In Which We Talk About Street Food…

Rice cakes on the sidewalk

Rice cakes on the sidewalk

Much has been said about street food in various parts of the world.  The dishes and snacks hawked by sidewalk hucksters, peddlers on the road, or dinky roadside stalls have become a way by which city-slickers can grab a quick breakfast on the run, viands to stick in the pantry fridge for lunch, a variety of snacks to tide them through the course of the day, perhaps even a bite to sup on whilst traveling home in the evening.  (And something to keep one from snarling viciously because of the dreadful traffic.)  For tourists, it is a way of literally tasting the wilder, woollier aspects of foreign culture; for locals, it is simply a way of life – and a tasty one at that.

In the more urbanized parts of the Philippines, street food culture begins as early as the wee, small hours of the morning.  Many Filipinos troop down to their friendly neighborhood panaderia for their bread fix: crumb-dusted pan de sal, sugary and buttery Spanish bread, the rather cheekily-named pan de regla with its sweet, scarlet filling.

The Magtataho on the Road

The Magtataho on the Road

Others will wait or seek out their local magtataho – the silken bean curd vendor – with his massive aluminum cans slung over one shoulder like Libran scales.  One can holds the soft, wobbly mass of silken tofu; the other holds a dark caramel syrup in one chamber; tiny, translucent tapioca pearls in the other.  A five-peso coin scores you a small, clear plastic cup; ten pesos scores you a small bowl.  In the past, the magtataho only sold bean curd in syrup.  Nowadays, those plying their trade in the business districts of Makati, Ortigas, Quezon City, and the bustling Bonifacio Global City in Taguig offer soy milk to their patrons.  Customers are spoiled for choice as the soy milk is available plain or flavored with either chocolate or coffee.

If a more substantial morning nosh is what you’re hankering for, there are sidewalk vendors hawking rice cakes and the variety can come as a shock to the indecisive.  There is the basic putong puti (steamed white rice cakes), subtly sweet and tasting slightly of pandan [screwpine leaf] or aniseed.  For a different spin, there may be the fluffy beige-colored puto Binan from Laguna; more like a sponge cake with its airy texture, it gets its characteristic color from the muscovado sugar used to sweeten it.  Those wanting something chewy will probably go for the sticky delights of cuchinta, varicolored sapin-sapin, and biko topped with latik (caramelized coconut milk curds).

Anyone up for tokwa't baboy?

Anyone up for tokwa’t baboy?

Lunch in the city may also feature street food of a different stripe.  Both blue-collar and white-collar workers often eschew the pricey offerings of restaurants and fast-food joints to buy something cheap off the streets.  Some sidewalk vendors do sell plastic-wrapped packets of cooked rice and viands that are not immediately perishable: fried fish, for instance; pinakbet (Ilocano-style stewed vegetables seasoned with bagoong [fermented shrimp/anchovy paste]), pork or chicken adobo, sometimes fried chicken or pork chops.

A typical carinderia storefront

A typical carinderia storefront

And there are the carinderias and the turo-turos; the terms are interchangeable for small storefronts with a display of cooked viands served with rice.  Some may have a few tables and chairs for customers who are dining in; others are just a few rickety tables topped with pots or chafing dishes to display the food.  The concept of turo-turo refers to the way customers can simply point [Fil.: turo] to a dish and the proprietor will measure out a helping thereof into a serving bowl, a plate, or a clear plastic bag for takeaway.

The carinderia is something of a taste of home for many Filipinos who no longer have the time to either cook at home or enjoy a home-cooked meal with their families.  That said, many of these establishments offer traditional comfort foods: kare-kare with its rich peanut sauce (pork for the most part, but if you find one that serves a proper beef kare-kare made with tripe, oxtail, tongue, and beef cheek, get it.  It’s worth the extra ten or fifteen pesos; trust me.), afritada (pork and/or chicken in tomato sauce), mechado (beef larded through with pork fat and cooked in a rich gravy), the local spin on menudo (lean pork and pork liver sauteed with potatoes and carrots), and paksiw na isda (usually milkfish cooked in vinegar with peppercorns and ginger).

