In Which a Yoshoku Plate Delivers Some Serious Southern Barbecue…

Osaka BBQ Ribs
Osaka BBQ Ribs

Yoshoku is the collective term used in Japan for western dishes that are given a distinctive local twist.   The most popular examples of this particular culinary style are kare raisu (rice topped with a curry gravy that is much milder than any South Asian original), omuraisu (tomato rice wrapped in a thin egg omelet), and beef hash or beef stew.  The term further extends to American dishes that the Japanese have made their own.

One delectable example I encountered recently are the Osaka BBQ Ribs over at Tokyo Bubble Tea.  Now, while it’s rather unusual to get a square meat at what is, essentially, a teashop, it’s one of my go-to places for lush, proper lunches that are more than satisfying.

TBT’s spin on a Southern classic really delivers in terms of taste, texture, and quality.  A section of pork belly ribs are marinated in a sweet mix of tangy barbecue sauce, a hint of honey, toasted sesame seeds, and soy.  After being grilled to perfection, more sauce is drizzled over and extra sesame sprinkled on top.

So soft, so tender, you can shred it with a spoon!
So soft, so tender, you can shred it with a spoon!

The end result is a section of ribs that fall apart almost as soon as you start prodding it gently with a spoon.  Each bite is delightful: a proper balance of lean meat and unctuous fat, all beautifully flavored by the sauce with a smoky hit from its time on the grill.

The corn slaw  and grilled veg that come with it are an excellent textural counterpoint and the sharpness of the grilled tomatoes are a nice way to offset the sweetness of the pork.  My tip: skip the mashed potatoes and go with the garlic rice for some extra-flavorful oomph in your meal.

In Which a Refreshing Drink Can Help Ward Off Colds (and Other Nasty Infections)…

Sweet and Spicy
Sweet and Spicy

Practically everyone here in my neck of the woods has been coughing or sneezing of late.  The weather is strange: blisteringly hot at noon, bone-chillingly cold at night.  Pollution is at an all-time high, especially on traffic-strapped streets in the big city.  Throw in long hours languishing in the said traffic in a bus packed like sardines with people of varying states of health, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Keeping this state of things in mind, there is a need to amp up the Vitamin C in one’s system to scare off any bacteria or viruses nasty enough to try and take up residence in one’s body.  Oranges, in particular, are plentiful at the moment and are one of the most delicious ways by which to give your immunity a boost.  From domestically-grown green dalandans and their bigger cousins the sintunes to sweetly juicy ponkan mandarins and clementines to the hard-to-peel but honeyed Valencias, they are quite a healthy treat.

Dive into blue
Dive into blue

Ginger is another good, natural restorative and preventive.  Typically prescribed for sore throats, ginger also works wonders for upset stomachs and jumpy nerves.  Likewise, throw in a superfood like acai berries into the mix and you have something that can certainly keep even the most virulent infections at bay.

One tip, though: don’t use standard commercial ginger ale in this.  A pure infusion of ginger or, as in this case, a ginger, lemon, and honey blend can give you more of the health-giving benefits.  Most commercial ginger sodas are, alas, nigh on useless as they are mostly 60 – 70% sugar than actual ginger extract.

Ginger Blue

  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons acai or acai-blueberry concentrate
  • 1 slice lemon
  • juice from 1 ponkan mandarin or clementine
  • 3/4 cup ginger infusion or Ginger Soother from The Ginger People
  • ice

In a large mug, pour in the water and muddle the lemon slice to release the juice.  Mix in the acai concentrate and the mandarin juice; stir till well-combined.  Add 3 – 4 ice cubes and top up with the ginger infusion.  Mix well; serve immediately.

Serves 1.

In Which There are Korean Rice Sweets to Usher in the Lunar New Year…

Baram tteok
Baram tteok

With the Lunar New Year coming up, supermarkets here in the Philippines are all stocking up on tikoy – large translucent discs of steamed glutinous rice dough that are usually sliced up, dipped in egg wash, deep-fried, and eaten for breakfast.  Practically the same thing as Japanese mochitikoy is supposed to symbolise good fortune and prosperity for the coming year.

Unfortunately, as a food, it isn’t very exciting.  Even the kind flavoured with ube (purple yam) and pandan (screwpine) tend to be bland and just faintly sweet.  Again: not a very exciting thing to eat and bother the fact that it represents good fortune and wealth.

For those of us who are just so done with tikoy, Korean grocers here in the Philippines offer several interesting variations on the classic glutinous rice cake.  Baram tteok, shown at the top of this post, is one of them.

