It’s been five months since I last posted in this blog. This is not to say that I’ve scrapped it entirely; indeed, my current line of work has made me even more enthusiastic about food, cooking, and dining out.
It has been, to be perfectly honest, a roller-coaster year. There have been some serious downs and equally serious ups: triumph and tragedy all on a single plate. My paternal grandmother, the last of my grandparents, died at the end of November. Paired-off friends broke up, single friends found partners, and – alas – I found myself estranged from the person whom I still consider one of my very best friends. Too many words said and left unsaid, again. But I’ve made new friends, met lots of new people, gone to numerous places, and eaten my fill of amazing dishes cooked by some of the best chefs.
I’ve learned a great deal about food over this past year thanks to interviews I’ve done for work and also because of a number of chance meetings that came about because I love traipsing through the city for new gastronomic treats. I daresay there is still so much for me to learn.
In the meantime, bear with me. I’ve hardly had time to write for the blog, but if you follow me on Instagram, I daresay the photos and the tempting descriptions of my latest culinary projects and restaurant jaunts will be worth the visit.
Twelve years of food writing; still here, still hungry, still writing.
It’s been a very busy three or four months since my last post.
I’ve settled in nicely at my current workplace and have managed well through my first five issues with the magazine. While there was a rather depressing incident involving the misspelling of someone’s name, it’s been a rather fulfilling and satisfying time.
However, that’s also meant that I haven’t had at all that much time with which to update the blog. This doesn’t mean, of course, that I’ve been too busy to cook. On the contrary, that’s something I’ve been doing a lot of lately.
And so, this salad. This takes inspiration from the horensou-bacon (sauteed spinach with bacon) I love from Tori Ichi, a yakitori joint over at the new wing of the Festival Supermall. The sublime salty, smoky flavour of the bacon goes down a treat with the spinach; just that and a mound of hot rice is just heavenly.
But since spinach isn’t exactly available all the time here, I’ve used kangkong (swamp cabbage / water spinach) to pretty much make the dish at home. I must say that it is rather savoury and, yes: it also goes well with hot rice.
Easy Warm Kangkong and Bacon Salad
1 bundle kangkong, stems finely chopped and leaves set aside
6 strips fatty bacon (trust me; you do not want to use the lean kind here), diced
1 small red onion or shallot, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
In a pan over medium heat, cook the bacon until the fat has rendered and the meat has browned a little. Remove the meat from the pan; set aside.
Saute the onion in the drippings until softened; add the garlic and cook till browned a little around the edges. Add the chopped kangkong stems and cook till crisp-tender, about five minutes. Add the bacon and cook an additional three minutes or till the bacon is crisp around the edges.
Reduce heat to medium-low and add the reserved leaves. Cover and leave to cook for about two minutes, just enough to wilt the leaves. Add the balsamic vinegar and toss the kangkong and bacon till well-coated. Remove from the heat and season to taste.
(Oh, and by the way: I’m back and blogging…if a trifle sporadically.)
I’m a chai fangirl: there is just something so soothing about this classic Indian beverage. Maybe it’s because it involves milky tea which I love; or maybe it’s the combination of spices in each teashop’s chai masala that does the trick. Maybe it’s both, but regardless thereof, chai is one of my favourite drinks but it is so hard to come by in this part of the world.
Many coffee bar chains have it – CBTL’s version is deliciously reminiscent of spice cake batter – but most versions are best when served hot. Until recently, I had yet to taste a decent iced version of chai. Well, at least until I ordered the one at Sweetea’s.
Sweetea’s by da.u.deis the brainchild of Filipina tea master Renee Sebastian. The governing impetus behind the original teashop and its food hall spin-off involves educating local palates that there is more to tea than the dinky wee bags sold in supermarkets and grocery stores. Sweetea’s, in particular, offers a delicious range of iced teas at fairly reasonable prices – a touch higher than more commercial franchises, but definitely of a higher calibre and exceptional quality.
Sweetea’s streetside masala chai (Php 190.00 for regular; Php 220.00 for large) is my go-to drink. Made with da.u.de’s Icy Spicy herb-and-spice tea blend, it makes for a very compelling sipper. You get a nostril-tickling hint of black pepper that is absent from many commercial chai blends and one that puts this version on the proper side of authentic. There is also a faintly floral-fruity hint of orange zest, but this one tastes properly of cardamom (green and black) which gives it a very pleasant spicy-nutty flavour. Blended with the proper proportions of milk and brewed tea and not too sweet, this tea holds perfectly well as the melting ice does little to dilute its lovely flavour. Definitely something I’d order again.
Sweetea’s by da.u.de: The Food Hall @ SM Megamall Fashion Hall, SM Megamall, EDSA, Mandaluyong
Long time readers know this about me: if there’s a new place to nosh, I’m on it; I’m there. More so if it’s a franchise of some foreign place I’ve only read about, say, on Serious Eats, Food 52, BuzzFeed, or Lucky Peach. In this case, I had to head for the Halal Guys to see what all the hubbub was about.
