A World of Sours

Memories of Philippine Kitchens
By Romy Dorotan and Amy Besa
Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2006; $35

Think you know sour? You don’t know sour, unless you know the food of the Philippines: the kalamansi lime, the kamias fruit used in ceviche-like seafood combos called kinilaw, the tamarind-soured sinigang soup, the fruit vinegars made with wild guava, with coconut, with cashew. I still don’t know most of these flavors, but I have a better grasp of the uses of sourness thanks to Memories of Philippine Kitchens, by Romy Dorotan and Amy Besa, the couple that own New York’s Cendrillon restaurant. From the book, I cooked the mellow-sour chicken adobo, which was softened by soy sauce and coconut milk (see recipe below); the pickle-sour achara, a handy green-papaya condiment as comfortable on hot dogs as it is with Philippine fare; and the just-shy-of-brutishly-sour squid adobo, blackened with squid ink, peppered with jalapeƱos, and tarted up with a whole cup of red wine vinegar. Of course, Philippine food isn’t just sour, it’s sweet and bitter and savory and salty too, but the diversity of sourness described in the book gives a sense of what we’re missing when we overlook the food of the Philippines.

It’s astounding that we don’t yet know Philippine food better—there are far more Filipino Americans in this country than Thai Americans, but you wouldn’t know it from the restaurant listings in the phone book. Philippine fare seems to be one of those cuisines that are just better expressed in home kitchens. To this day I still covet another pass at the jaw-dropping banquet that my high school friend Bob’s family prepared for his graduation party: a wall of lumpia, a vat of adobo, a mountain of spicy crabs. Dorotan and Besa, who are married, opened Cendrillon in SoHo in 1995. They had individually left their native Philippines in the early years of the oppressive Marcos government (1965 to 1986), and met as Temple University graduate students before settling in New York in 1979. Originally, Cendrillon had a more general pan-Asian approach, but as time went on, the couple focused more on trademark Philippine dishes.

In their book, Dorotan and Besa don’t just describe the food that they make in the restaurant or dig up family recipes. They revisit the islands, seeking stellar home cooks in different regions to learn how and what they cook. Although much of the book is devoted to the canonical dishes of Philippine cuisine—the adobos, the spring-roll-like lumpia, the stir-fried noodle pancits, the sweet and cheesy rice cake bibingka, the pig, whole and in parts—the impression one gets is of a somewhat unmasterable cuisine that varies from region to region, town to town, cook to cook. No doubt this is true of all cuisines, but there is something about Philippine cookery that seems particularly ineffable—at least when one confronts the sheer volume of information in Dorotan and Besa’s book. “Filipinos,” the authors write, “are as likely to agree that adobo should be considered the national dish of the Philippines, as they’re liable to disagree on every other point about its preparation and enjoyment.”

That slipperiness has something to do with history. The Philippine kitchens of the title—notice the plural—have many, many sources for their flavors. There are the traditions of the earliest settlers (the kinilaw, and the soured stews like adobo and sinigang), the Chinese influence (noodles, spring rolls, and ducks), and the Spanish influence. The Philippines were “a colony of a colony,” overseen by the Mexican bureaucracy rather than Madrid, so the influences were both old world and new: paella-like dishes, pork sausages, tomatoes, and chiles. Then, of course, there is the American presence—the Philippines were an American territory for more than four decades after the Spanish-American War. The U.S. food legacy? Desserts, for one. In addition to providing a recipe for banana cream pie, Dorotan and Besa write that chiffon cake remains the favorite cake in the Philippines and include a recipe for one with jackfruit icing. They also say that the American influence served to glamorize prepared foods—Spam, Vienna sausages, and fruit cocktail—over perishables.

Regionalism is layered upon those multinational influences. In the Ilocos region, bagoong monamon, the fermented seafood paste used in the vegetable medley pinakbet, is popular. From Quezon province comes a kind of barbecued coconut milk, extracted from coconut flesh that’s been charred by a live coal. For an outsider like me, one can get a little lost amid the book’s definitions, oral histories, recipes, and travelogue, but it’s a pleasant kind of disorientation, made more so by Neal Oshima’s lively photos. Each time I dip into the book, I find recipes I must try: their version of longaniza, boar sausage laced with lime zest and annatto; a salad of salted duck eggs and tomatoes, the Philippine answer to caprese salad; or Dorotan’s more high-style dish of coffee and coconut-milk-roasted pompano.

Despite their thoroughness, Dorotan and Besa also have limits. Not everything can be re-created outside the Philippines. They describe, but give no how-to, for lechon, the whole roasted pig, and the pair have given up, for now, on a recipe for puto, the steamed rice cakes eaten for dessert, which “came out like a brick every time we tried to experiment with it.” Thanks to their good judgment, the dishes I did try all came out well, including the adobos I mentioned earlier; a fragrant rice pilaf with turmeric, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots; and a nifty annatto-laced quick cure for pork shoulder “bacon.” On top of that, most of the recipes—with some notable exceptions, like the pancit—have less-arduous shopping lists than some other Southeast Asian dishes I’ve taken on in the past.

It’s still a bit of a mystery why Philippine food has not been more embraced in the U.S. (why, for that matter, are there not more Indonesian and Moroccan restaurants?). But Dorotan and Besa give a newfound impetus to explore it at home—where, with a future squid adobo, I can pull back a bit on the vinegar, and no one will question my dish’s authenticity.

The recipe below, for chicken adobo, has relatively few annotations, because it was as simple as pie.

Chicken Adobo

Serves 4 to 6

Marinade: 1 1/2 cups rice vinegar {No guava or coconut vinegar here—too bad for the part of me looking for an exotic sour, but the rice vinegar is mercifully easy to find and packs a gentler acidity than others. If you are seeking a fruity vinegar to experiment with, there is a groovy recipe for pineapple-infused vinegar in the book.}

1 cup coconut milk {This also softens the sour blow.}

1/4 cup soy sauce {A decidedly Chinese influence.}

12 garlic cloves, peeled {That’s a lot, but the dish is stewed, so it’s not harsh.}

3 bay leaves {A Spanish note, no doubt.}

3 whole birdseye chiles {Spanish again, via the New World. Notice that the chiles are kept whole—Philippine cuisine generally packs less capsicum heat than other cuisines in Southeast Asia.}

1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

One 3 1/2-pound whole chicken, quartered and cut into pieces

1. In a large, nonreactive bowl or heavy-duty, resealable plastic bag, combine all of the marinade ingredients. Add the chicken pieces and turn to coat in the marinade. {I found the rather acidic marinade a little freaky, as if I were making chicken ceviche, but the resulting stew isn’t tough.} Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.

2. In a large casserole or Dutch oven, heat the chicken and marinade over high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally to make sure the chicken is covered in the marinade, until the chicken is cooked through and tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

3. Transfer the chicken pieces to a large bowl, raise the heat to medium-high, and reduce the sauce until it has the consistency of heavy cream, about 5 minutes. Remove the bay leaves and chiles. Return the chicken to the sauce and cook until just warmed through. {Though it doesn’t take long to cook, this is one of those leave-it-around dishes that gets better with time. Do not hesitate to let it sit in the refrigerator and make a midweek meal of it. The resulting taste is not dissimilar from Thai tom ka gai—less perfumed, perhaps, without the lime leaves, lemongrass, and galangal, but powerfully satisfying in its own way.}