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.)
A hotdog and fries would have to be a classic combination for many of us. There is just something about a sausage-in-a-bun paired with deep-fried spuds that seems to satisfy some sort of primal craving we have.
The standard version of this is good enough for most, but for those of us who want something more substantial – and certainly more spectacular – Bon Chon has something that’s right up our alley.
Bon Chon’s Ko-dog is a game-changer in the sense that it’s a chicken sausage rather than one made with beef. It makes for a lighter yet equally savoury flavour and a firm texture.
But what really sets it apart is that, like the bulk of Bon Chon’s fish and fowl menu, the spiral-cut ‘dog is dunked in batter and fried till incredibly crunchy before being drizzled over with bulgogi sauce and topped with your choice of either cheese sauce and crushed shoestring potatoes or crumbled bacon and finely shredded kimchi.
I say: go for the latter as it calls to mind budae jjigae, the anything-goes Korean stew that features sausages and Spam cooked with noodles in a kimchi-laced broth. It’s all spicy and sweet and crunchy; definitely moreish in my book.
I suggest you also pay a little extra to further embellish your meal with the glorious bowl of carbo-loaded fun that is Bon Chon’s Bibimfries.
This dish takes the concept of bibimbap and turns it on its head. Thick-cut, skin-on spuds are deep-fried before getting doused with ranch and cheese sauces and scattered all over with crispy fried-chicken-skin crumbs and shredded kimchi. Not something for everyday, but it works as an indulgence with an Oriental spin.
That’s the only excuse I can give my dear readers: I’ve been busy. Very much so, as a matter of fact. So much, in fact, that I totally didn’t post anything in September, birthday post included. I think I needed time to get back in sync, find myself, and start over. The bulk of 2016 from February to mid-August had to be one of the most traumatic times – if not the most traumatic time – in my life. Suffice it to say that I am breathing easier now…plus, a surprise opportunity pretty much hauled me out of freelancing and right into a field I’ve always hankered to get into: lifestyle journalism.
But, now: for some food – and serious comfort food at that: ramen, specifically.
A recent grocery shopping trip led me to River Park, the most recent addition to the currently expanding Festival Supermall in Alabang. There are a number of interesting new restaurants, but the one I specifically wanted to try was Ashikawa Ramen Bangaichi.
A branch of a Tokyo-based chain, Bangaichi’s local franchise is held by the same group that runs the Vietnamese chain Pho Hoa. Keeping this in mind, one should not be surprised that the back of the large menu card offers Vietnamese dishes. But, while I’ve become a pho, bun cha, and banh mi fan, I’m not here for Indochinese flavours: I’m here for the ramen!
And a rather large and satisfying bowl of ramen, as a matter of fact. Bangaichi’s butter corn shoyu ramen (Php 340.00) is loaded up with al dente wheat noodles in a rich, slightly porky, wonderfully umami soy-based broth. A knob of butter melting in the hot soup adds a subtle richness that goes beautifully with bright yellow sweetcorn kernels, slivers of slightly tart menma (salt-pickled bamboo shoots), and fresh-tasting wakame seaweed. The bowl also comes with two generous slices of chashu pork: prettily charred around the edges with the char adding a welcome and somewhat nutty bitterness to the sweet, fatty meat.
Call me silly, but my way of eating ramen involves sipping down all the broth before getting down to the noodles et les accoutrements. Once the broth is gone, I sprinkle in some shichimi togarashi for a fiery accent and grind in toasted sesame for some nutty oomph. Toss everything together, and I am a happy camper.
How does this compare to the Sapporo Corn Ramen at, say, Shinjuku Ramen? Not bad, really; while it does not have the almost electric funk of the Shinjuku version (which has a touch of garlic to throw things for a loop), Bangaichi’s corn ramen holds its own very well and definitely is something to come back for on a rainy afternoon.
Ashikawa Ramen Bangaichi – River Park, Festival Supermall, Alabang, Muntinlupa
It’s one of those days: the newly-minted freelance writer has just a bare minimum of professional writing to do, the help has gone on her annual fortnight-long vacation out of town; it’s been raining buckets, and one is in a quandary as to what to cook for dinner tonight.
“I’m heading out to do a cake delivery,” I told my sister yesterday. “Might head to the supermarket to get some ingredients. Three-cups chicken okay with you?”
My sister considered this for a bit and said, “No, but could you try cooking stuffed eggplant instead?”
