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Monday, June 28, 2010

Tweaking a Hometown Dish

Just last Friday, I conceded to an officemate who is one of my loyal customers at Heaven's Country Kitchen, to whip up a fish dish for lunch. And so that same night, I consulted some references and took note of past reactions of my other customers regarding fish dishes we've already prepared, and decided to try something familiar but different. During these past occasions, I've learned that people from Rizal aren't really adventurous, and neither are they into fish or any kind of seafood. Must be the mountain ranges that make one crave only for saucy meat dishes to keep warm from the cool air.

One recipe that caught my eye though was for a Bicol Express Rice that is part of this compilation of the Philippine edition of Good Housekeeping magazine. Bicol Express has turned out to be one of the popular dishes being prepared today, although surprisingly, its origins are not strictly from the province of Bicol.

I claim Bicol to be my province considering that both my parents came from there, more specifically, in the province of Albay. I recall living there for 2 years where I attended pre-school at the now defunct St. Benedict's Academy in Guinobatan while we lived in my mother's family compound where we wake up everyday to a great view of the perfectly coned - and still very active - Mayon Volcano. We would return to this province almost every summer thereafter when my parents would pack everything up and my father would drive us via the South Road for 10 hours from our home in Las Pinas.

The Bicol region is located in the the southernmost tip of the Luzon island of the Philippines and is known for a cuisine that is distinctly different from the rest of the country by its people's incessant need to cook all their meals in coconut cream and/or milk and chilies. And then, it is here where the pili nut is found and made into all kinds of pastry from budin to pili brittle. It is the home of the "pinangat", a bundle of fresh gabi leaves simmered in coconut milk and cream and flavored with either a slab of pork, fish or shrimps. It is referred to by the Manila crowd as "laing", although they're not one and the same. "Laing", which also originated from Bicol, is a vegetable dish made also from gabi leaves, but the difference is that the leaves are air-dried first and cooked loosely in coconut milk, and not tied up like the "pinangat".

Bicol Express, on the other hand, is a dish composed of sliced pork sauteed first in onions and garlic, a few minced ginger and then simmered in coconut milk, to be followed by thinly sliced chilies Tagalog or siling haba for that bitingly hot flavor. Seasoning would just be salt and pepper. Other versions call for sauteing shrimp paste (or bagoong alamang) in the concoction for that added character, and as my father would sometimes do it, opting out the coconut milk and just saute the chilies and pork together as a way to boost appetite over our Sunday lunch.

Bicol Express is said to be a dish developed by Cely Kalaw for her Grove Restaurant in the district of Malate, Manila in the 1960s. (More of this can be found in It was named so because at the time she cooked it, they heard a train passing by from the station in Paco, Manila.

For my purposes though, I thought the idea presented by the Good Housekeeping compilation was very promising. The recipe called for preparing the chilies into a paste and then mix it with rice that was previously simmered in water and coconut milk. Nevertheless, I took it a step further by retaining the pork version and poured it over the rice as additional sauce then served it simply with Crispy Fried Tilapia. In a word: Divine.

The Recipe:

For the rice -

2 small onions, halved with skin on
1 green bell pepper
6 cloves garlic
4 hot green chilies
1/4 of a chicken bouillon cube
1/4 cup hot water
1/4 cup cold water
1 cup uncooked rice
1 cup water
1 cup coconut milk

For the pork sauce -

1 slab pork belly, sliced in strips
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 onion, minced
1 tsp. ginger, chopped finely
1 cup coconut milk
salt & pepper to taste
a few slices of the green chili

Preparing the rice: 1. Bake onions, bell pepper, garlic and chillies until their skins are charred in the oven at 350 deg. Cool then peel the vegetables and remove their seeds.
2. In a bowl, dissolve the chicken bouillon in the hot water. Add the cold water.
3. Chop the grilled vegetables then put in a blender with the chicken broth and puree until smooth. Set aside.
4. Boil the rice with the remaining water. When rice has almost absorbed all the water, pour in the coconut milk and mix well.
Continue cooking the rice until done.
5. Fluff the rice with the fork then toss in the pureed vegetable mixture. Let flavors set while you prepare the sauce.

Cooking the sauce: 1. Saute garlic, onion & ginger in 2 tablespoons of corn oil. Add in the pork belly and continue sauteing until pork is browned.
2. Pour the coconut milk and let simmer until pork is cooked through and sauce is slightly creamy. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add in the slices of green chili when done.

When plating this dish, shape the rice as desired on a plate, pour in the pork sauce over it and serve with fried tilapia fish. The crispiness of fried fish really brought out the creamy and spicy flavors absorbed by the rice. According to my friends who tasted this dish, they couldn't help but eat everything up. This is a pretty good idea to serve to a crowd and I'm pretty sure it'll become a house special with me.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Celebration Dish

What better way to celebrate the Philippines' 113th Independence than preparing a Filipino celebratory dish?