Some of these establishments may also feature regional specialties such as the sisig of Pampanga or laing (taro leaves cooked in coconut milk with plenty of red chilies) and gulay na lada (also known as Bicol Express: green chilies and fatty pork cooked in coconut milk) from the Bicol Region.

Tesman’s, a convenience store in the Upper Western zone of the BGC, features dishes from the Ilocos Region in Northern Luzon: bagnet – the deep-fried pork belly and crackling that is a specialty of that part of the country – is chopped up into crunchy, meaty, fatty bites to become dinakdakan (sauteed with green chilies, red onions, and fresh cucumber in a light, sweet, soy-based sauce), bignet (tossed with chunks of fresh tomato, unripe mango, white onion, and bagoong), and a unique spin on tokwa’t baboy (a dish usually made with pig’s ears and deep-fried tofu in a mixture of soy and vinegar; here, it’s pork belly, tofu, and fresh green chilies) that goes down a treat with rice.

In the afternoons, the typical carinderia may also serve snacks such as lugaw (savory rice porridge/congee), banana-cue or camote-cue (plantains or sweet potatoes on wooden skewers and cooked in caramelized sugar), or one form of pancit or another.

Prices are also incredibly cheap, so one shouldn’t be surprised if crowds come flocking in.  One caveat, however: if your carinderia/turo-turo is famous for a particular dish, go early as you might not be able to get any of it when folks come storming in.

A fried chicken cart in Muntinlupa

A fried chicken cart in Muntinlupa

It is when evening falls over the city that the more interesting carts and stalls open up for business.  Nighttime is the domain of the ihawan – the purveyors of grilled meats on skewers that suddenly appear in the streets almost as soon as the sun sets.  The night is also when ambulant carts trundle up and down the streets, particularly in places where there are wet markets and transportation junctions, to offer an interesting selection of deep-fried foods.  For many urban homemakers, the purveyors of grilled and fried meats offer an easy way out with regard to what the family is having for dinner.

It is actually possible to get a bag of fried chicken for a family of six on the streets; while some fussy folks may balk at the possibility of food poisoning and the probable use of double-dead fowl (God forbid!), the chicken is pretty much safe to eat, tastes pretty damned good, and is considerably cheaper than the fowl flogged by the fast-food crowd.  Fried chicken carts also offer a tasty selection of tidbits to nibble on while one is commuting home.

Deep-fried, extra-crunchy chicken skin

Deep-fried, extra-crunchy chicken skin

Chicken skin chicharon – (P 10.00 – 20.00 depending on where you get your fix) deep-fried chicken skin cooked till absolutely crispy and seasoned lavishly – is one such snack.  Some vendors will just fill up a small plastic cup with these savory cracklings and will either ladle over sinamak [chili and garlic-infused vinegar] or sprinkle on black pepper on purchase; others will tuck a measured amount of chicharon into small plastic bags, turn these over to ambulant vendors, and sell them to bus passengers languishing in traffic.

Chicken necks, on the other hand, are dunked in batter, deep-fried, and skewered.  P 10.00 gets you five battered necks on a stick.  They taste good; unfortunately, these aren’t exactly date-friendly for all you hopeless romantics out there.  There’s the issue of spitting out the little bones, after all.  I’ve been told that, in other parts of the country, chicken necks are deboned till all you have is a tube of chicken skin that gets stuffed with minced and seasoned chicken gizzards and livers into a sort of sausage; these are either grilled or fried depending on how the customer wants them cooked.  I’ve yet to encounter this in the Greater Manila Area; methinks a road trip to Central and Northern Luzon may be in the offing…

And there is what is known as chicken proven, so called because it makes use of the proventriculus, or the part of the bird’s digestive system between its esophagus and gizzard.  These gamy-tasting tidbits are well-seasoned, tossed into seasoned cornstarch, and fried in boiling oil till the outside is crackling-crunchy and the insides are all tender.  These, like many fried street snacks, are served with an onion and garlic-infused vinegar.  (You have to wonder at the guy who created this particular street snack; I’m thinking he was probably a veterinary medicine major who sold deep-fried chicken offal to pay for his education!)