The Halal Guys started out as a dinky wee food cart in Manhattan in 1990 when its founders ran a hot dog cart on the southeast corner of 53rd St. and Sixth Avenue. Having been raised in the Middle Eastern / Mediterranean tradition of big, substantial meals, they figured that the lunch crowd probably found hot dogs unsatisfying for a midday meal. They ended up serving grilled chicken over rice with Mid-eastern sauces; the rest, as they say, is history.
I decided to start the meal with a classic: falafels. Php 99.00 gets you a four-piece serve that, if you’re peckish, can stand in as a light meal. These are hefty chickpea nuggets that are absolutely moreish: properly seasoned with just the right hint of earthy cumin to go with the nutty lentils that make up the mash. A splodge of white sauce – their spin on classic tzatziki – adds a tangy, garlicky touch.
Most people who have reviewed HG in this part of the world complained that the falafels they got were cold and stodgy. I think I was one of the lucky few who got a batch fresh out of the fryer as mine were hot, crisp on the outside, and creamy-chunky within.
I followed this up with a regular gyro platter (Php 299.00) – and found that I’d probably bitten off more than I could chew, so to speak, as the portion was massive. Here, gyro meat is shaved off the chunk revolving on a kitchen spit and scattered on top of a tasty, orange-hued rice pilaf along with fresh lettuce, tomatoes, and sliced pita.
I confess: I was disappointed. I wasn’t sure what meat had been used in the gyro; I mean, I wasn’t sure if it was lamb, beef, veal, or a combination thereof. While it was grilled nicely with a proper char that crisped the outside, the texture reminded me of commercial lunch meats or cold cuts. Also, one could only have one sauce on top; you’d have to pay extra for an additional dollop – not cool in light of the fact that the original HG carts let you have extra sauce for free. Still, the rice and fresh veg were very good and just needed sauce to make it a meat-free meal.
I am not going to let this misstep stop me from going back, though. I am seriously intrigued by the chicken on fries and the basbousa (semolina and almond cake) on the dessert menu. Likewise, maybe I’ll just opt for chicken or falafel on my platter next time.
The Halal Guys @ SM Fashion Hall: 5th Floor – SM Fashion Hall, SM Megamall, Ortigas Centre, Mandaluyong
I daresay I’m pretty lucky to be working with people who love food as much as – or possibly even more than – I do. It usually results in plans to head out of the office on a Friday evening to grab dinner and [occasionally] a few drinks. In doing so, we find ourselves trying new restaurants or discovering new dishes and treats from old favourites. There are many ways of enjoying a Friday night out, – some better, some worse – but, really: this is the one I’m sticking to.
One particular Friday night outing found us snaffling up an Uber ride to Century City Mall where the Hole in the Wall food hall features an amazing selection of cuisines to tempt even the pickiest tastebuds. Once there, we made a beeline towards Bad Bird.
Bad Bird’s piece de resistance is its umami fried chicken: chicken that is steeped in a flavourful marinade before being rolled in seasoned flour and panko. These deep-fried beauties are gorgeously crunchy on the outside (yes, the skin crackles loudly whenever you take a bite), deliciously succulent within, and – sans exaggeration – have a definitely moreish flavour.
The chicken comes in three levels of spiciness: normal which has a rather miso and nori sort of flavour profile, spicy which has the somewhat citrus and capsicum heat of shichimi togarashi, and the totally worrying chemical. I don’t have the gall to sample the chemical level which I hear really sends zings up and down one’s esophagus, so I just stuck with the spicy and was not disappointed.
Considering that I got a breast portion (you know very well I’m more of a dark meat sort of person), I found it very good: juicy and not at all dry, the meat having soaked up the pleasantly piquant marinade to the smallest fibres. Hefty and just this side of fiery, it was a delicious way to kick-start the weekend.
And it isn’t just the chicken that wins prizes at Bad Bird as the sides are anything but shabby. The stall adds an Asian twist to a classic from the American Deep South: their chicken and waffles plate (Php 320.00) plates up the umami fowl with sweet potato waffles slathered with nutty-tasting miso butter and a generous drizzle of real maple syrup. Definitely a go-to dish for people who crave for something sweet but not so sweet as to be considered dessert.
Savoury-cravers like myself, on the other hand, would do well to grab the dirty rice plate (Php 350.00). Here, the chicken is accompanied by a generous bowl of fried rice made absolutely flavourful and divine by the addition of bacon, chicken liver (!), and katsuoboshi shavings that give it a distinctive surf-and-turf vibe (well, coop and coast to be more accurate.) The plate is rounded off with an equally generous portion of house-made kimchi. The tang and almost fruity taste of the chili-pickled cabbage is just the thing to cut through the rich flavours of the chicken and rice. Definitely something to return to some other weekend.
Bad Bird: Hole in the Wall Food Hall, 4th Floor – Century City Mall, Poblacion, Makati
“Do you drink gin?” my colleague asked on a Tuesday afternoon just as things were winding down for the day.
