Eric Akis: Fabulous flavours of the Philippines

Mashup of Spanish, Chinese, Indian and Southeast Asian gives Filipinos a fusion cuisine to call their own

Eric Akis

You know you are in for a fine meal when you open a restaurant’s front door and amazing aromas of something delicious cooking wrap their arms around you and pull you in.

That happened to me recently, but I was not entering a restaurant, I was stepping into Victoria’s Philippine Bayanihan Community Centre. It’s a busy place that’s needs to be equipped like a restaurant, because of the wonderful food they cook and serve there year round.

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This centre is a gathering place for Filipino Canadians living in or visiting Victoria, as well as their families and friends. Bayanihan means working together, so it’s not surprising that this centre also provides access to resources and support to those in need, including seniors, and promotes Filipino cultural and social values and traditions.

Those traditions include celebrating their centuries-old cuisine and introducing non-Filipinos, such as me, to it. I was at the centre at the invitation of one of its many volunteers, Lorina de Lara Miklenic.

When I walked in the door, she and four of her fellow volunteers, Norma Duy, Lita Enriquez, Leonor Santos and Connie Custodio, greeted me. They were dressed in traditional Filipino attire and welcomed me with their warmth, kindness, humour and cooking skills.

I learned from them why some people call Filipino food the original “fusion” cuisine.

For more than 300 years, up until 1898, the Spanish, who brought with them their culture and foods from home, occupied the Philippines. Asian countries, such as Malaysia, China, Japan and India, have also influenced Filipino cuisine. And, of course, local taste preferences, available ingredients and its tropical climate have also influenced the foods served.

When you bundle all those influences together, you end up with one of the world’s tastiest cuisines, with numerous must-try and eat-again-and-again dishes. I think that’s why the volunteers who hosted me at the Philippine Bayanihan Community Centre struggled a bit when deciding what to make for me.

In the end, they served me one of the Philippines’ most famous, Spanish-influenced dishes, adobo, which was prepared by Custodio. In her version of adobo, which can vary from region to region in the Philippines, pieces of chicken were marinated with such things as vinegar, soy sauce and loads of garlic, before being braised until divinely delicious.

The other very tasty dish they served me was ginataang gulay, which was prepared by Santos. It’s a Southeast Asian-influenced creation where squash, beans and okra are simmered in coconut milk and infused with ginger, garlic and fish sauce.

Everything was so flavourful, including the tropical fruit served for dessert. The latter included atis, which is very sweet and has an almost custard-like texture, which is why, in some places, it is also called a custard apple.

If I have whetted your appetite to try Filipino cuisine, below are recipes for chicken adobe and ginataang gulay that were provided to me by Custodio and Santos. I’ve expanded their original recipes to include additional information that will make them easier to prepare at home. Both recipes will serve up to eight, so keep that in mind when preparing them. You could also try halving the recipes.

If you don’t feel like cooking, though, the very best way to try a wide range of Filipino foods is to attend the Philippine Bayanihan Community Centre’s annual Mabuhay event. This year, it takes place on Saturday, June 16, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in Victoria’s Centennial Square. This fun, free-admission event will combine the centre’s annual Filipino food fiesta with the marking of the 120th anniversary of Philippine independence from Spain.

Be sure to come hungry to Mabuhay, because you’ll be able to purchase a wide range of Filipino food, such as adobo, barbecue pork, lumpia (spring rolls), pancit (Philippine-style noodles) and rice dishes. During the day, there will also be lots of entertainment and other activities, including dances, singing, fashion shows, games, cultural exhibits and activities for children.

To learn more about Philippine Bayanihan Community Centre and Mabuhay, go to bayanihan.ca

Chicken Adobo

Adobo is one of the most popular, traditional, not to mention flavourful, dishes served in the Philippines. This version is made with chicken, but pork is also used. Filipinos prepare it no matter where they live, and when you try it, you’ll soon understand why. Serve it with steamed rice.