An array of grilled things

An array of grilled things

This, of course, brings us to the ihawan.  Much has already been written about the grilled provender sold on these makeshift and sometimes ambulant grills and the variety of things you can chuck into that red-hued marinade is staggering.

It’s really an offal fan’s dream (or an offal-hater’s nightmare) come true: squares of the skin off a pork belly, fatty and rich-tasting; cartilaginous pig ears; those cubes of coagulated pork or chicken blood known as betamax because their appearance calls to mind the videotapes of yore; red, allegedly carcinogenic (if you believe those things the fitness hacks post on social media) hotdogs; greasy and wild-tasting cubes of beef suet [fat], even parboiled and marinated chicken feet that go by the name of a popular brand of Germanic athletic footwear.  There may also be more conventional skewers featuring alternating layers of lean and fatty pork, chicken thigh quarters, maybe even whole milkfish or fresh squid.  And then, there is isaw.

Isaw is a catch-all term for intestines, more specifically the small intestines.  The smaller, narrower chicken intestines are sometimes referred to as IUDs owing to the similarity of their appearance to certain old-school prophylactics.  Larger tubes cut into curvy semi-circles are actually pork intestines and there are actually two schools of thought with regard to the preparation of isaw baboy.  One side adheres to parboiling the offal in one’s marinade of choice till tender before snipping and skewering; the other claims that the innards ought to be rinsed out in vinegar to clean them out and tossing them directly onto the gridiron.  Most of the vendors from whom I’ve bought pork intestines over the years go for the first method, but, either way, you get a charred, meaty-tasting skewer of meat that’s crisp in parts and chewy in spots.  A beer never comes amiss.

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Fruit on wheels

There are also fruit carts or stalls that peel unripe mangoes to order, serving up these tart, jade-hued slices with a side of rock salt or bagoong in a tiny bag.  For those who aren’t into anything so sour, there may be fresh singkamas (jicama) in season, sweet and crisp.  In the summer, there will be slices of fresh melon – watermelon, cantaloupe, even honeydew in more affluent neighborhoods; ripe mangoes, siniguelas (native plums) – all of which are suitable for noshing on the go.  And there are the vendors trundling about wooden carts loaded with green coconuts for refreshing drinks on the fly.

Whatever catches your fancy, chances are, it just might be sold right down your street.

In Which the Desserts Were Divinely Decadent…

You'd be mad to say no.

You’d be mad to say no.

This is what happens when you end a lovely meal, but feel the need for something sweet with which to finish it properly: you ask for the menu, you pore over it with your dining companions, then pick something that you could all share.  Under ordinary circumstances, you’d be torn between getting something light but toothsomely sweet.  However, if you had to wait for a table for the better part of nearly two hours and it’s already pushing half-past nine in the evening, best to make the most out of things and pick out the two most tempting confections amongst the dessert offerings.

At Cafe Mary Grace, there is no shortage of such sugary glories.  You have the classic ensaimadas, those buttery coils of brioche dough, smothered with cream, sugar, and a snowfall of cheese.  There are cheese rolls: something like abbreviated ensaimadas, but every bit as rich and as gloriously calorific.  And there are the cakes: oh, and such cakes!

Caramel Vanilla Bean Cake

Caramel Vanilla Bean Cake

The caramel-vanilla bean cake is a fluffy treat that was introduced as a Mother’s Day special for this year.  Here, layers of soft vanilla bean-speckled chiffon cake\ are layered with luscious ribbons of a house-made dulce de leche which, surprisingly, isn’t too sweet.  The flavours are beautifully balanced and the lush vanilla bean buttercream that covers the whole thing brings all the elements together into a deliciously rich yet surprisingly light dessert.  A cup of milky English Breakfast or, just to add a citrusy counterpoint, a lemony Earl Grey would not come amiss with this.

Share my chocolate cake?!?  Are you mad?!?!

Share my chocolate cake?!? Are you mad?!?!

The second dessert was a rather plain-looking slab of chocolate cake.  But what it lacked in looks, it certainly more than made up for in taste and texture!