“Sure I do,” I replied. Truth be told: gin is something like a personal introduction to alcohol for me. I remember stealing sips of my dad’s or my paternal grandfather’s gin and tonic when I was very young. But there’s a family joke that, to quieten my kicking in my mother’s womb, my mom had to down a G&T to shut me up…so I guess you could say gin and I go a way back – a long way back, actually.
When I was in college, I’d volunteer to sample gin cocktails whipped up by the HRM upperclassmen who were like big brothers to me. Whenever they were prepping for an exam in bartending (yes, there is a university class for bartending!), the way they muttered the names of each cocktail was like listening to a litany of sublime – and somewhat forbidden – delights: gimlets, martinis, Singapore slings, lime rickeys, Negronis… Unfortunately, by the time all my on-campus big brothers graduated, their successors – my batchmates and those a year or so behind me – were mad about mixing gin with instant grapefruit drink powder to make the infamous pseudo-cocktail gin pomelo. Needless to say that I washed my hands of the lot.
But back to the present: aforementioned colleague invited me to come along for a mixology event for Hendrick’s Gin at the Makati Shangri-La featuring mixologist Tasha Lu, the product’s brand ambassador for the Asian region. This fun, fabulous femme regaled us and everyone at the bar with three amazing cocktails.
Hendrick’s, before I go on, is a gin with a twist. Aside from the traditional mix of juniper and other botanicals, this particular distillate features Bulgarian roses and English cucumber to add a deliciously floral nuance with a fresh bite. As a result, this is a gin that lends itself to getting mixed with both strong and subtle flavours to add an innovative punch to traditional cocktails.
First up: the fresh-tasting gin garden. This cocktail features Hendrick’s gin shaken with fresh pineapple juice, torn cilantro [green coriander], lime juice, egg white, and a dash of cracked black pepper. It is a bright, refreshing drink: sweet but not cloyingly so, sharp without ripping a hole down your throat. The addition of black pepper at the end brings out the floral character of the base alcohol and adds a spicy, exotic aroma.
The fairy tale is a very girly concoction that will probably go well with ladies who sip Cosmopolitans. It’s a bright pink drink that combines the gin with a roasted juniper infusion and a poached rhubarb shrub; a dash of simple syrup adds a tad more sweetness and a rose petal is used as a garnish.
It’s a touch too sweet for me; personally, the simple syrup is overkill on my tastebuds. But I can see this cocktail’s appeal for those who don’t care much for the taste of gin. Nevertheless, it’s quite tasty and dangerously easy to drink…if you have a killer sweet tooth.
But Lu’s ultimate Negroni #2 was, hands-down, my favourite drink of the night. This bittersweet sipper features Hendrick’s gin and a host of bitter and sweet mix-ins. Along with the bitter Campari and sweet red vermouth that make up the traditional Negroni with the gin, Lu tossed in splashes of Aperol, an Italian aperitif made with bitter orange and rhubarb, as well as that infamous amaroFernet-Branca. Served over ice, this spin on the Negroni gives drinkers an additional dash of drama by appearing with a torched and glowing stick of cinnamon lightly resting on the rim of the glass as a stirrer.
Perfectly balanced, I consider this a great drink with which to unwind with friends at the end of the day.
I guess, for all intents and purposes, I’ll always be a gin girl.
It goes without saying that a good steak is one of the finest dining pleasures in the world. And by “steak” I mean a prime piece of beef: not pork, not chicken, not fish, and definitely not that horrendous slab of plant-based detritus the vegan terrorists are trying to talk us into eating. No, a proper, bloody steak.
When cooking at home, the cut of choice is a proper rib-eye: gorgeously marbled, preferably bone-in, meltingly tender, and cooks to a wonted medium in minutes on a very hot grill pan. When dining out, however, a filet mignon is just the thing to suit beefy cravings when one is feeling indulgent. And, once in a blue moon when nice dinner invites are accepted, there’s proper tenderloin.
A tenderloin is found on the lower back of the animal, usually the portion closest to the kidneys. In traditional butchering, the cut is further divided into three: the butt end which is shaved for carpaccio, the tail end which is minced fine for steak tartare and beef Stroganoff, and the eye from which the actual steaks are cut.
A tenderloin steak is at its best if cooked rare to medium rare: that way, you get the full impact of the ferrous tang of the meat tempered by the rich, buttery fat. Any more and you’ve needlessly toughened up the meat. Also: real gourmets know that a lean tenderloin is a curse against both God and humanity – what the hell is wrong with all those lean meat junkies?! You need that fat for flavour, for the love of everything holy!
Truth be told, a good tenderloin needs but a good sprinkling of salt, a faint dusting of pepper, and a small knob of butter melting upon its still-steaming, nicely charred surface. Mashed potatoes are a must, buttered veg is de rigueur. Truffle butter – or any other flavoured butter – is a matter of personal taste. But I say: bring it on, et laissez les bon temps rouler.
Oh, and a proper red is just the thing to wash it down.