These are half-moons made by folding discs of steamed glutinous rice dough over a mildly sweet, slightly nutty-tasting red bean [adzuki] paste (an in Japanese).  The pink ones are tinted with food colouring, but the dark green ones in the bottom row are flavoured with green tea or a blend of edible herbs.  The resulting deep-green cakes have an exterior whose flavour has a pleasant bitterness that is balanced by the bean paste within.

Kyeottok
Kyeotteok

For those of you wanting something chunkier and more substantial to sink your teeth into, kyeotteok may grab your fancy.

These are slabs of steamed glutinous rice dough over which a sumptuous, lightly sweetened topping is scattered.  The mixture scattered over kyeotteok can be a simple mix of sweetened beans and nuts; more elaborate confections may also include jujubes and oriental dates, perhaps some shreds of dried peach or apricot and diced dried persimmon for a honeyed sweetness.  The resulting cake is then sliced into more manageable slabs for serving.

May I just say that both are particularly comforting and satisfying when eaten with a good cup of green or jasmine tea,  or perhaps a mug of bittersweet and citrusy yujacha.  Whichever you prefer, these Korean rice cakes make an interesting alternative to a traditional Oriental sweet.

Incidentally…  For those who want to try these Korean desserts, I bought them over at Sun-Han Korean Mart on the Ground Floor of Fort Palm Spring, 1st Ave. corner 30th St., Upper West Side, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig.  The baram tteok goes for P 100.00 for a tray of nine pieces; the kyeotteok is P 25.00 for a tray of four slabs.

In Which We Talk About Lechon

Bring on the PIG!
Bring on the PIG!

It is a dish that borders on the medieval in the sense that it calls to mind the whole roasted beasts that were part of a lord’s banquet table.  It is, likewise, a touch of the baroque in that it has become the symbol of pure, glorious, gluttonous indulgence.  A whole pig spit-roasted for hours over coals; the fat dripping into the fire and sending up smoke that permeates and flavours the meat; the skin cooks to a deep mahogany colour and shatters crunchily with a sharp tap of a knife.

This is lechon, a true staple of festive tables in the Northern and Central Philippines.

There are those who say that it was the Spaniards who brought the dish to the islands, a variation of the cochinillo [roast suckling pig] that appeared as the main course for feast days.  The term itself – lechon – is derived from leche or milk as piglets were the animal of choice for cooking.  Others, however, claim that this pork roast is a purely Asian thing and was probably brought to the Philippines by the Chinese or by Balinese traders in the pre-Hispanic era.  Of course, indigenous peoples such as the Ifugaos of the Mountain Provinces and the Aetas of Pampanga will beg to differ, whole roasted pigs being part of their culinary heritage since time immemorial.

We ate all the skin; now for the meat...
We ate all the skin; now for the meat…

While there are many origin stories regarding lechon, it is a point of mutual agreement among Filipinos that a proper roast pig should be spitted on a bamboo pole and cooked long and slow over either an open fire or a pit filled with super-heated charcoal.  The points of contention, however, include what to baste the pig with, what to marinate it in or with, and even whether or not to stuff it.

In northern provinces, the body cavity of the cleaned and trimmed pig is simply rubbed through with rock salt, perhaps a sprinkle of freshly-cracked black pepper; a few dry bay laurel leaves tucked here and there.  This results in mildly-flavoured meat, its natural sweetness coming to the fore.  The tender pork is served with a sweetish sauce compounded from pork liver, brown sugar, and vinegar.

Those from the Visayas region, like my late maternal grandmother who always ordered lechon from her hometown of Tacloban in Leyte province, prefer flavourings that are a little more robust.  The standard Visayan marinade includes salt, chopped white onions, black pepper, and fragrant lemongrass.  The Waray people of Leyte add pandan [screwpine] to this exotic bouquet garni stuffed into the body cavity for a temptingly floral fragrance; sometimes, ginger takes pride of place to remove any residual gaminess from the pork and garlic is thrown in for additional savour.  Warays also prefer to eat their lechon with a side of char-roasted taro instead of rice; they also dip the meat into a mix of soy sauce and native vinegar.  In Cebu, on the other hand, tamarind leaves are added to the bouquet garni to add a mild and pleasant hint of tartness to the meat and some lechoneros add sliced green chilies for heat.

