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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  1. Great write-up, Caron! I actually reviewed Filipino restaurants for the San Diego CityBeat food issue a couple of weeks back. Here's the article with recs of restaurants and bakeries: http://www.sdcitybeat.com/cms/story/detail/the_original_fusion/9163/

    There are lots of great turo-turo (literally "point-point") joints in San Diego, with the best located in National City. Perhaps a summer lunch is in order?

    As far as bakeries go, the Valerio's chain is great; it's local and family owned. While I've loved the National City location for years, the Mira Mesa location won my heart because of the cheese balls (they only make them there) -- egg bread rolls with a dab of cream cheese in the middle and a slightly sweet topping. The chain's ensaymada (brioche topped with butter, sugar and cheese), pan de coco (coconut-filled bread), pan de ube (ube-filled rolls) and hopya (sweet red bean pastries and flaky, savory pork or mung bean pastries) are also quite good. The Mira Mesa location is in the same complex as Lucky Seafood (it's in the corner).

    As far as all those leaves go, they are used to wrap tamales in the Philippines, another cross-culture staple brought from Mexico during the Spanish colonial area (the Philippines were governed through Mexico). Banana leaves are also widely used in desserts involving sticky rice, like suman (little sausage-like packages of sticky rice) or my grandmother's sweet rice cake (sweet rice, coconut milk and brown sugar baked in a banana leaf-lined pan).

    Regardless, it's a great coincidence that you're posting this today -- just this morning, my sister and I were talking about making adobo this weekend!

  2. Lorena, I'd love to meet up with you (and your sister?) and check out a few places. Any interest?

  3. Once again, a very thorough and well-written review from Caron! I discovered this store back in the fall and bought one of each of their sweet potatoes to try. The first thing you notice upon entering the store is there is no fish smell which is incredible for a store whose primary product is fish! It all appears very fresh and is well priced. I love the little "take-out joint" next to the store. They have a little 2 piece chicken dinner served with rice and gravy and some noodles that is really tasty (and CHEAP!).


  4. "...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."

    My mother uses bitter melon leaves as an addition to a mung bean stew (with this pork) like dish she used to make. It's like spinach with an edge.

  5. Caron, I'd be happy to meet up with you for lunch sometime in National City or Mira Mesa. Once I'm done with commencement at SDSU (end of this month), my schedule opens up considerably. I'll be sure to DM you later this month regarding dates/times.

  6. Hi Caron
    Thanks for finally posting on a Filipino market. I usually go to the Seafood City in Chula Vista (closer to home) - the parking lot in the National City location can get quite crazy.

    RE: leaves - my mother uses Sili (pepper) leaves in Tinola (a ginger based chicken soup made with either green papaya or chayote). If you're lucky, sometimes you can find fresh malunggay (moringa) leaves or fresh calamansi (small native citrus fruit).

    If you're interested in Philippine/Filipino recipes, I recommend these cookbooks, "Memories of Philippine Kitchens" by Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan (former chef/owners of now defunct Cendrillon in SoHo, NYC and now chef/owners of Purple Yam in Brooklyn), and "The Filipino American Kitchen - Tradtional Recipes, Contemporary Flavors" by Jennifer Aranas.

    I consider the best Filipino food to be homemade. Most of the takeout places have greasy food.

  7. Lucky you for having access to homemade Filipino food. The rest of us have to go out for it so I hope to find some good places with Lorna. Lisa, thanks for writing!

  8. Caron,
    Sorry, I didn't mean for my last comment to come out that way...it wasn't meant to offend.

    There are lots of good Filipino places out there that I'm sure you'll have fun trying.

  9. What a great write-up! I'm embarrassed to say I've never heard of this market. Just reading about the products you describe has me remembering the many Filipino students I enjoyed in my career, and the amazing food their families shared with us. I haven't had lumpia in years. Oh, my! Thanks for this :)

  10. I would go to Valerio's for fresh, hot pan de sal. Filipino "fast food" can be hit or miss and seems to be based on the cook's own taste. And it seems every family has their own version of adobo or sinigang. Looking forward to your discoveries, Caron!

  11. I wasn't offended -- just jealous. ;)

    Thanks, everyone, for writing and for your great suggestions and insights. I hope to keep learning more about Filipino food!

  12. hello there... my name is Malou, and I blog about the food that I cook which are mostly Filipino Food but with a modern twist.

    I shop at seafood city twice a month in mira mesa.. I love the fresh seafood and the frozen fruits/veggies...

    Let me know when you guys meet up. I want to join in.. feel free to go through the food that I cook at my blog, or if and when we meet up I'd love to share my cooking with you guys...

    Thanks for the post, hopefully Filipino Food will find its way into the mainstream...

  13. Great post! And perfect timing. My husband works with a lot of Filipinos and they sent him home the other day with a plate of food for me. I didn't know what any of it was but it was SO delicious and I really want to eat more of it.