a boil over high heat. Boil, stirring constantly, for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to medium low and simmer for another 20 minutes. 

Add the skinless chicken thighs to the pot, along with the ginger and optional dried mushrooms. Simmer, covered, for 30 to 45 minutes, until chicken is very tender. Remove the chicken, discard bones, shred the meat and return to the pot. Slice the mushrooms, discarding the tough stems, and return to the pot. 

Season porridge with a splash of fish sauce and white pepper to taste. Add all or part of the remaining 1 cup of water to thin to desired consistency. Continue to simmer to break the rice down more, if desired.

Meanwhile, heat the oil over medium heat and add the sliced garlic. Sauté garlic until just starting to colour, then remove to a paper towel to drain. If you have chicken skin, cut it into shreds, add to the hot oil and cook until crisp, draining on the paper with the garlic. Set aside.

To serve, ladle the rice porridge into individual bowls, and top each serving with fried garlic chips and/or crispy chicken skin, chopped green onions, optional boiled or fried egg and a squeeze of lemon or lime juice.

Makes 6 to 8 servings as a starter, 4 as a main.

Filipino Pork or Chicken Adobo

Adobo has its roots in Spain and Portugal, where proteins are marinated with sweet paprika, chilies, red wine and vinegar. In the Philippines’ tropical climate, vinegar helps preserve meats and the marinade includes Asian ingredients as well as coconut oil and coconut milk (instead of canola oil and chicken broth) for a creamier sauce. 

FILIPINO FLAVOUR FUSION - YAM Apr/May 2024

Recipe by Cinda Chavich.

• 2 lb pork shoulder (butt) or boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 2- to 3-inch pieces
• ½ cup soy sauce
• 3 Tbsp Asian fish sauce
• ½ tsp black peppercorns, coarsely crushed
• 2 Tbsp dark brown sugar
• 1 Tbsp canola oil
• 4 to 5 large cloves garlic, chopped
• 1 large onion, finely chopped
• 2 cups good quality chicken stock
• 3 bay leaves
• 1 to 2 tsp Asian chili garlic paste (such as sambal oelek), to taste
• 1/3 cup vinegar (rice wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, white vinegar)

Combine the pork (or chicken) with soy sauce, fish sauce and peppercorns in a bowl and stir to coat the meat well. Place into a zippered plastic bag and refrigerate 3 hours (or overnight) to marinate the meat.

The next day, in a large, heavy pot, heat the oil and sauté the chopped garlic and onion over medium heat until starting to brown. Add the meat and marinade to the pot with the chicken stock, bay leaves and chili paste. 

Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally for 30 to 45 minutes (shorter for chicken, longer for pork), then uncover, add the vinegar, and continue to simmer on medium low until the meat is very tender and the sauce is thickened, about an hour longer.

Adjust the flavour of the sauce with vinegar, sugar or chili paste. Serve adobo over rice. 

Serves 4.