Beef Caldereta is usually one of the dishes that comprises a Filipino household's menu during parties, get-togethers, potlucks and fiestas. While this stew may show traces of Spanish influence, it has become a truly Filipino dish all its own. This version I'm sharing is one that my father developed over the years when there are parties to be held at home and which our guests would usually gush over and pour compliments at how very tasty it is. It was a good thing that I finally sat him down and dictated the recipe to me.


3 kilos beef cubes
5 pcs. hotdogs/sausages
1 cup grated cheese
1/2 cup green olives
2 big onions, quartered
2 cloves garlic
few thin slices of ginger for sauteing
2 T tomato paste
1 sm. can liver spread
3-4 large green & red bell peppers
4 T Knorr liquid seasoning
1/2 kilos potatoes, quartered
2 large carrots, sliced


1. Marinate beef in 1 cup beer & Knorr seasoning for 30 mins.
2. Saute beef, onions, garlic, ginger & black pepper until beef is partially cooked.
3. Add 1 cup water (or as desired depending on how thick you want the sauce to be). Cook under slow heat. Cover until juice of beef comes out and until tender.
4. Add liver spread. Mix then season with salt & soy sauce to taste.
5. Add all other ingredients, last being the grated cheese, and let simmer until vegetables are just cooked. Serve and enjoy.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Truly Asian Sojourn

Malaysia has been described, in so many words, as a country where worlds met, collided and mixed in a sumptuous brew of eastern spices and religion with western discipline and sensibilities.

Such was the whiff I got from the hot, humid air when we disembarked in Kuala Lumpur. Except for the mosques sprouting in between modern buildings and the Petronas Twin Towers, it was just like Manila only cleaner and with wider highways. The people are even gentler and are quite honest workers. Taxi drivers will know just where your destination is without inconveniencing you by asking "Where's that?" and will not haggle with the fare. Salesladies in stores will want to help you with a smile whether you end up buying something or not instead of looking glum the minute you stepped into their store because it would mean they would have to work.

Malaysian food has it's own character as well. Nevertheless, it shares this character with Singapore with the ubiquitous Hainan Chicken Rice and other fried specialities like fried wantan (wanton), fried chicken chops, and fried tofu. Malaysians, however, have two versions of the famous Chicken Rice - steamed or roasted. Of course, one doesn't go to Kuala Lumpur and miss the chance to try out Madame Kwan's Nasi Lemak, quite famous all over Malaysia, so a local tells me. I didn't think much of this fame until I had to be told by the major domo that the standard waiting time to be seated was between 10 and 15 minutes. So I patiently waited as told. I was getting more intrigued. But true enough, I was seated in 15 minutes in my own little corner of a very crowded restaurant situated on the top floor of Kuala Lumpur City Center (KLCC).

Of course, I asked for the Nasi Lemak which is a dish composed of Chicken Rendang or curry served with rice steamed in coconut milk, half a boiled egg, shrimp floss and spicy anchovies. Quite a lot on one plate, but well worth the wait. It is one spicy dish that reveals all its flavors only after you've been hooked with those preliminary bites. I got to stop eating only when there was nothing more on my plate. Cleaned it good. Surprisingly though, I didn't feel heavy as I would have expected despite the generous serving. So I had room for Sago Gula Melaka as dessert. It was just the right sweet ending to a full meal. All this satisfaction for RM35 (Php455). Admittedly, this is not a budget meal, but worth the experience. Notably, Nasi Lemak is a usual breakfast fare. The locals around my table would usually eat the Nasi Jemak, a tri-colored fried rice with a quarter roasted chicken and other side dishes.

For shopping, one can either sample the shops in the many malls surrounding the city, but for someone looking for particularly Malaysian goods, one is almost always directed to the Central Market along Jalan Hang Kasturi. Anyone new to the city will not miss the big block painted in white and baby blue. it is surprising to note that this particular building was already around in 1888 when it was used as a wet market. It has now been classified as a Heritage Site by the Malaysian Heritage Society and tourist landmark where you can purchase a wide variety of Malaysian handicrafts, including items made in pewter by famous Royal Selangor, trinkets and figurines fashioned out of batik wood, and souvenirs such as notebooks, fans, and bags made from tree barks. This market is air-conditioned so it does provide respite from the heat outside. There is also a resident cafe - the Old Town Cafe in case you need a breather from all that walking around in circles. Credit cards are also available options for payments in some stores.

Another shopping destination is Chinatown, a few minutes' walk from Central Market found in Jalan Petaling. It's the only block in the area where its street has a roof. In other words, rain or shine should not stop anyone from checking out the goods there. However, for my part, I ended up not attracted to anything on offer since all of the items found there I can find and buy either in Baclaran or in Divisoria at even dirt cheaper prices. But at least I got to know what it was all about and my curiosity has been fed.