Now, regardless of which part of the country you’re from, the first thing that gets eaten off a lechon is the crispy crackling skin  Unfortunately, in many cases, that’s pretty much all that is eaten off the pig at the actual feast.  All the leftover meat is carved up, put into plastic containers and divided amongst relatives to take home.  Which brings us to the conundrum of what to do with leftover lechon…

Got lechon? Chuck it into your sinigang!
Got lechon? Chuck it into your sinigang!

The standard-issue course of action following a feast with a whole lechon is to transform all the leftover meat into paksiw na lechon.  In this “throw everything into the pot and mix” dish, leftover lechon is hacked up into bite-sized portions and cooked down till meltingly tender in a sauce made from the liver sauce (sarsa) that came with the pig, vinegar, brown sugar, whole peppercorns, garlic, and bay leaves.  Sweet and delectable, pretty much like a Southeast Asian version of pulled pork, it goes down a treat over rice.  The paksiw technique works best with the milder-flavoured Luzon-style lechon, though Waray lechon also works well.

Inventive housewives in Central Luzon, on the other hand, mince up all the leftover pork and crackling, toss it with vinegar, onions, and chilies to make a shortcut sisig served on smoking-hot cast-iron platters.  I also know people who shred leftover lechon and stir it into char siu sauce for stuffing into char siu bao [siopao] or for stir-fries.

Recently, a relative pointed us in the direction of sinigang na lechon.  This combines lechon with tamarind-soured sinigang – always a classic Filipino comfort food; Filipino expatriates are known to burst into tears at the faintest whiff of the tamarind-scented broth – for a dish that takes the “love food, hate waste” ethos to another level.  Here, the bashed-up pork is simmered down in a clear broth soured with tamarind paste (or, who are we kidding?  An instant supermarket-bought mix will do!) with fresh green veg.  The smoky taste and umami richness of the pork balances the acidic taste and character of the soup and the finished dish is a delight when either ladled over steaming-hot rice or simply savoured from an individual bowl.  That said, Visayan lechon with all its herbaceous and spicy flavour notes would work best for this dish.

So what’s your family’s lechon story and how do you deal with the leftovers?  :)

In Which an Ensaymada was a Welcome Change…

Ensaimada con manzanas y una taze de chocolate espeso y sabroso
Ensaimada con manzanas caneladas  y una taza de chocolate espeso y sabroso

Happy New Year, lovelies!

I know that I was off the radar, so to speak, for virtually all of December.  It has been a busy time: work deadlines to meet before going off on vacation; lots of baking for family and friends; shopping for presents, for ingredients, for comfort.  It has been a busy time and I daresay I’ve been lucky to get some rest.  However, this Season has also given me time to think: while I am earning a more than decent wage in advertising, I have been wondering about options outside of a field I’ve been involved in since I was seventeen.

The landscape of the advertising and PR industries here in the Philippines and throughout the rest of the world has changed a great deal in over two decades and many of these changes have not been pleasant.  The field has become less open to proper creativity: many campaigns run more to how much interest can be drummed out of the public and, consequently, how much can certain products earn for Big Business as opposed to a creative legacy that can fire up the minds of another generation.  There is a great deal of ruthlessness, a horrible amount of backstabbing and in-fighting within and among agencies.  I was seventeen when my career in this field began; I’m 39 now – and I learned the hard way that there is more to life that the monetary bottom line or corporate one-upmanship.

In the past year, I’ve done things I didn’t expect to do at all.  I’ve released a book on my own and am now preparing another for publication this year.  I have been mentored and I have mentored others in return.  I’ve begun to contemplate going into business for myself…and taking it seriously, as a matter of fact.

But a final decision hangs in the balance for now.  In the meantime, I want to take a break from just about everything.  And so, I found myself trotting out of the house for an ensaymada and a mug of hot chocolate over at Cafe Mary Grace.

But such an ensaymada! Rather than the standard-issue butter-rich coiled bun smeared with more butter and snowed under with grated cheese, this one came to the table topped with a chunky, cinnamon-spiced apple compote on top of a bun grilled long enough to torch the cheesy, sugary topping into a bruleed crust that crackled as I cut into it.  The apples were a crisp contrast to the softness of the bun and the cinnamon added just enough oomph to keep things from getting too sweet and stodgy.  Plus points to the fact that it came to the table hot all the way through.

Oh, and the chocolate?  A classic cup of chocolate Mexicana spiked with cinnamon and ground chilies; a warming and invigorating thing to sip on a day that turned out chilly and rainy in southern suburbia.  Its spicy bitterness was the perfect counterpoint, playing against sweet and tart.

