An ode to chicharon
Having spent part of my youth in the Philippines, I find myself frequently missing Filipino food. Tonight, I find myself craving chicharon (pork rinds), so much so that MOTL had to google ‘how to make chicharon’ in order to see whether chicharon is hard to make. (Apparently, it isn’t. All you need to do is boil pork skin then deep fry it).
Whenever I think of chicharon, I think of languid summer days in April and May spent with childhood friends playing at the pool at Tita Linda’s house. Tita Linda, my mom’s best friend, generously opened the doors to her house every summer, allowing us kids to wreak havoc in her swimming pool while our mothers gossiped at the sidelines, lazily chatting underneath the persistent whirs of the overhead fan.
When my playmates and I grew tired of diving and playing tag, we joined our mothers to eat merienda (snacks). Usually, there was Magnolia or Selecta ice-cream, featuring flavours considered exotic to the Canadian palate, such as cheese ice-cream and ube (purple yam) ice-cream. Though I occasionally ate ice-cream, relishing my ability to slurp ice-cream drippings from the hole I punctured with my teeth at the edge of the sugar cone, I was more into the savoury snacks.
Like clockwork, different kinds of chicharon were invariably part of the snacks we could imbibe. Bought fresh from the R. Lapid’s chicaron stand located at the South Superhighway close to Aling Nene’s barbecue stand (yet another childhood staple), the chicharon our mothers bought were so fresh that when you took them out of the transparent plastic bag that held them, they were still so hot, so crispy, and so juicy with fried pork fat.
Ever the glutton, even as a child, my preference was chicharon “with laman” (i.e., deep fried pork skin with pork meat). Other versions of chicharon include those that only have pork skin and those that include pork intestines, to name a few. These, I felt, were inferior to chicharon with laman, which I remember biting into, feeling the crispy, dry chicharon flakes disappear into my tongue, followed by the equally crispy but more substantial meat. Sometimes, I dipped the chicharon in a vinegar, onion, and garlic mixture, thereby amalgamating the salty, sour, and acidic flavours. To top it off, I would drink a tall glass of Coke with ice. Seeing that Coke has country-specific formulas, the Coke I remember drinking in the Philippines was sweeter and somehow more earthy and thus, a better accompaniment to chicharon than the version of Coke we have here in Canada. Maybe this is because it has less corn syrup? I’m not sure. In any case, chicharon with coke was always my go-to indulgence as a child. Judging by how much my tummy is grumbling right now, how I wish I could eat some now.
Dinner party adventures: on the challenges of vegetarian cooking and serving tripe
Last week, MOTL and I threw a combined dissertation defense/ farewell party for KK, who accomplished what most of us hope to do eventually: she escaped from the trenches of the ivory tower and also landed a fantastic job that allows her to teach, travel, and research. Being a caustic, judgmental shrew on my best days, I would hate KK if she weren’t so generous and so humble and so darn nice; she’s one of the few people who I can say deserves every bit of sunshine and success that comes her way. The other caustic, judgmental grad students in my program share how I feel: we are all really happy that KK is now officially a doctor and is therefore better than us. (As an aside, please note that KK’s standing has also increased with banks; after receiving her fancy schmancy title, her bank offered to increase her credit limit. This, along with better seats in airplanes and in restaurants, is really one of the few perks of being a PhD. The trick, of course, is not to tell people that you have a doctorate and not an MD. Otherwise, if you try telling people you actually have a doctorate in what the wider public will consider an obscure field, like Political Science or Geography or Anthropology, you will most likely get a confused head-tilt.)
Because I have a death wish, I felt that it was incumbent upon me to throw KK a dinner party. Why just have a regular party with light snacks when I can serve dinner? And why not serve Filipino food? After all, I catered a pig roast for MOTL’s 28th birthday party two years ago, which had 30 people in attendance; surely a dinner party for fourteen people would be a piece of cake.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t entirely the case. At issue was the fact that half our guests were vegetarian. The question then became how to adapt Filipino ingredients to fit vegetarian palates. For those of you who know Filipino food, you know all too well the difficulties of doing so because Filipino food is quite reliant on pork for flavour and texture. (One of my minor quibbles about Lamesa Filipino Kitchen, in fact, pertains to their vegetarian entrees. They rotate their menus weekly but I’ve noticed that their vegetarian entrees never change: they always serve ginataang gulay, which leads me to suspect that they, too, are stumped on how to cook good Filipino vegetarian food).
I did so by serving vegetarian pancit canton. This was an unmitigated failure. While our guests were nice enough to consume it, I was quite dissatisfied with this dish. What gives pancit canton flavor is the addition of chicken stock, and bits of pork and chicken. Vegetarian stock didn’t taste hearty enough. The addition of soy sauce just made the noodles more lumpy. Also, though there were lots of vegetables (mainly carrots and string beans), the texture felt uniform.
I also served vegetarian spring rolls, vegetarian samosas, and a bean salad. These were not objectionable but were not terribly exciting. I have to admit that these were last-minute additions to the menu, which showed a lack of culinary creativity on my part.
My non-veg dishes fared better. My chicken adobo was a hit. I marinated the chicken overnight in a pot consisting of soy sauce, cane vinegar, bay leaves, and peppercorns. I must say that using cane vinegar rather than rice vinegar made a difference because the resulting marinate was more acidic and provided a better contrast to the soy sauce. Afterwards, I lightly browned the pieces of chicken in a skillet, and then had these simmer in another pot that contained the aforementioned ingredients in low heat for three hours. The result was tasty chicken that fell of the bone.
