Kare-kare – an oxtail and beef tripe stew enveloped in a thick, orange-hued peanut sauce – is a traditional Filipino recipe that can’t be rushed. It requires hours of cooking, the bulk of that time allotted for softening the meat and preparing individual ingredients such as ground peanuts and roasted ground rice. Consequently, it’s often relegated to the rare occasions that the home cook can spare the time to craft such a labour-intensive dish.
“This has always been my comfort food since I was a kid,” says Kevin Villarica, chef-owner of Hapag, a year-old modern Filipino restaurant in Metro Manila’s Quezon City. “I remember looking forward to our family get-togethers every Sunday because I knew my grandmother would bring her beloved kare-kare.” As a tribute to his grandmother, Villarica has included the dish on his menu.
But rather than replicate the traditional recipe, he has put his own unique spin on the dish. The 27-year-old’s version is presented as a mound of oxtail flakes and tempura-fried vegetables in a pool of silky sauce made with rice laced with bagoong (fermented shrimp or fish paste). It’s a marked deviation from the original, but it’s wonderfully creative, visually appealing and equally delicious.
“We hope to reintroduce unfamiliar Filipino flavours that we find interesting from different regions… and present them in unusual ways”
Throughout Manila, talented young chefs such as Villarica are rethinking and reinterpreting the traditional cuisine of their homeland in order to appeal to modern diners hankering for something a little different. What’s more, they’re introducing lesser-known dishes from various regions, championing ingredients from their own backyards and applying novel cooking tricks and techniques to transform traditional recipes.
“We hope to reintroduce unfamiliar Filipino flavours that we find interesting from different regions of the country and present them in unusual ways,” says chef Alphonse Sotero of Lampara, which opened in Poblacion in January 2019.
These relative newcomers are building on some promising foundations. Toyo Eatery, perhaps Manila’s first modern Filipino restaurant, opened in 2016. The last few years have seen a proliferation of similar concepts – the aforementioned Hapag and Lampara, as well as Stephen Duhesme’s Metiz and Linamnam by Don Baldosano.
Just last year, Toyo Eatery was inducted into the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. This accolade created a surge in national pride and proved that modern Filipino food was a viable pursuit – and that diners were willing to pay fine-dining prices for it. Here are four establishments at the forefront of this burgeoning movement.
For regional flavours
Tucked away on the second floor of a low-rise building in Makati is Lampara, run by chef-owners RJ Ramos and Alphonse Sotero. The neo-Filipino bistro, adorned with local art pieces, recently celebrated its first anniversary, and it has remained busy and bustling since day one.
Lampara’s version of the popular congee side dish tokwa’t baboy (boiled pork and fried tofu doused in soy sauce and vinegar) features soft tofu topped with crispy pork bits, pork floss and black vinegar. And the familiar flavours of the Filipino favourite adobo star in a liver mousse empanada, braised kang kong (water spinach) and a sous-vide duck leg that’s been crisped in a hot oil bath.
But regional Filipino cuisine is where Lampara really shines. Elsewhere on the menu, a dish called Itum crossbreeds two staples from Mindanao, namely tiyula itum and pyanggang – beef and chicken dishes, respectively, cooked with charcoal-blackened coconut. Lampara’s take comes as a bold-flavoured seafood soup, a stunning marriage of burnt coconut, galangal, lemongrass and a spiced coconut cream.
“We did our research and found that very few places in Metro Manila serve the flavours of the south,” Ramos says. “I like the idea that our restaurant can contribute to the awareness of lesser-recognised Filipino dishes and flavours.”
For a creative twist
Helmed by star Filipino chef Jordy Navarra, this restaurant has been the darling of the city’s culinary scene ever since it opened in 2016. Those who enter the minimalist industrial space are duly rewarded with dishes that showcase Navarra’s creativity and respect for local ingredients.