While in Malaysia, though, do not miss the chance to go to Malacca or Melaka in the local vernacular. It's a little over 2 hours from KL if riding just the public transportation. Find a way to get on the KL Komuter train (different from the Rapid KL or their version of the LRT) and buy a ticket for the one that goes to Seremban (RM14/person). From that last train station, get a taxi to take you to the bus station Terminal 2 and purchase your ticket (around RM7/person) there for a bus (we rode the Transnational line) that will take you to Malacca, which leaves every 30 minutes. It's a two-hour ride from there where the bus will drop you off at Melaka Sentral. This is another bus station that's also a mini mall and just off the other side of a giant Tesco Hypermarket.

During our trip, we arrived at Melaka Sentral at past 1pm so we were quite hungry. We decided to rest and eat lunch at Nasi Ayam Bebola, one of the Halal eateries inside. It was part of my husband's must-do-in-Malaysia to eat the street version of the Chicken Rice. And so we did. It was more tasty and savory than the hotel versions. What's more, 3 of us for a total spend of RM25 with drinks? Not bad.

Anyway, from Melaka Sentral, you can either ride the red bus (RM2/person) or the ordinary bus (RM1/person) with a hawking conductor and cigarette-chugging driver (even though there's a sign that smoking is prohibited inside the bus) to take you to Malacca's historic center, starting point of which is the clock tower.

Let me just say that upon reaching the historic center, Malacca did not disappoint. It's an altogether different city with a character that is very different from KL. While you get the feel that the place is aging, it charms and entices you to find out more about it's colorful past.

Melaka used to be a small fishing village which developed into a thriving and busy port of trade between the Malays and Chinese due to its strategic location along the Malacca Straits. This later on attracted Siamese invaders. Development of relations between Malacca and China was forged mainly for the purpose of warding off further Siamese attacks. Portuguese colonization followed via Alfonso de Albuquerque in 1511. They were the ones who built the fort called "A Famosa", but only its gate is all that remains of the ruins. It was through the Portuguese also that the Jesuit missionary was established in the city.

The Dutch, however, defeated the Portuguese over Melaka in 1641 and their influence is seen in the Stadthys Square where the clock tower is located in front of the Stadhys or Red Building erected in 1650. Beside it is the Christ Church Melaka constructed in 1753 which is of original Dutch architecture as it stands today. This Church itself is a treasure trove considering that most of its contents are still the originals that are well-preserved - from the hand-crafted church benches to the jointless ceilings, the copper-bound Bible, the headstone with Armenian letterings and the replica of the Last Supper.

The Dutch later ceded Melaka to the British in 1824 and became part of the Crown Colonies together with its Sumatran neighbors. Later on, Melaka was brought back to the Malayan state.

Exploring the town, a walk along Jonkers Street is a must, not only for a more authentic feel of the place as you are surrounded by colonial architecture, but for the antique stores that line it up. From a Filipino perspective, be ready to spend. The antiques on sale, while very beautiful, are not for a trifle. As consolation for the budget traveller, I would recommend a coffee break at Geographer Cafe, a gorgeously renovated colonial building offering Italian coffee and an assortment of beers. A sighting of a pastry shop across had me sampling the durian puffs which are kept cool but a bite revealed oozing durian flavored cream on buttery pastry.

An ideal trip to Melaka should include an overnight stay since a lot more of the antique stores and even more restaurants and bars are closed during the day. We didn't even get to sample the Baba-Nyonya Cuisine for which the state is known for. So while our day trip there had to end, it was with a promise that the next time we go there (and yes, there will be a next time), we plan to have a sleep over.

Our day here ended on a trip back to KL, but instead of the hotel, we went straight to Cheras Night Market which only opens on Wednesdays. This is a street market set up along a busy highway and everyone goes there for cheap eats. The vendors there mainly sell Chinese food: pan mee, all kinds of mee (noodles), Taiwanese fried chicken chops, fried wantans and dumplings, char kwey teow, the stinkiest tofu steaks you can smell in your whole life; and then some: sugarcane juice, takoyaki, popped beans, candies, chinese pancakes, san rio character pancakes, nasi lemak, laksa, and a whole lot more. You will certainly stuff yourself silly as you take in the festive atmosphere. We certainly wanted to try everything! Well, maybe if we were 10 years younger and 20 lbs. lighter... Even so, I've chalked up my favorites (fried chicken chops and the sugarcane juice) and my least favorites (pan mee and fried wantan).

What is true for every Malaysian (and tourist) is that you may go home tired, but not hungry. But then again, when I got back to Manila, I craved for, and ate lechon kawali, sizzling pork steak and planned my household's menu around pork dishes for the next two days...