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A Filipino feast

I don’t know the classmate’s name but have to thank chef Myrna Segismundo’s friend for — albeit indirectly — introducing us to food from the Philippines. When counsellors in their Manila school were discussing career options, the friend opted for hotel management. And young Myrna — who grew up on the delectable dishes cooked by her nanny — followed suit, without giving it much thought.

Today, the chef is a celebrity in the Philippines and among food lovers across the globe. I met her — over a delicious meal — one rainy evening at the Pan Asian restaurant in the WelcomHotel Sheraton New Delhi. The articulate and lively chef, who also hosts two popular chat shows in the Philippines, now has one mission — to spread awareness about Filipino food.

And I must admit there’s need to do so. We all know Indonesia’s nasi goreng, Thailand’s phad, Burma’s khowsuey or the Malaysian rending, but most of us would be a little nonplussed if asked to name a dish from the Philippines. “I blame us for it — we just haven’t tried hard enough to spread our cuisine,” says the chef, who organised a festival at the hotel, along with her colleagues chef Miguel Yadao and chef Ruth Padilla, to showcase the cuisine of her nation.

Seafood kare-kare with shrimp paste and annatto

It’s indeed a cuisine to be proud of. The cooking pot in the Filipino kitchen has been influenced by a host of nations — from the early Chinese traders to neighbouring Indonesians and the Spaniards who ruled the Philippines for 300 years. The people picked up tips for rice and noodles from the Chinese, learnt how to use peanuts from the Indonesians, and gathered European trends from the Spaniards. And what about the Americans who planted their flag there, I ask her. “From the Americans we got fast food,” she replies with a deadpan look.

The coming together of all these influences has produced a cuisine that’s simple yet delightful. Chef Myrna calls it honest, comfort food. And I couldn’t agree more. The pork adobo I ate comforted me no end. The dish — which the Philippines inherited from the Spaniards — is a delicious mix of meats and sauces .

The cuisine relies heavily on the tastes of ginger, garlic, vinegar, pepper and spices such as annatto, which is also a natural colouring agent. Peanuts go into dishes such as fresh lumpia — a wonderful egg-roll presented with caramelised soya and garlic. Peanuts also add to the taste of seafood kare-kare, cooked with shrimp paste and annatto — which gives it its wonderful reddish colour. Coconut milk flavours many dishes, including chicken, while garlic enhances the lamb kaldereta.

But the point that the chef seeks to make — and it’s the leitmotif of the popular cookbook she’s written, Philippine Cuisine — Home cooked Recipes Wherever You May Be — is that the food is simple. Her recipes are easy to follow, and she stresses that substitutes can always be found for ingredients that are difficult to source outside the Philippines. Not surprisingly, her book is a hit with the large Filipino community in countries such as the United States — where chef Myrna went for her higher studies.

The managing director of Restaurant 9501, the exclusive eating place of the ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corporation, Philippines’ largest broadcast network, believes that the food will have takers in India. I agree, for I find it interesting, yet not the least bit intimidating. I ate similar dishes in the Northeast during my annual holidays there many years ago.

The lively interaction with the chef — to say nothing of the delicious food — prompted me to silently thank her for not joining the world of medicine. I have nothing against doctors — some of my best friends are doctors — but I am glad she didn’t follow in the footsteps of her medico dad, who wanted the youngest of his 12 children to don the white coat. But then I suppose she is a healer in her own right — the healer of hungry souls.

Adobong baboy at Manoy

(Braised pork and chicken with annatto and vinegar)
(serves 10)

Ingredients:

• 6 crushed garlic cloves • ½ cup vinegar • ¼ cup soy sauce • ½ tbs cracked black peppercorns •1½ kg pork belly with skin, cut into 2-inch cubes l1kg chicken cut into small pieces • water to cover lannatto (achuete) water (soak 2tbs annatto seeds in ½ cup of water for five minutes. Strain, discard seeds, and keep water)

Method:

Combine garlic, vinegar, soy sauce and pepper in a sauce pot. Add pork, chicken and water and simmer on medium heat till the chicken is done. Remove chicken and set aside, and let the pot simmer till the pork is tender. The sauce will release pork fat. Remove 2/3rds of the fat. Fry the pork till golden. Put the chicken back into the sauce. Add the annatto water, mix well and reheat. Gently toss the meats, scraping the bottom and the sides of the pot — the secret of a good adobo. Serve with rice and pickled vegetables.

Monggo soup

(Mung bean soup)
(serves 10)

Ingredients:

• 3 cups dried green mung beans, washed and drained lenough water to cover 2-in above beans •3tbs oil • 3 cloves minced garlic • 1 minced white onion • 2 minced tomatoes ½ cup cubed pork belly or small shrimp heads (with the tails removed) • 6 cups water or chicken stock/broth lfish sauce or salt and pepper to taste

Method:

In a pot, combine mung beans and water and boil over high heat till the beans are tender. Strain and set the beans aside. In a pre-heated pot smeared with oil, sauté garlic, onion and tomatoes over medium heat. Add the pork or shrimps and stir fry till half done. Add the boiled mung beans and water or stock/broth. Simmer for 3-5 minutes. Season with fish sauce or salt and pepper. Serve warm. Some monggo soup recipes call for the addition of bitter gourd or drumstick leaves placed at the last moment, just before removing the soup from the heat. The monggo soup is traditionally served with adobo.

       

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