Take the masa madre, sourdough-battered tuna cheek dusted with seafood powder. It comes with a hearty soup composed of lightly poached Aklan oysters, pickled ginger, corn flan and a drizzle of moringa oil. “The dish is inspired by the clam soups we’ve eaten in the Philippines,” Navarra explains. “We take the essence of the shellfish and combine it with flavours we associate with the soup. The fried fish is a counterpoint as it’s meaty and crisp.”
There’s also the classic eggplant omelette or tortang talong, interpreted as a crispy eggplant pancake slathered with eggplant purée and topped with a fluffy eggplant omelette. As a condiment, it has banana catsup made in-house using saba-peel vinegar, dried banana blossoms, a spice mix and ripe tomatoes.
“It’s a condiment that you’ll find in many Filipino households,” says May Navarra, Jordy’s wife and the restaurant’s co-owner. “During World War II, Filipino food chemist Maria Orosa thought of using bananas as a substitute for the tomato-based sauce at a time when there was a shortage of tomatoes. We decided to give it our own [spin] in her honour.
For a taste of home
In December 2017, chefs Thirdy Dolatre, Kevin Villarica and Kevin Navoa started Hapag as a private-dining business. Overwhelming demand for their original take on a myriad of Filipino flavours eventually had them looking for a permanent space, and in March 2019 they opened a 42-seater wood-and-concrete-decked space, tucked behind a congee shack in the Quezon City area.
The modern Filipino dishes found on the degustation menu are familiar in flavour, but original in presentation. Take the case of the Laing Stones. With this dish, the trio has converted the traditional coconut-milk-braised taro leaves dish of laing from the Bicol region into a concoction of fried squid-ink-battered balls paired with pickled mango.
“There are ingredients that are good and flavourful with little or almost nothing done to them,” Dolatre says, and Hapag’s take on the Bacolod chicken inasal exemplifies this philosophy. They source antibiotic-free chickens, then marinate the meat in a simple mix of lemongrass, garlic, ginger and coconut vinegar for close to eight hours before grilling.
Ultimately, at Hapag, cooking is an everyday adventure. “We try to push the envelope to uplift and discover the wonders of Filipino cuisine, and, hopefully, share these discoveries with everyone around us,” Dolatre concludes.
For unusual ingredients
We are a neo-bistro with the purpose of serving good food at affordable prices,” says chef Stephen Duhesme of his modern Filipino restaurant, which opened late last year. Apart from an open kitchen that seamlessly spills out into the dining area, what makes Metiz stand out is their commitment to under-utilised ingredients such as pig’s cheeks and catfish, rarely found at other comparable restaurants. “It challenges us to become a little more creative. It doesn’t mean the results are always successful, but we [still] work with these ingredients,” says Duhesme.
The menu features lumpia, a traditional fried spring roll that’s typically filled with ground pork and vegetables. Duhesme’s version has a filling of sticky beef cheek, snout and ear that has been slowly cooked in a tendon sauce. This is enrobed in a 72-hour fermented sourdough wrapper and comes with a crushed peanut sauce, kamote (sweet potato) tops, alugbati (Malabar spinach), cilantro and jicama.
For dessert, Duhesme turns to the bitter flavours of local dark chocolate to balance out the richness of a praliné made with cashews from Palawan, tapioca infused with coffee from Bukidnon and sea salt from Zambales.
“We use local ingredients to lower our carbon footprint as well as employ more sustainable practices,” Duhesme adds.
Pioneering female Filipino chefs in Manila
Named Asia’s Best Female Chef by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2016, Margarita Forés has spoken at various international culinary conferences to promote the food of her country. Closer to home, you can sample her cuisine at farm-to-table restaurant Grace Park in the city’s Makati district.
Miko Calo’s exquisite culinary creations do a great job of introducing local palates to French bistronomy. When the Joël Robuchon-trained chef opened her modern French restaurant Metronome last year, diners flocked there to enjoy the 38-year-old’s inspired dishes.
After winning a local cooking competition, the celebrity chef went on to build an empire consisting of multiple restaurants and a catering company under her brand Chef Jessie Restaurants. She also recently opened a bakery, which sells the winning mango cake that launched her successful career.
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This article was originally published in the April 2020 issue of SilverKris magazine