Filipino chefs and producers are quietly engineering the country’s culinary reawakening.
Manila may well be the Philippines’ hottest foodie destination. Being in the city is to experience first-hand that irresistible frisson of excitement as a new generation of chefs work together to transform a country’s cuisine. But even as its capital flies the flag for the Philippines’ culinary reawakening, a host of producers and chefs from less-talked-about cities are quietly turning the focus back to the land.
This is seen not only in the growing number of farm-to-table restaurants, but also in the creation of artisanal foods such as cheese and chocolate. It is a nascent movement, but one worth examining as travellers seek paths less beaten to indulge adventurous appetites.
Cooking from the land
In Pampanga, long regarded as the culinary capital of the Philippines, restaurants like 25 Seeds are bringing together history, heritage and local produce in the most delicious ways. Opened in October 2016, 25 Seeds is well-known chef Sau Del Rosario’s ode to Pampangan cuisine.
Much of its produce comes from the restaurant’s backyard and local farms situated within a five- to 10-km range. These are parsed into modern renditions of Filipino classics like seafood red curry kare kare, traditionally a ground peanut-based stew made with oxtail, beef or tripe; and sisig paella using Japanese rice, chicken liver and kamias (what cooks in Singapore and Malaysia know as belimbing, a sour fruit from the starfruit family).
The expansive 1920s property upon which the restaurant sits is the ancestral home of a Deycacio family. It had fallen derelict for over 50 years as family members migrated to the United States, leaving squatters to strip bare the once grand mansion. Chef Del Rosario personally decorated its restored interiors, returning to it a lived-in warmth with carefully chosen books, dark wood-panelled floors and plush banquette seats. It is now run by his two partners, chefs Chloe Cauguiran and Eric Rivera.
25 Seeds is but one of Chef Del Rosario’s efforts to preserve and serve Kapampangan cuisine. His Café Fleur in Angeles City serves time-honoured dishes that capture the comforting tastes of Filipino favourites tinged with the distinct flavours of his extensive travels. He is also part of Culinaria Pampanga, a group of renowned Kapampangan chefs who work to preserve old recipes and highlight Kapampangan cuisine.
Bean to table
Over in Cebu, Raquel Toquero-Choa plumbs her childhood memories to build a successful chocolate business that’s earned her the moniker “The Chocolate Queen”. Brought up by her grandmother in the Balamban mountains, her fondest childhood memories are of sipping sikwate, the Cebuano version of hot chocolate, as her grandmother read her stories. Sikwate is a Filipino tradition that sees tablets of raw, processed chocolate called tablea de cacao steeped in hot water and then frothed by rolling a batirol (a wooden instrument much like a rolling pin) between the maker’s hands to release the cocoa butter into the drink.
Her grandmother also taught the young Choa how to plant, harvest, ferment, dry and roast cocoa beans to make tablea. It is a task she continues to perform often as part of a dramatic soliloquy at her Casa De Cacao in Mabolo, Cebu City. At this chocolate heritage centre set in a grand old house, Choa takes guests on what she calls The Chocolate Journey, talking them through the inspiration behind her chocolate business before demonstrating how tablea de cacao and subsequently sikwate is made.
“Tablea-making is a Filipino treasure, especially in the Visayas (one of the country’s three main islands). But it hasn’t been given much importance. That’s why I wanted to elevate the tablea,” said the elegant 42-year-old as she poured freshly-made sikwate into porcelain teacups. She continues to make tablea the way her grandmother taught her—entirely by hand—and is constantly working to take it beyond traditional sikwate and champorado (chocolate rice porridge), to chocolate products like chocolate bars.
Today, in addition to the Chocolate Appreciation Tours at Casa de Cacao, Choa produces chocolates made from homegrown coffee beans under her label Ralfe Gourmet, and has a retail outlet called The Chocolate Chamber in Cebu City. “Beyond learning new techniques to transform cacao beans, I feel like I could fulfil a bigger purpose,” she said. “I want to help elevate Filipino chocolate, support cacao farmers and put the Philippines on the world map of chocolate making.” The latter she plans to do through the Cacao de Filipinas Fellowship (CFF), which she founded.
Through the curd
In Davao, another Filipino company is not only making award-winning bean-to-bar chocolates, it is also working to put Filipino cheese on the world map. Cheesemaker Olive Puentespina of Malagos Food Inc. began making goat cheese when she and her husband decided to buy 30 goats. The herd grew to 100 within three years and the couple found themselves with more goat’s milk than they knew what to do with.
“I guess my science background kicked in,” said Puentespina, who majored in animal science in university. “I wanted a symbiotic relationship with the goats.” Her first forays in cheese making sent her down a bit of a rabbit hole. “I called a former colleague at the Dairy Training and Research Institute to teach me the necessary skills, which then led to seeking help from a Swiss cheese master.”
Making cheese proved to be backbreaking work, especially in the punishing tropical heat. Traditional European cheese, after all, is made in far lower temperatures, which Puentespina circumvented with much trial and error.
Fast forward almost 10 years and her regular experiments have yielded several varieties of goat cheese, including pineapple chevre, which for a while was exclusively served to business class passengers on board Philippines Airlines. Today the Malagos Farmhouse range of cheeses includes feta, goat’s milk ricotta, cow’s milk cottage cheese, pressed mozzarella and blue cow’s milk cheese, all of which are distributed across the Philippines in delis, hotels, restaurants, and retail stores.
Puentespina’s passion for cheese-making continues to transcend her business success. “I can’t stop making new types of cheeses,” she says with a laugh. “My kids will give me suggestions and I just want to try something new all the time.”
Certainly, these are early days for producers such as Puentespina and Choa, whose chocolates and cheeses have garnered attention for the Philippines, signalling the country’s proud culinary evolution. They have some ways to go before they stand toe to toe with the giants of their industries on the international stage, but by embracing their heritage and imbuing their food products with their unique stories, there is no doubt that the next decade will see the Philippines rise as a coveted culinary destination.
Where to stay
In Cebu, the sumptuous Radisson Blu ticks all the right boxes when it comes to location, amenities and dining. Located a short drive away from the airport and right beside the popular SM City Cebu Mall, the sprawling property offers ravishing views of the Mactan Channel from its 400 spacious rooms. The service is as quietly plush as its goose-feather pillows and memory foam beds, which go towards explaining why this is the hotel of choice for visiting dignitaries, including the country’s President.
In Davao, Park Inn by Radisson makes for a great base with its location just 15 minutes by car from the city centre. The cheerily appointed 204-room hotel offers all the mod cons the urbane traveller needs, including complimentary high-speed Internet and individual climate control. Its all-day dining restaurant, RBG, serves excellent renditions of Filipino favourites, including special Boodle Fight meals during the Kadayawan festival. A Philippine military tradition, Boodle Fight meals see tables lined with banana leaves and laden with rice and Filipino favourites such as sinigang, kare kare, salads, roasted pork and plenty of desserts—all meant to be eaten with your hands.
HUES, the restaurant at Park Inn By Radisson, Pampanga almost gives guests reason not to venture out for a meal. Its chefs dish out excellent Filipino delicacies including their signature blackened chicken and ox tongue kare kare served with bagoong (fermented local anchovies). The vibrant 154-room hotel is located just 8 km from Clark International Airport and sits close to Nayong Pilipino, a historic cultural and amusement park, and Clark Sun Valley Country Club where visitors can enjoy a round of golf.
The writer’s trip was sponsored by the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group. This article was first published in Wine & Dine’s Mar/Apr 2018 issue – Wonder Women.