Stuffed eggplant in this case is not the fabled imam bayildi of Arabic cuisine or the melitzanes papoutsakia of Greek cuisine. No: it’s actually jiān niàng qiézi [煎釀茄子], a type of dimsum served at many restaurants specializing in Cantonese cuisine.
In this case, the slimmer purple Asian eggplants are cut into 1-1/2 inch chunks that are partly split through the middle and filled with a prawn forcemeat. The stuffed chunks are first fried, then steamed and served with a sauce compounded from garlic, sesame oil, and oyster sauce. In some recipes, the process is reversed: the stuffed eggplant is first steamed and then fried. However, the fry-then-steam process works for me, so I stuck to that.
Whichever method you choose, though, the end result is a rich-tasting dish that works better as a main course rather than a dimsum tidbit. Serve this with a large bowl of steaming hot rice to add scrumptious comfort to cold, stormy evenings.
The recipe I used was adapted from the one featured on The Woks of Life. But because several family members are allergic to crustaceans, mine features an all-pork filling and uses the more pungent black rather than white pepper; the filling also featured a tablespoon of rendered lard. Believe me when I say it adds the right amount of punch, loads of flavor, and a much-appreciated richness.
The authors of the original recipe say you can skip stuffing the eggplant all together and use veg stock to make this vegan-friendly. But, given my general aversion towards vegans, – who, I’m sorry to say, are the biggest hypocrites in both a political and a culinary sense – why mess with a good thing if you don’t have to? Oh, but feel free to replace the pork with minced white fish or ground chicken; I don’t recommend doing this with beef or lamb, though.
(Oh, and according to my sister, this dish tastes every bit as good cold and eaten for breakfast the day after.)
For the Stuffed Eggplant:
4 medium-sized Asian eggplants, trimmed and cut into 1-1/2 inch chunks
1/4 kilo ground pork
1 tablespoon rendered lard or bacon fat or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
4 spring onions, finely chopped + additional 2 spring onions, also finely chopped
generous dash of black pepper
1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine ormirin
Additional 2 tablespoons lard for frying
For the Sauce:
1 tablespoon lard
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
1/2 chicken or pork bouillon cube
1 cup water
1 clove garlic, finely minced
ground black pepper to taste
Slit the eggplant chunks lengthwise through the middle, but do not cut all the way through. Just leave enough to form a hinge on one side. Set aside.
Combine all the remaining ingredients for the stuffing until a rough paste is formed. Stuff the prepared eggplant with about 1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons of filling per piece. Chill for at least 10 minutes.
Heat the additional lard in a large frying pan over medium heat. Fry the chilled eggplant until browned on both sides; place the pieces in a heat-proof bowl that can fit comfortably in a steamer. Place three cups of water into the lower chamber of a steamer and bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower heat to a simmer and place the bowl of eggplant chunks in the upper chamber. Cover and steam for 10-15 minutes.
While the eggplant is cooking, make the sauce. In a pan over medium heat, saute the minced garlic in 1 tablespoon of lard and the sesame oil until fragrant. Add the bouillon cube, oyster sauce, and soy sauce. Cook until the cube has dissolved. Add the water, stir, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and add the cornstarch slurry; cook until slightly thickened.
Remove the cooked eggplant from the steamer and pour any juices in the bowl into the sauce; stir well. Put the eggplant in a serving dish, drizzle with the sauce; scatter over the remaining spring onions.
Bánh mì is actually something of an ambiguous culinary term. In Vietnamese, it just means “bread” – as in any kind of bread, but most likely the baguette-like buns introduced by the French when they held sway in Indochina. However, thanks to the Vietnamese diaspora scattered throughout the world, a bánh mì is known to be a small baguette sandwich loaded with everything from rustic liver pate to bits and bobs of unique Vietnamese charcuterie even to such oddities as chicken and pork floss.
I’ve had bánh mì in a number of local Vietnamese restaurants but, by far, the most authentic – and possibly the tastiest – has to be the Traditional bánh mìfrom Bon Banhmi.
This sandwich stand started out with a single shop in San Antonio Village, the heart of Makati’s foodie hipster zone. It has since branched out and has outlets throughout the Makati area. The one closest to me is actually on the twelfth floor of the GT Tower along Ayala Avenue but it offers virtually everything from the original – including a real Vietnamese sandwich mistress running the stall.
