In Which Fried Potatoes Get Some Japanese Flavor…

Anyone want potatoes?

Anyone want potatoes?

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like fried potatoes.  Whether it’s French fries or waffle fries, hash browns or tater tots, they are irresistible, toothsome, and totally satisfying.  I mean, really: they may be unhealthy, but these are so moreish and comforting that one cannot help munch down scads and scads of crunchy-skinned deep-fried spuds.

While fried potatoes are delicious enough with just a bare sprinkle of salt, I’ve taken a cue from how McDonald’s serves its spuds in Japan.  In the Land of the Rising Sun, fast-food munchers are given small packets of flavored salt with which to season the snack.  Popular flavors are nori (seaweed), curry, and the incendiary one based on the fiery shichimi togarashi.

But I say: why stop at flavored salt when you can go the whole hog and toss the spuds in furikake for a real burst of flavor?

Furikake is a catch-all term for dry seasoning mixes meant to be sprinkled onto or stirred into cooked rice.  The most common one, norishio, is a very basic mixture of finely chopped nori, sesame seeds, salt, and sugar.  Admittedly this tastes pretty good on both rice and fried spuds, but why stick to basics when you can seriously amp up the flavor factor with katsuoboshi?

The fried potatoes at the top of this page were tossed in katsuoboshi (dried, salt-cured bonito shavings) furikake and have a lovely umami flavor profile that sets them well above standard-issue spuds: a salty, herbaceous flavor from the nori, a faint meatiness from the fish flakes, and a very subtle sweetness from the sesame seeds.  This is definitely something home cooks ought to try in their own kitchens, but if you’re not so culinary-inclined, I recommend bringing a packet of furikake (they’re available in the Asian food aisles of major supermarkets and Oriental grocery stores) and sprinkling the stuff liberally over fast-food spuds.

(And now that McDonald’s – Philippines is touting super-sized BFF fries, a nefarious plan involving whole packets of furikake rears its head…)

In Which the Barbecued Chicken of the South is Done Well – Very Well…

Who can say no to barbecued chicken?

Who can say no to barbecued chicken?

Inasal na manok - colloquially known as chicken inasal - is a specialty from the Central Philippines, particularly from the province of Negros Occidental where it is the signature dish of Bacolod City, though it is also a popular viand in neighboring Iloilo.  It is, in essence, another barbecued chicken dish: bone-in chicken segments threaded onto bamboo skewers and grilled till charred on the outside, tender and juicy within.

However, unlike the sweeter marinade preferred in Luzon or the one from Mindanao which is more like the Malaysian satay with its nutty taste, the chicken is steeped in a mixture of native lime (kalamansi), lemongrass, ginger, garlic, and the potently chili-infused sinamak vinegar prior to grilling over coals.  During the grilling process, the chicken is given another layer of flavor as it is basted with a mixture of melted salted margarine mixed with ground black pepper and a generous splash of annato {achuete} oil which gives the skin a distinctive orange hue and a peppery, slightly floral savor that is further amped up by the smoky taste imparted by the charcoal.

When I was a kid, the only place you could get inasal was at the Bacolod Chicken House in Paranaque.  Nowadays, though, thanks to Mang Inasalyou could get a decent barbecue meal in just about every part of the country.

Careful about this one: it's VERY hot!

Careful about this one: it’s VERY hot!

Touting itself as the Philippines’ first fast-food barbecue joint, Mang Inasal’s main stock-in-trade is grilled chicken: large, hefty servings of it and you can get unlimited rice refills – and all that for less that P 120.00 (US$ 2.71).

Mang Inasal gives diners three choices when it comes to its chicken meals: pecho (a butterflied wing and breast), paa (butterflied thigh and leg quarter), and the spicy paa which features a thigh-and-leg quarter soaked with plenty of fiery siling labuyo (nam prik; bird’s-eye chili) to give it some extra heat.  It also offers things like pork barbecue, sisig, and daing na bangus (salt-cured milkfish), but the chicken is the star of the show here.

Considering that it’s fast-food chicken, the segments of fowl you get on your plate are surprisingly tender and are quite flavorful.  Even the breasts which tend to be dry and stringy at most fast-food dives are moist, juicy, and totally infused with flavor.  The dark meat is no slouch, either, and you can taste the herbs used to marinate the chicken in every bite.  Just be very careful with the spicy paa, though; it is decidedly incendiary, knocks down a lot of rice, and you’ll be lurching for your drink almost as soon as the first bite goes into your mouth.  It makes for good pain, though.  :)

Every chicken meal comes with a cup of rice, a bowl of deliciously sour sinigang broth, and a small sauce with a split kalamansi and, should you opt for it, a whole siling labuyo.  There are three bottles at every table: sinamak vinegar, soy sauce, and buttery achuete oil.  The vinegar and soy are great for seasoning the fowl; the oil is something to sprinkle into your rice to make your own spin on the popular orange-hued Java rice.  Waitstaff will go around with a bucket of hot rice with which to refill diners’ plates should they choose to have more.  It’s definitely the place for people with immoderate appetites and modest means.  :D

In Which Pork Chops Get a Sweet Oriental Treatment…

Pork, sauce, and stir-fried veg

Pork, sauce, and stir-fried veg

Ever have one of those days when everything starts to look the same and even the food on your plate seems boring and insipid?  I had one of those recently and I decided to go hunt down something different from my magazine collection to spruce up what we were having for dinner on Wednesday night.