If, like me, you grew up during the 1980s/1990s, you’re probably familiar with the lush chocolate-caramel cake from the now defunct Kookie Monster Bakeshop.  Mary Grace’s spin on chocolate cake will certainly bring back happy, glowing memories for you: a dense, gloriously moist chocolate cake; its layers sandwiched with a gooey, rich, absolutely gorgeous and golden caramel filling; the whole cake smothered to the gills with an almost-chewy textured chocolate fudge frosting.  The utterly rich chocolate cake melts in your mouth quite sensually, pleasantly unctuous and gorgeously bittersweet.  The frosting and the filling make it even more so.

If, like some of my friends, you’re a fan of Besotted, that song by The Desert Wolves, you may recall that there’s a line in the song about sharing one’s chocolate cake.  Seriously, if it were this cake, you’d be hard-pressed to share and may be tempted into wanting it all for yourself.  Indeed, my brother and I agree that it’s the sort of cake that deserves a round of applause once you’ve wolfed down every last crumb; yes, it is that good.

Black Velvet

Black Velvet

There is actually a variation on two themes on the dessert menu, a hybrid of sorts between the chocolate cake and a standard-issue red velvet called a black velvet.  Here, the dense chocolate cake is frosted and filled with a tangy, somewhat lemony cream-cheese icing and dolloped with a border of chocolate ganache.

One bite will mess with your head and make you think you were eating a decadent sort of chocolate candy bar rather than plain cake: lush, a little chewy, bittersweet, with an appealing tang.

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

And, of course, any chocolate cake demands to be eaten with a milky mug of coffee.  Whether it’s a latte, a macchiato, or even an old-school cappuccino, it’s a fantastic combination and a spectacular end to one’s meal.

In Which Dessert was an Elegant Chocolate Confection…

Chocolate Verrine

Chocolate Verrine

Chocolate mousse has got to be one of the most popular desserts of all time.  There are as many variations and versions of it as there are ways to tell any old joke: cake-style mousses resting on a layer of firm or fluffy cake; soft, velvety puddings served in glass cups; and layered parfaits featuring mousses made with dark, milk, and white chocolate interplaying with fruit, nuts, and whipped cream.

The version at the buffet over at Inagiku at the Makati Shangri-la is a variation of the second kind: a lush verrine (a dessert served in a small glass) that layers smooth and milky albeit not so sweet chocolate mousse with glittery chocolate-infused rice puffs.  A layer of chocolate sauce, minced pistachios, and a thin yet solid chocolate disc finishes this small but decadent affair.  Not quite the best mousse I’ve ever had, but it was lush and delectable nevertheless.

In Which One Attempts a Tea-Smoked Chicken…

Tea, sugar, chicken...

Tea, sugar, chicken…

The act of smoking meat is a culinary procedure that dates as far back as our hunter/gatherer ancestors as a way of preserving meat, fish, and fowl, making these more portable and more suitable for the nomadic lifestyle of the period.  Over the centuries, it has evolved into a more sophisticated, more flavourful way of preparing meats as opposed to just preserving them.  This evolution led to the creation of delicacies such as ham, bacon, gammon (ham cured and smoked like bacon), and several varieties of sausage.  (By extension, it also led to the creation of the barbecue, but I digress…)

In this day and age, much of the smoked meat products consumed come from four-legged animals: pigs for the most part, boar whenever available, beef cattle at times, and even deer.  Likewise, fish also gets smoked: hence all that tinapa served on Filipino breakfast tables or shredded and used to flavour pots of guinataang malunggay (moringa leaves stewed with smoked fish and red onions in plenty of coconut milk); the lox you get on your everything bagel in the appetising stores of NYC or Montreal; the kippered herrings that are served on buttered toast.

Fowl, however, is rarely represented in the grand scheme of smoking things except possibly here in Asia.  The Chinese, in particular, smoke just about every barnyard fowl that can potentially peck or nip at your ankles: ducks, geese, and, of course, chicken.  But, unlike four-legged creatures that are normally smoked over wood fires, fowl are smoked over a sweeter, more delicate medium: tea.

