Saturday, June 08, 2013

Fire for the Tongue and Soul

Classic Bicolano dishes as entrees


 The Bicol region has its share of patriots and revolutionaries who paved the way and contributed to Philippine independence, such as General Jose Ignacio Paua, a Chinese-Filipino revolutionary sent by Emilio Aguinaldo to the Bicol region in 1899 to raise funds for the newly-established Philippine Republic; revolutionary leader Simeon Arboleda Ola from Guinobatan, Albay, who fought against the Americans; and the 15 Martyrs of Bicol, who were executed and/or exiled because of supporting revolutionary causes.
We can remember and commemorate them this coming June 12, the 115th anniversary of the Philippine independence, by partaking of the cuisine doubtlessly they loved best, which is as fiery as their patriotic ardour. 
Edsa Shangri-La, Manila’s all-day dining restaurant HEAT (which is acronym for Healthy Eating, Amazing Tastes) affords us a taste of Bicol dishes through its “Pinoy Hot at HEAT” food promotion from June 12 to 30. This is their way of celebrating the 115th Philippine independence — by paying “tribute to the colorful Philippine culture and cuisine.”
The Bicol region — roughly 17,632.5 square kilometers, 5.9 percent of the country’s total land area — is at the southern end of Luzon Island, frequently visited by typhoons and sometimes ravaged by volcanic eruptions. The region is known for the picturesque Mayon Volcano; the world’s largest fish, the whale shark; and the world’s smallest commercial fish, the sinarapan or tabios. Of course, its cuisine is also well-known. 

Ginataang laing, taro leaves cooked in coconut cream
Bicol cuisine is one of the most distinctive of the Philippines’ regional cuisines, epitomized by three main ingredients — coconut milk (gata), from the region’s number-one crop; taro leaves; and very prominently chilli, specifically the bird’s eye chilli, that fiery fruit most probably brought to our shores from South America via the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade, which obviously changed not only our cultural and social landscapes but culinary as well, bringing to us sapodilla (tsiko), chayote, camachile, sweet potato (kamote) and of course chocolate. Gastronomy is very welcoming of influences. I wonder what would Bicol dishes be without this very important import, chilli. Of course, the endemic pili nut is in many Bicol sweets, favorite pasalubong items. The pili fruit itself can also be found in Bicol tables. We had them in Catanduanes, boiled or blanched, dipped in kuyog, their version of fish bagoong, and eaten with boiled rice. This is eaten especially during stormy season when fishermen can’t go out to fish. 

Edsa Shangri-La, Manila’s Bicolano executive sous chef Sonny Almandres
The dishes of Bicol food promotion, which will be part of HEAT’s daily buffet, the Filipino station to be transformed into a cornucopia of Bicol delights, are anything but humble. HEAT has the good fortune of having Bicolano executive sous chef Sonny Almandres in its team. He transformed the classic dishes into eye-catching and intriguingly flavorful creations.
It will be indeed a gastronomic journey through the region as Almandres picked something from most of the provinces of the region which is composed of Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Albay, Masbate, Sorsogon and Catanduanes.
Using Western techniques and plating to these traditional fares, Almamdres regaled us with his skill and knowledge in a luncheon the other day, savoring not only the richness of coconut milk and heat of chillis but also the exotic tastes of spices such as langkawas or galangal and tanglad or lemongrass. 

Grilled crayfish, grouper and tilapia from Sorsogon
During the luncheon, palates were teased with sinarapan sa tanglad (sinarapan on lemongrass), nilutong balaw (shrimp paste with beans and wild wood ear mushroom), kadingga (chopped pork innards and organs, their version of bopis), and kinunot nin Sorsogon (tuna and stingray meat fillet with moringa or malunggay leaves) served in dainty pieces.  
The appetizer is ceviche of banana heart and fresh dilis or anchovies. This is akin to the kulawo of the Tagalog province of Quezon, which is boiled banana heart, shredded and drizzled with a dressing coconut milk. The grated coconut meat is lightly toasted with live coals (Yes, the coals are put into the bowl of grated coconut meat and tossed about) before it is extracted for its milk, giving the juice a wonderfully smoky flavor. Since the two Camarineses are contiguous to Quezon, kulawo is a shared dish.  