And as I sat there nibbling through my ensaymada and sipping the chocolate, I tried to gather my thoughts together into something more cohesive.  No one, of course, knows what the future brings; heck, even the best psychics and cartomancers can’t tell us what will happen next.  But I will go through this year with a plan in my head and a map in hand…and then we’ll see what happens next.

In Which Breakfast is a New York Classic…

Time for a cappucino...
Time for a cappuccino…

You know the drill: wake up at the crack of dawn, throw yourself into the shower, throw some clothes on, dash out of the house, sally into traffic, and still get to work late.  This is the scenario that has become all too familiar to anyone who lives in the Greater Manila Area these days.  Things are bad enough that you end up eschewing breakfast all together just so you could try to get to work on time.  Of course, when this happens, you get to work with a very bad temper and an achingly empty belly – and that’s never a good thing.

Because I’ve been told to stop starving myself (not that it’s ever helped me lose any actual weight), I have to eat something at the start of the day.  Otherwise, my energy levels will flag and I will be bloody surly two hours into the workday.  Today, because I wanted to spoil myself a little after the stress of the past four months, I decided to grab at bite at The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf where I got a breakfast that’s a throwback to the appetising stores of the more heavily Jewish districts of New York City.

...and a bagel.  With a schmear of cream cheese.  And lox...LOTS of lox...
…and a bagel. With a schmear of cream cheese. And lox…LOTS of lox…

I ask you: can there be anything – and I seriously mean anything – better than a warm chewy bagel split through the middle, smeared over with cream cheese, with thick coral-hued folds of belly lox (cold-cured salmon belly) piled upon it?  It is the breakfast of champions in my book and one that I find a necessary indulgence to guard against the worries of the day.

Have salad, will travel.
Have salad, will travel.

It is a most satisfying thing: smoky and salty; creamy smooth because of the cheese yet crisp and sharp because of the vinegary shallots sprinkled on top of the fish.  Sure, it’s not something I can have every day; but, whenever I do, it is more than necessary fuel.  It puts a smile on my face and, for a little while, I forget the stress at the office and I don’t miss my best friend/sounding board.  For a short while, I can forget that I have CFS and I feel strong and I feel like I can do anything.  For a short while, I can be just a shade happier than I normally am in these rough days.  And speaking of that friend…

It’s Dragonfly Collector (Clem Castro)’s birthday today.  The video above is from a performance at the Boiler Room earlier this year where he performs the title track of his album The World is Your Oyster.  Incidentally, his The World is Your Oyster – Philippine Tour wraps up in Puerto Princesa on Saturday, 12th December 2015.  If you find yourself there, he’ll be playing at Katabom.  Go say hi and congratulate him for me.  :)

In Which Lunch Was a Respite from Everything…

Udon set, anyone?
Udon set, anyone?

After everything that has happened over the last three months, I’ve made it a point (and rather pointedly, so to speak) to pop out of the office at lunchtime.  It has become more than a break for me; it is an hour’s respite from everything.  It is time for being something other than a copywriter at her desk and glued to her laptop.  It is my time, my hour; and I don’t have to talk to anyone.  I can experience new things, taste new foods; rest up a little and clear my head.

One such solitary meal was over at Tenya recently and I enjoyed it most thoroughly without anyone breathing down my neck and telling me “Oh, you should stop eating fried food!” or “Oh, you’re getting fat!” or “Carbs are so bad for you!” or “Why eat alone?  You have us; we’re your friends.”  Please: my friends are virtually all outside the workplace – and, unfortunately, I haven’t seen most of them in ages.  Anyway, eating alone at Tenya was a welcome respite from everything and with good reason.

Tenya’s All-star Tempura Udon Set is that reason.  Here, you get a basket of mixed tempura – all fresh from the fryer, all crispy and crunchy and good – with a bowl of rice, tentsuyu (mirin-based dipping sauce into which you stir in grated daikon radish and ginger), and a bowl of thick, chewy udon noodles in a shoyu  (soy sauce) broth topped with sliced scallions.

This, in my personal opinion, is pure and simple comfort food.  You get quite an assortment in your basket: prawn tempura and crabstick; kakiage loaded with baby prawns, green bell peppers, and sweet onions; tender squid and buttery salmon; green beans; and – what came as a revelation – enoki and bunashimeji mushroom dipped in batter and made deliciously rich and earthy by frying.  Pure yum.

The udon was deliciously simple: the noodles just al dente and held up beautifully in the sweet-salty broth; a touch of shichimi togarashi further helps to brighten the flavours and makes it more interesting.  Definitely a meal I would order again…especially if things get too hairy for comfort at work again.