Preparation time: 20 minutes, plus marinating time

Cooking time: About 50 minutes

Makes: Six to eight servings

1/2 cup white vinegar

1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp regular soy sauce (see Note 1)

2 or 3 Tbsp dark soy sauce

1/4 tsp ground black pepper, or to taste

2 tsp brown sugar

2 bay leaves

8 or more garlic cloves, peeled and chopped

4 to 5 lbs bone-in, skin-on, chicken drumsticks and thighs (see Note 2)

2 medium potatoes, cubed, then boiled, steamed or fried, until just tender (optional)

Make marinade combining vinegar, soy sauces, pepper, brown sugar, bay leaves and garlic in a bowl large enough to hold the chicken. Add the chicken and toss to coat. Cover, refrigerate and marinate chicken for a few hours, or even overnight. Turn the chicken occasionally during the marinating process.

To cook chicken, set it and the marinade in a large, wide pot (mine was 12 inches wide). Set pot over medium-high heat. (It won’t look like there’s a lot of liquid in the pot, but as the chicken cooks, moisture will release from it.)

Bring chicken to a gentle simmer. Lower the heat to maintain that simmer. Cover and cook 30 minutes, turning the chicken pieces occasionally. Uncover and cook 10 minutes, turning the chicken occasionally. Add the potatoes to the adobo, if using, and cook, uncovered, five minutes more, or until the chicken is cooked, the sauce around it has thickened a bit, and the potatoes are hot. The chicken is now ready to be served.

Note 1: I used Kikkoman soy sauce in this recipe, which is lighter in style. Some dark soy sauce is also added to further richen the adobo’s colour and flavour.

Note 2: When I tested this recipe, I used eight medium to large chicken thighs, and eight medium to large chicken drumsticks.

Eric’s options: Any leftover chicken can be reheated and served the next day. It could also be frozen for another time.

Ginataang Gulay

This inviting Filipino-style vegetable dish sees squash, green beans and okra simmered in coconut milk, infused with ginger, garlic and fish sauce. Serve with steamed rice.

Preparation time: 40 minutes

Cooking time: About 25 minutes

Makes: Six to eight servings

2 lbs. kabocha squash, quartered, seeded, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes (see Note 1)

2 lbs. green beans, stems end trimmed, each bean halved

1 lb. fresh okra, stem ends trimmed (see Note 1)

1 Tbsp vegetable oil

1 small onion, diced

1 Tbsp crushed garlic

1 Tbsp thinly sliced fresh ginger

2 (400 mL) cans coconut milk, such as Aroy-D brand (divided)

1 large jalapeño pepper, finely chopped (optional)

• salt and fish sauce, to taste (see Note 2)

Steam or boil squash until just tender, but still solid and holding its shape, about six to eight minutes. Set squash on a wide plate.

Steam the beans, or cook them in a generous amount of boiling water, for two to three minutes, until bright green and just tender. Drain beans well and set on another wide plate.

Steam the okra, or cook them in a generous amount of boiling water, for one to two minutes, until bright green and just tender. Drain okra well and set on a third wide plate.

Place the oil in a large, wide pot (mine was 12 inches wide) set over medium, medium-high heat. Add the onion, garlic and ginger and sauté a few minutes, until aromatic. Add one can of the coconut milk and the jalapeño pepper to the pot, if using. Bring coconut milk to a boil. Add the other can of coconut milk to the pot and return to a boil. Season coconut milk mixture with salt and fish sauce, to taste. Add the squash, beans and okra to the pot, heat them through a few minutes and then serve.

Note 1: I bought kabocha squash and okra at Fairway Market in Victoria. You might also be able to find them at the Root Cellar. Other types of peeled, cubed squash will also work in this recipe. If you can’t find fresh okra, you could use frozen, thawed okra. Because frozen okra is blanched before being frozen, you won’t have to steam or boil it before adding it to the coconut milk mixture.

Note 2: Fish sauce is sold in bottles in the Asian foods aisle of most supermarkets.

Eric’s options: You could cook the squash, beans and okra a few hours before adding them to coconut milk mixture and finishing off this dish. If you do that, once they’ve cooled to room temperature, cover and keep them refrigerated until needed.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks, including seven in his Everyone Can Cook series. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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