Bicol Express, pork cooked in coconut cream, shrimp paste and chilli
Almandres deconstructed the banana heart ceviche — a taro root puff was topped with pickled papaya, pomelo pulps and fiddlehead fern salad, and the banana heart salad with anchovies dressed with smoky coconut cream sat atop a square of ripe papaya — Bicol in flavors, world-class in look.  
I’m not fond of seafood soups but surprisingly Almandres’s soup was one of my favorites in that lunch. The clear seafood soup with young sweet potato leaves was presented to us with homemade fish balls skewered with lemongrass stalks. It was very reminiscent of the sinigang and the Visayan fish tinola but sweetish and with a hint of heat, very apt for rainy days.
After these came the classic Bicol entrees, served on a long wooden tray, on a bed of ripe bright-red chillis. But one must not forget the intriguing condiment and drinks. A very noticeable condiment was Bicolano patis, which looked like fish bagoong, but it is juice from fermented shrimps cooked with coconut milk.
The drinks I was amused with. One was juice made from Formosa pineapples, the pygmy, crunchy and sweet pineapple variety grown in Daet, the capital of Camarines Norte. The juice has chopped chillis swimming in it, giving the sweet drink a surprising kick. Another was an alcoholic one — Cool Magma, a drink with lambanog, pineapple juice and grenadine, with a dash of chopped chillis, very refreshing and tantalizing. 

Ceviche of banana heart and fresh dilis
 One of the most famous of Bicolano entrees is the ginataang laing (taro leaves cooked in coconut cream). Almandres prefers to use the dried taro leaves because they are less itchy to the tongue.
Another popular Bicolano dish is the Bicol Express, which is pork cooked in coconut cream, shrimp paste and chilli. It is reminiscent of the Tagalog binagoongang baboy (pork in shrimp paste) but with coconut milk and heaps of chilli slivers. Many say that this is a quintessential Bicol dish, but the origin of this dish is still being debated. The Bicol Express as we know it today is said to be a Metro Manila concoction, named after the popular passenger train service from Manila to the Bicol region. It was named thus because it has the classic Bicol flavors present in the dishes simply called niladan, literally, something cooked with chillis.
On the other hand, Almendras, who uses baby back ribs for his Bicol Express, said that the dish was being served in karinderias by the side of the railroad track, where the Bicol Express passed by, thus the name. It was also so named because when you eat it, “talagang tatakbo ka nang mabilis” (you will run fast) to get yourself water to wash down the heat, he joked.

Pancit Bato rinuguan, sun-dried noodles  with shrimps, pechay, crisp chicken meat and winter melon topped with pig’s blood
 Almendras’s pancit Bato rinuguan is a marriage of his two favorite dishes, which he relished as a youth in his hometown Ligao City in Albay — Pancit Bato, sun-dried noodles from the town of Bato in Camarines Sur, usually gisado or sautéed with meats and vegetables, and rinuguan, pig’s blood stew. Pancit Bato rinuguan has the noodle sautéed with shrimps, pechay, crisp chicken meat and winter melon and topped with pig’s blood.
At the center of the array was the catches of the day from Sorsogon — grilled fillets of lapu-lapu (grouper) and tilapia and ulang (crayfish) on skewers.
But one should not forget the pinangat, which is layers of taro leaves fastened by coconut leaf strips with any kinds of meat and cooked with coconut milk. Almandres uses the kind from Camalig, the town in Albay famous for this kind of dish, with soft-shell crab and young coconut meat, the lokadon kind, which is midway between the young coconut meat (buko) and the mature one (niyog). Also, it had a likable strong lemongrass flavor.
The array of desserts were equally delightful — Daet’s Formosa pineapple upside down cake with lambanog (coconut liquor usually found in southern Luzon, particularly in Batangas and Quezon) and lemoncito coulis; and macaroons with pili, calamansi (Indian lemon), coconut and jackfruit flavors. Of course, the chilli was not left out. They were in the chocolate chili truffle and chilli pralines. Why not? The ancient Aztecs drank their chocolate with a dash of chilli, truly heady and aphrodisiac. Chilli in desserts is not a far-out thing just like salt in sweets. I had chilli ice cream at the 1st Colonial Grill restaurant in Legaspi City, Albay, and it was a pleasantly surprising treat. We did not have an ice cream but we had the bird’s eye chili crème brulee, sweet, spicy, creamy, unpredictable. Now, you are consumed by fire, fired up to consume more.

Daet’s Formosa pineapple upside down cake with lambanog (coconut liquor usually found in southern Luzon, particularly in Batangas and Quezon) and lemoncito coulis, and bird’s eye chili crème brulee
Dainty appetizers: sinarapan sa tanglad (sinarapan in lemongrass), anchovy ceviche, and kinunot nin Sorsogon (tuna and stingray meat fillet with moringa or malunggay leaves)
HEAT is open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. with breakfast at 6 to 10 a.m., lunch at 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and dinner at 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. For restaurant reservations and further information, call (+63 2) 633-8888 local 2922 or 636-9077 or send an e-mail to

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