This particular recipe was adapted from an old issue of Donna Hay Magazine and was in the Quick Dinners section.  It involves marinating pork chops in a sweetly spicy mix of ginger, oyster sauce, and oil, pan-frying them, then serving them atop vegetables that were stir-fried in a mix of soy and honey.  Easy enough, yes?  And the end-results are good and flavorful; these make for a good family dinner with rice or with oriental noodles (I’d go for Japanese buckwheat noodles [soba]).

I made a few tweaks to the recipe, seeing how I had to work with what I had in the kitchen.  But let me assure you that it does make for a satisfying meal.  (One tip, though: be sure to tenderize your pork chops before cooking!  Local pork can be so tough no matter how thinly you slice it.)

Sticky Ginger Pork Chops

  • 1/2 kilo pork chops (about 3 – 4 chops)
  • 1/4 cup oyster sauce
  • heaping tablespoon grated ginger
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1 small Chinese cabbage (Savoy cabbage / pechay wombok)
  • 12 – 15 green beans (Baguio beans / French beans), topped, tailed, and diced
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch whisked into 2 teaspoons water

Pound the pork chops with a meat mallet until tender.  Whisk together the oyster sauce, ginger, and sesame oil and rub over the pork until well-coated.  Allow to marinate for at least 30 minutes to an hour.

Heat a frying pan large enough to hold the chops in a single layer over high heat.  Cook the chops 3 minutes on each side; remove from the pan and set aside.  In the same pan, add the Chinese cabbage, green beans, soy sauce, and honey; stir fry till tender and move to a serving dish.  Add the remaining pork marinade to the pan along with the cornstarch slurry.  Stir well and cook over medium heat until thickened.

Place the pork chops over the bed of vegetables.  Pour the sauce over the chops and serve.

Serves 4.

In Which There is an Unusual Dessert from the Visayas…

How the Ilonggos do nilupak

How the Ilonggos do nilupak

Nilupakis the term used for native cakes made from boiled cassava or plantains.  The starchy tubers or fruit are cooked until soft, drained, then mashed into a smooth puree with plenty of butter (or margarine) and some sugar whilst still hot.  The sweetened mash is then pressed into molds – usually square cake tins – and sprinkled over with a mix of grated cheese and granulated sugar or shredded coconut.  This is allowed to cool completely before being cut into squares for serving.  At least, this is the nilupak I grew up with and the sort served by both my paternal relatives from Central Luzon and my maternal relatives from the Visayas in the south.  It is a creamy, moreish, pale-yellow dessert that also has the virtue of filling you up nicely.

So, imagine my surprise when a family friend gave my parents a pair of banana leaf-wrapped packages that fit snugly in the palm of one’s hand and told them that these were the nilupak eaten in Iloilo province down in the Visayas.  These did not look like any nilupak I’d ever eaten: dark brown and solid as opposed to golden and just stodgy; coconut bits studding the surface.

Unlike the nilupak of Luzon and the Eastern Visayas, the one from Iloilo is made with dark brown muscovado sugar rather than the wonted granulated white.  Large, fresh shreds of young coconut meat were mixed in with the mashed sweet potato (or taro root) and no butter was used; this resulted in a rather chunky, nubbly texture in the finished cakes.  These were a pleasant change from the usual nilupak, but struck me as somewhat austere after the creamy richness of the dessert I’m used to.  Nevertheless, I was glad I tried this little treat from the center of the country.

In Which a Fried Bun Claims to be a Caramel Surprise – and Fails…

Pretty wee thing, but...

Pretty wee thing, but…

Walk the talk and talk the walk…  These are the sage words of advice of my new boss to me, words that ring a bell and resonate through the whole of my being.  If you claim to be something or claim to be able to do something, you’d better be ready to dish it up and prove to the world that you can – and you can get away with it.  Otherwise, someone out there is going to challenge you; someone will call your bluff and you will end up doing a sort of walk of shame you’d most likely not recover from.

While these words of wisdom apply to the workplace (and then some), it also applies to food – in particular, any newfangled menu offering that is touted as the sort of thing that makes angels sing praised to the highest heavens.

One such item that claims to do so is the new cookie caramel karimanover at MiniStop.  Like all of the other kariman variants, its base is a slightly sweet yeast bun rolled in panko and deep-fried until beautifully crisp on the outside while fluffy and chewy within.  Most variants are the savory sort (P 26.00 – 29.00 apiece) and are nice for quick meals or snacks on the run.  There are smaller kariman filled with sweet things – jams, compotes, and ganaches – and go for P 10.00 each – and that is where the most disappointing of wee beasties comes in.

...where's the caramel?!?

…where’s the caramel?!?

For all the golden, crunchy, crustiness on the outside, the inside was a testament to all things disappointing.  The chocolate cookie bits within were a tasteless mush and as for the caramel, it was a head-scratcher: what caramel?!  There was just enough for a hint of sweetness and, even then, the flavor was more than a little vague.

I am, seriously, never ordering this again even in a pinch – and I don’t say that about food very often!  Better spend your ten bucks on a cinnamon-apple or Belgian chocolate kariman, but only if they’re available.  Otherwise, just throw in an extra five pesos for a soft-serve cone if you’re craving for something sweet.