We also served kare-kare, which I quite liked. Made with peanut sauce, vegetables, beef, and tripe (which served as a substitute to ox-tail), the kare-kare had a rich, thick, sweetness to it that worked perfectly when eaten with a side of bagoong (shrimp paste). Alas, I underestimated the willingness of our guests to try tripe. While the pieces of beef and vegetable were eaten, the tripe remained. Also, some found the raw bagoong too pungent. Perhaps this was a case of false advertising: after all, I said that this was “Filipino beef curry,” so maybe seeing pieces of tripe in the mixture was off-putting. If I had to serve kare-kare again, I’ll have to make sure to omit tripe.
Overall, I learned the following lessons:
1. I really need to integrate better vegetarian dishes. I read somewhere that anyone who says vegetarian food is boring just isn’t a good cook. To some extent, I agree with that. One has to be more creative and be more willing to think outside the box to serve good vegetarian food.
2. I need to ascertain the comfort level my guests have when trying different food items. Tripe may be fine for Filipinos but the mainstream Canadian palate seems to think that this is too exotic. Same goes for bagoong. I have to remember that I also have dishes that I find too exotic. These include, but are not limited to, chicken feet, balut (boiled, fertilized egg), and insects. A good dinner party host gauges her guests’ palates and makes adjustments accordingly.
In Praise of Lamesa Filipino Kitchen
There seems to be a lot of misconceptions about Filipino food here in Toronto. There are some who write in blogs that will remain unnamed alleging that Filipino food is the ugly sister of Asian cuisine. (Whoever wrote this is forever on my shit-list. Beyond the obviously misogynous implications of this analogy, how ignorant does a person have to be to make that claim? Does this person not know that there is a wide variety of Filipino food and that making such a broad generalization on the basis of one meal is moronic?). There are those who think that Filipino food is AMAZING, but only when done in the traditional manner. And there are those, such as the proprietors of The Purple Yam restaurant in NYC (http://www.purpleyamny…) who see that the time is right for different, non-traditional interpretations of Filipino food.
The proprietors of Lamesa Filipino Kitchen belong to the latter. The controversy that has emerged from Lamesa primarily concerns its ‘modern’ take on Filipino food. Sadly, most of its detractors have yet to set food in the restaurant. Once they do, they might find themselves pleasantly surprised.
In a nutshell, this was, by far, one of the best restaurants in Toronto. I was impressed that they decided to do away with the trappings of standard Filipino restaurants, such as pictures of the Last Supper and carabao figurines. The interiors were sleek and spacious, with bright white walls and an impressively ornate gold ceiling. The service was exemplary - not too obtrusive but extremely friendly and warm, with each server making sure that clear explanations accompanied each dish.
At Lamesa, you can order a la carte or you can eat from the tasting menu. The menu varies weekly, giving the chef the opportunity to flex his culinary muscles and try different creative dishes.
Tonight, the menu started with an amuse bouche of corn soup with bacon, which was a perfect amalgamation of creamy and salty.
Then there was the halo-halo sisig, which definitely did not have the pork ears that are found in traditional sisigns but still maintained sisig’s essence by providing crunchy pork and a fried egg. Welcome additions were tomatoes and a wonton-like cracker. When combined, this provided great texture. The flavours worked. The lemon that was provided with the dish gave the saltiness a delightfully citrusy taste. My personal preference would have been a little bit more spice.
The mains were great. The beef rib kaldereta was unlike any kaldereta I’ve had at my grandmother’s house. The beef was tender and succulent and so full of flavour; the carrot-pineapple puree that accompanied it complemented the beef, and the bits of potato were great touches. This kaldereta was so good that, at $24 a la carte, it felt like a steal - similar beef ribs served in more expensive, ‘mainstream’ establishments like, say, Canoe do not have the same level of complex flavours.
The pork belly adobo was also good though this felt more like pork liempo rather than the traditional adobo. But hey, who am I to quibble? It was orgasmic. The crunchy skin of the pork was especially scrumptious; the black garlic puree, the ginger, and the sweet garlic that served as accoutrements elevated the dish. My only concern was that towards the end, the crunchy skin lost a bit of its, well, crunch, but it could just be that I was taking my time talking and drinking, rather than getting right to business and eating.
The fourth course was their interpretation of a key lime pie, this time with calamansi. It was fine. MOTL loved it but I don’t have a sweet tooth so I’m not the best judge of these things.
The fifth and last course - the jackfruit creme brulee - was the highlight. The surface was nicely coated with caramelized sugar but what lay underneath was impressive! Langka (jackfruit) made into creme brulee is the work of geniuses! Who would’ve thought that this would work? I devoured mine, only giving MOTL a tiny bite. He had an empanada with plantains, which tasted good, but in my blissful state devouring the jackfruit creme brulee, I barely bothered to pay it any heed.
Additional highlights were the cocktails, which were each roughly 12 bucks each, which meant that this was standard for Queen street. We each got the Lolo and the Lola cocktails, which were yummy (and quite strong)!
For someone who eats in my fair share of restaurants, Lamesa was, by far, one of the best meals I’ve had in Toronto.