Chicken or duck are what are most commonly prepared in this manner: slow-roasted over a mixture of black or green tea and sugar, possibly augmented by citrus peel, dates, dried plums, jujubes, and such aromatics as ginger, anise, and cassia bark to get a subtly sweet, smoky taste in the finished product.  Marinating the fowl in a mixture of sweetened soy sauce, sesame oil, and spices further helps the process along.

Plus, if you do this the Oriental way, there is no need to faff about with building a smoker.  If you have a turbo broiler (tabletop convection oven), then laissez les bon temps rouler: you can get a fine dinner dish that keeps on giving…

Marinate, smoke-roast, serve - it's super easy!

Marinate, smoke-roast, serve – it’s super easy!

Tea-smoked Chicken

  • 1 whole chicken
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce (nam pla / patis)
  • 1/4 cup granulated white sugar
  • 1 star anise, broken into segments
  • 2 inches of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
  • 2 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 14 black tea bags
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar

Combine the soy sauce, fish sauce, white sugar, star anise, ginger, and sesame oil in a large bowl.  Rub well over the chicken and inside its body cavity.  Leave the chicken to soak in the marinade, turning occasionally for 8 hours or overnight in the fridge.

Line a square cake tin with aluminium foil.  Place the contents of the tea bags and the brown sugar inside the prepared tin, mixing well with your fingers and evenly spreading the mixture over the surface.

Heat your turbo broiler to 350 degrees.  Place the baking tin with the tea mixture at the bottom of the cooking chamber and set the roasting rack over it.  Place the chicken on the rack.  Cook for 30 minutes, basting occasionally with any leftover marinade.  Turn the chicken and cook/baste another 30 minutes.  Switch off the broiler and leave to cool completely, around 30 – 45 minutes.

Carve the chicken to serve.  Serves 8.

Which came first?  The chicken, the egg, or the omelet?

Which came first? The chicken, the egg, or the omelette?

Incidentally…  Any leftovers can be used to make my nifty chicken sandwich spread or be chopped up finely and used to stuff gorgeous omelettes like the one shown above.  :)

In Which There is a Lavish Pasta Lunch for One…

Lunch is served...

Lunch is served…

I am a sucker for a good plate of pasta.  I don’t care what the carb-shunners and the anti-gluten crowd say: I love the stuff.  To me, it is pure, glorious comfort food.  Rice may be the staple starch in my neck of the woods, but noodles…ahh, noodles are what I crave when the chips are down and the world is with me too much too soon.

Pasta is also a great way of upcycling any leftovers you may have in the kitchen, in the fridge, in the pantry cupboard.  Whipping up a sauce or a stir-fry/pan-fry base out of various edible odds and ends is a challenge in and of itself; a way of encouraging culinary creativity and old-school thriftiness – more so if you’re virtually scraping the bottoms of jars and tins, even more so when you’re prepping something for a solo diner.

A perfectly fried egg, the yolk within still runny, is the  best topping of all.

A perfectly fried egg, the yolk within still runny, is the best topping of all.

Today’s recipe features a dinky little dish I came up with over the weekend.  I was all out of sorts, under the weather, and was craving for something that was anything but bland after a week of somewhat indifferent meals (read: somewhat uninspired cafeteria meals, lacklustre suppers; you know the sort).  In which case, it was time to raid the fridge and get cracking.

What I found: a jar of spicy tuyo (salt-dried fish macerated in olive oil with bird’s-eye chilies, whole garlic cloves, and black peppercorns), a jar of Portuguese-style sardines (just as spicy with bay leaves, peppercorns, and red chilies), a wee bottle of Chilean white (a Chardonnay, to be exact), and some spaghetti left over from Bolognese night earlier in the week.  After throwing in a Spanish-style fried egg (cooked sunny-side up in a mix of olive oil and butter, the edges all brown and crisped-up) and some cheese, it was all systems go.

Note: do NOT eschew the fried egg.  You NEED the fried egg to add creaminess to the finished dish.

Note: do NOT eschew the fried egg. You NEED the fried egg to add creaminess to the finished dish.

