The Philippines will forever hold unique memories for me. At the beginning of the year, I spent the best part of January living and travelling throughout this diverse country whilst filming a reality cooking show with the Asian Food Channel and the Philippines Tourism Board. It was the opportunity of a lifetime to visit more remote regions, often overlooked by popular tourist routes. Our 100-member crew travelled to the dry, desert-like Illocos Nortes, where we sand-boarded down massive dunes and competed in an empanada cooking challenge. We then moved to rural Pampanga, where its legacy as a rich sugar plantation region still resonates in the bold flavours of its local cuisine. We flew to windy Bicol and cooked under an active volcano in a challenge to recreate the local favourite – Bicol Express. We battled it out catching live fish and cooking for a group of 20 guests in Cebu. The trip was truly a defining moment in my life and career, and I’m proud to say I now also have friends in the Philippines. Here are some of the highlights from my amazing journey:
Molave Lane, Acacia Estates, Ususan, Taguig City, 661 7703 / 0915 2901001
I first met Chef Tatung when standing outside the Church of Saint Augustine under the hot Illocos Norte sun. It was our first official day of filming, for the first episode of The Amazing Food Challenge, and none of us knew what to expect. Then out comes this jovial, somewhat shy chef, who’s beaming smile puts us all at ease. Chef Tatung was one of the guest celebrity chef judges during our cooking competition in Illocos Norte, and I really appreciated and respected his valuable insights into Filipino cuisine. Once back in Manila, fellow contestants Tim and Connie and myself, had the pleasure of dining at Chef Tatung’s as a prize for winning one of the cooking challenges. Tucked into a quiet, genteel neighbourhood within bustling Manila, Chef Tatung’s serves up some of the best Filipino food I’ve tasted thus far. Tim and I still reminisce about Tatung’s signature dish of coconut vermicelli wrapped in taro leaves and blanketed in crab fat. This is also where we tried the infamous balut, a duck fetus encased in an egg. This was actually better than expected, however I needed the assistance of a few glasses of chilled fermented sap from the coconut flower, to wash it down.
This iconic regional dish was one of our mystery dishes during our cooking competition in Bicol. Named after the train from Manila to Bicol, a region famous for its spicy cuisine, the Bicol Express is an addictive blend of green chilli, pork and coconut milk. When layered over rice, it really can be described as one of the great comfort foods of Filipino cuisine. We cooked this dish at the site of an old Catholic church, destroyed by a volcanic eruption more than a hundred years ago, and sits under the shadow of the active volcano. To add to the drama, we cooked here while in the midst of a windstorm and with dark rain clouds overhead. Our ingredients kept on being blown away by the wind, and we had to construct a mini fort out of placemats around our gas burner just to keep the flame burning. But it was all worth it, as my team won the cooking challenge for the best Bicol Express!
This is perhaps the most iconic dish when people think of Filipino cuisine. You can find lechon everywhere in the Philippines. This spit-roasted pork belly is beautifully marbled with thick layers of gooey fat, all wrapped up in a crispy layer of blistered crackling. Traditionally roasted over a charcoal-flame and infused with a variety of local herbs and spices, Lechon makes an appearance at every feast and special occasion. The texture reminded me of babi guling in Bali, and suckling pig in Hong Kong.
Our editor-in-chief, Alicia Walker, also visited the Philippines for the AFC extravaganza and here are her favourite restaurant picks:
387 P. Guevarra St. cor. Argonne St., Addition Hills, San Juan
, 1500 Manila, Philippines, +632 705 1874
The renowned chef Laudico is known for his innovative Filipino flavours and serves them up in an all-hours-buffet for a casual, fun dining experience. Set in a grand colonial house converted into a restaurant with charming outdoor area set a twinkle with fairy lights. The veranda is decorated with plain white plates signed by the diners that enter their doorway and some of the dishes on offer are delicious chili garlic alimasag, beef caldereta, breaded spicy pepperys, seafood okoy, annatto rice, and mango salads. Their philosophy is all about using the fresh ingredients of the Philippines to create delicious flavours that are both modern and make use of traditional Pinoy cooking techniques.
Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila CCP Complex, Roxas Boulevard, Pasay City 1300 Metro Manila, Philippines, +632 551 5555
Having just undergone a US $11 million renovation, the results are nothing short of stunning. This restaurant gives off an aura of old world beauty with a sweeping spiral (hence the name we assume) staircase that forms the centrepiece in this expansive eatery. Classic and comfy seating in either the main area off the vast kitchens or under the glass ceilinged lounge with views of the garden, pool and seaside. The restaurant is divided into 21 ateliers (meaning artisanal workshop), these include a glass temperature controlled cheese and cold cuts room, chocolate making room and a bakery, all preparing masterful goods right before your eyes. You simply pop your choices on your plate and carry on to the next station. The cuisines on offer cover the full international range with everything from Pinoy to Korean to Japanese to curry and beyond. There is probably no cuisine not catered for in this impressive arena. A drink cart roves around the restaurant with vials of different coloured juices to be mixed and matched at your table. Best take your appetite with you when you visit Spiral because you will want to sample it all, or better yet, stay in the Sofitel and try it a few days in a row.
Read more of Celia’s food adventures here: www.girlmeetscooking.com