Whatever sarnie you choose, though, you can expect it to be good; excellent as a matter of fact. Craving beef? They have one with grilled beef. Pork? Take your pick: roasted with crackling skin on, meatballs, or barbecued. Chicken fans can have one filled with shreds of chicken floss and veg-heads can have a baguette loaded with crisp greens, crunchy fresh cukes, pickles, and cilantro sprigs.
But take it from me: what you want – and what you will eventually crave for – is the traditional. This is Bon Banhmi’s version of the bánh mì dac biet or bánh mì huynh hoa: a baguette stuffed with three kinds of Vietnamese ham or sausage plus pickles, salad greens, and dressing. The meaty triumvirate featured here has cha lua (pork headcheese), cha gio heo (a pork sausage similar to Italian salami or mortadella), and cha thu (red-rinded pork shank ham); and this is aside from the generous schmear of Vietnamese liver pate and a rich, creamy homemade mayonnaise that tastes absolutely lush and buttery. A scoop of daikon and carrot pickles helps cut the porky richness while fresh cucumber and cilantro add crunch and zing.
It really is one of the best sandwiches you’ll ever eat: the bread is crispy from start to finish, keeping its crusty integrity despite the creamy pate and mayo as well as the juices from the pickles and the spicy dressing. Every bite melds together into a refreshingly savory whole and the chef doesn’t skimp on any of the ingredients. Truth be told, it isn’t a bad deal for P 99.00 for a medium or, better yet, P 119.00 for the large. (Get the large; you won’t regret it.)
Grab an iced coffee and settle down for a meal that wouldn’t be out of place in the streets of Saigon.
This is the problem with working in the big city at the height of summer: when noon hits, you find yourself reluctant to brave the intense heat outdoors to grab a bite to eat. Given how hot it is even in the wee small hours of the morning, you’re too flustered to fix yourself a boxed lunch. And, even if you do manage to brave the heat, you find yourself heading to places closer to the office. In my case, this means convenience stores – and you can only go so far before you find yourself dumpling-sick and fried-chicken-sated.
But good things come to those brave enough to go a hop, skip, and jump farther. Thus, it was a serendipitous thing when I found myself trotting over to the food court on the 12th Floor of the nearby GT Tower because that’s where I found Xành Quán Vietnamese Food.
Xành Quán’s stock in trade is a dish called Cơm tấmor “broken rice”; so called, because it makes use of the grains that are broken in the milling process. In most Asian countries, raw broken rice is sold at a lower price and is eaten by poorer folk or used as animal fodder, a base for brewing alcoholic beverages, or as a foundation starch for cosmetics. In Vietnam, particularly in the southern city of Saigon, it is considered a delicacy because of its fluffier, mealier texture and mildly sweet, nutty flavor.
At Xành Quán, you can order broken rice served in the classic Saigon manner (P 150.00) where it is served with slices of sweet grilled pork, a slab of steamed, egg-wrapped Vietnamese meat loaf (chả trứng), and a selection of fresh and pickled vegetables. Personally, I went with the grilled pork chop and fried egg rice (P 140.00); it is a tasty and filling combination. The pork is rather thin, but very tender and has a sweet, savory taste heightened by the addition of sesame oil, annato (hence the golden color), and nuoc mam (fish sauce) in the marinade. The egg adds richness to the dish and is set off beautifully by the crisp, tangy Vietnamese pickles (carrot and daikon radish), along with slices of fresh tomato and cucumber. It is deeply satisfying, yet the flavors and textures are light enough to make it a meal you can enjoy even on the hottest of summer days.
However, in case your appetite is seriously flagging in the heat but you still want something substantial, you can opt for Xành Quán’s take on the highly-popular gỏi cuốn (Vietnamese summer rolls) which go for P 25.00 a piece. Here, fresh herbs (mint and Thai basil), bun (rice noodles), small prawns, and slivers of grilled pork are wrapped in translucent rice paper. The resulting rolls are served with a chili-flecked peanut sauce that adds a fiery sweetness to the bland bun and heightens the fresh, green flavors of the herbs as well as the savor of the meat and prawns. It is also a fascinating play on textures with crunch coming from the herbs and the al dente noodles, the chewy rice paper, tender meats, and creamy dip. Not a bad way to nosh up for the day and a refreshing one, as well.
Xành Quán Vietnamese Food: Art and Food Galerie, 12th Floor – GT Tower, Ayala Avenue cor. H.V. dela Costa St., Salcedo Village, Makati.