Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Filipino Cuisine: Mysteriously Eluding the Mainstream

Given that fusion and global cuisine are so hot and are such a direct reflection of our national experience, it's hard to understand how one of the most fundamentally melting pot of food traditions seems to keep eluding mainstream popularity.

I'm talking, of course, about Filipino food, a cuisine that embraces Southeast Asian, Latin (Spanish and Mexican), Chinese, and native traditions. With a tropical climate, multiple languages, diverse geographical zones (including 7,000 islands), and over 120 ethnic groups, according to the wonderful blog Pleasure Palate, there's already going to be a tremendous variety of natural resources. Add to that Chinese trade with the Philippines that began around the 11th century, the arrival of the Spaniards several centuries later, who ruled for 377 years (1521 -- with the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan -- to 1898 with the U.S. defeat of the Spanish in the Spanish-American War), and then the influence of Americans (sadly, mostly around convenience foods) and you have a cuisine that embraces multiple cultures and ingredients to create a distinctive Filipino style of food. And, perhaps a style hard to define.

I can't pretend to be able to break it down myself. I'm still a novice to this food but I've been won over by a couple of bloggers and their recipes, as well as a local San Diego market that serves the Filipino community.

Seafood City is in the heart of Mira Mesa, just off the 15 freeway at Mira Mesa Blvd. With the Filipino bakery Red Ribbon just next door, it's the go-to shopping spot for the local Filipino community and has many of the unique products essential for creating traditional dishes.

When I was there, the produce department was bursting with fresh chiles--everything from skinny Thai chiles to long plump green Anaheims, petite serranos, and your basic jalapenos. There were sliced bamboo shoots, banana blossoms, and lemongrass. Long beans and bitter melons were alongside long, thin Chinese eggplants and shorter, plumper Filipino eggplants, a couple of which I bought to make an incredible dish called Tortang Talong. Essentially a multi-dimensional eggplant omelet, Tortang Talong is easy and fun to make thanks to very thorough recipe on the blog, Burnt Lumpia.

Back to the produce section: There was also a seductive selection of roots and tubers that seemed to be organized by color: taro, yucca, potatoes, and jicama among them.

I found myself drawn to a plantain relative--fresh "banana pears" or saba from Mexico. Their squared edges intrigued me.

Like plantains, you need to cook these before eating them and I found a terrific recipe for Saba Banana Caramel on Home Cooking and Baking. I loved the flavors and textures--perfect for topping ice cream. Of course, they're also delicious all by their lonesome.

In a refrigerated section near the produce were duck eggs--some raw and some preserved with salt and black tea. And further along that wall was a vast selection of packaged dried fish and bags of meat balls--from beef and pork to fish, scallop, cuttlefish and fried shrimp. Cuttlefish in particular are common in the Philippines, often sold by street vendors, who skewer and fry them, and serve them with a sweet-and-spicy sauce or a thick black sweet-and-sour sauce.

Among the products that caught my attention was the collection of frozen leaves that included bitter melon, jute, cassava, pepper, horseradish, and banana. I would love for someone to explain the uses of many of these. I gather some are traditionally for medicinal purposes, although many of us are familiar with the culinary uses of banana leaves as a wrapper for cooking dishes like pad thai and tamales or anything else for which you'd use parchment paper or foil.

On the other side of the freezer section from the leaves is a long line of various types of, what else, lumpia. These delicious egg rolls are probably the first dish that comes to mind -- other than pansit noodles -- when Filipino food is mentioned. Here you can find pork and shrimp, chicken and shrimp, and chicken varieties in small packages or enormous Costco-sized packages.

I loved the aisles with the sauces and vinegars. I bought some banana ketchup, which is quite sweet, but passed on the various fish sauces since I already had a couple of bottles. Since I couldn't decide which vinegar to buy, I got several and am still trying to work out the differences. Known as "suka" in the Philippines, they can come from palm, coconut, and cane and that's just for starters. But it doesn't end there. Some are clear, others are cloudy or even a deep amber. I'm sending you back to Burnt Lumpia for a good overview because why reinvent the wheel? I suggest you try several (they're very inexpensive) and find flavor profiles you enjoy.


One of the biggest reasons to visit Seafood City is, of course, the seafood. Like its Vietnamese  neighbor, Lucky Seafood, there's a huge selection of colorful fish, crabs, shrimp, and other ocean favorites.

You can pick up tiny wild freshwater crabs from Vietnam and perhaps a half dozen types of shrimp, including Mexican white shrimp, black tiger, and water prawns. On ice are milkfish, barracuda, carp, mullet, and rainbow-colored parrotfish.

Along with seafood is a large butcher shop section, where you can find chicken, beef, pork, and even goat. I bought chicken there, which I turned into what is probably considered the national dish of the Philippines, chicken adobo. It's easy to make and I chose my recipe from Jaden Hair's terrific book, The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook. The sauce is made with simple ingredients: vinegar, peppercorns, sugar, soy sauce, garlic, and bay leaves. And, it's done in one pot. Serve on rice and you're good.

You can also pick up that most Filipino of sausages, pork longonisa.

You can find different versions of them, some so pinkish red with food color they don't look quite real. Some look rather colorless, like bratwurst and some are a more natural red color.  They can be sweet or spicy and are reminiscent of Spanish chorizo, though they aren't as heavily spiced as chorizo. I bought a package of spicy longoniza, which I used to make the Tortang Talong.

Before leaving, I had to check out the breads. I love traditional pan de sal, which they carry. But I had to buy a big loaf of ube bread. This soft loaf has a swirl of sweet ube--a purple root vegetable--that is a wonderful surprise when you cut it open and then devour it. It's lovely toasted with just a schmear of cream cheese or butter.

There's a little take-out joint off to the side of the store that had some nice lumpia and selection of different noodle dishes. The prices are very reasonable and the food was good.

I hope those readers who are Filipino or are familiar with Filipino food will weigh in on some of the dishes they enjoy and ingredients they like to use. And, can you suggest some local restaurants that serve authentic Filipino cuisine?

Seafood City is located on 8955 Mira Mesa Blvd. and three other locations in San Diego as well as Los Angeles, Northern California, and La Vegas. You'll also find useful recipes on the site.

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