Spicy Fish Spaghetti

  • 1 cup cooked spaghetti
  • 1 piece spicy tuyo or 1-1/2 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
  • 1 Portuguese or Spanish-style sardine, finely chopped
  • 1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
  • large clove garlic, crushed and finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons dry white wine
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil or the oil from either the tuyo or the sardine jar/tin
  • 2 tablespoons salted butter
  • 1 tablespoon capers, drained (optional)
  • 1 fried egg, sunny-side up style
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan or aged Edam (queso de bola)
  • 1 tablespoon furikake (optional)

Put a frying pan over medium heat.  When you note steam rising over, add the oil and butter.  Cook until the butter has all melted and begins to brown at the edges.  Add the minced shallot and cook till softened.  Add the garlic and cook till browned in parts.  Add the tuyo, chopped sardine, and, if using, the capers; cook whilst stirring for about two minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and pour in the wine.  Stir well.  Return to the heat and bring to a boil; cook for about a minute.  Lower the heat and add the spaghetti, tossing well to combine.  Remove from the heat.

To serve, plate up the pasta and top with the fried egg.  Scatter the cheese evenly over the egg and leave to melt a little, approximately 30 – 45 seconds.  Sprinkle over the furikake if so desired.  (I do; I love the additional shot of umami it delivers in the finished dish.)  Serve immediately.

Serves 1.

In Which The French Toast Goes Savory…

What came before...

What came before…

French toast – pain perdu – has long been a popular breakfast and brunch dish.  Originally the creation of displaced French housewives living in New Orleans, it has become a morning staple just about everywhere in the world: a sweet, eggy treat that goes beautifully with either coffee or tea.  Most of the time, it’s made with sweet or flavour-neutral breads such as baguettes, brioche, plain white sandwich loaves, and even croissants.  (Have you ever had croissant French toast?  My goodness, the divine decadence of it all!)

However, not everyone has a sweet tooth though there always seems to be a compulsion to crave French toast every once so often.  The solution in this case?  To take an unorthodox approach and use savoury rolls in lieu of the sweet.

...and what came after.

…and what came after.

You can actually use leftover foccaccia, bagels, meat-filled stromboli, and even sliced up calzones or pizza.  Instead of sugaring up your eggs and milk, though, season the mixture with a pinch of salt (use the salt sparingly because your bread is already well-flavoured) and a more generous dash of ground black pepper.  Use a mixture of olive oil and butter in your pan, and you, dear reader, are in for a neat treat to get your day started.

In Which a Favourite Summer Dessert Takes on a Whiter Shade of Pale…

Chowking's Milky White Halo-Halo

Chowking’s Milky White Halo-Halo

Halo-Halo is one of the most popular summer desserts in the Philippines, one that takes a cue from such preparations of ice and candied / preserved fruit common to Southeast Asia such as ais kacang (air batu campur), cendol, and the Vietnamese sam bo luong.  It is, in its most common incarnation, shaved ice mixed (hence the name halo-halo [mix it up]) with plantains, sweet potato, kaong (palm fruit), nata de coco, tapioca pearls, ube [purple sweet potato] puree, coconut shreds, red mung [adzuki] beans, colourful gelatine cubes, and chickpeas all cooked in syrup.  A drizzle of evaporated milk straight out of a freshly-punctured tin finishes it off, though you can make it fancy through the addition of ice cream, custard flan, and puffed rice.

The standard halo-halo is a delight for many, but those of us who prefer simpler concoctions tend to find it overwhelming.  The alternative for us is a simpler preparation made popular by Razon’s, a Pampanga-based restaurant chain that offers the simplest spin on a classic dessert: just shaved ice with sweetened coconut shreds, caramelised bananas, custard, and a drizzle of milk.  Very simple, subtly sweet, it’s the sort of thing that helps a body cool down in the summer heat without resorting to the standard-issue baroque confection everyone else seems to be having.

If there is no branch of Razon’s anywhere near you, the Chinese fast-food chain Chowking offers a passable alternative in the form of its Milky White Halo-Halo.  Similar to the Pampanga-born original, this is a simple combination of bananas, coconut, and custard with milk and ice and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream to finish it off.  Honestly, the chain does skimp on the key ingredients, but when the temperature hits the high thirties, you have to admit it does do the job of cooling you down.