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Tita Cely: the mother of Pinoy buffets |

Food and Leisure

Tita Cely: the mother of Pinoy buffets

TURO-TURO - TURO-TURO By Claude Tayag -
If there’s anyone who can claim to have started the eat-all-you-can phenomenon in Manila, it’s this big-hearted lady from Lipa, Batangas – Cely Kalaw.

As far back as 1970, she opened a four-table hole-in-the-wall carinderia in the garage of an uncle’s house on Oregon St. in Malate. Her brother, Kuya Itring, was the cook and her mother, Nanay Angge, cashier.

Six months later, The Grove – Luto ng Inay, a full-fledged restaurant, opened on M.H. del Pilar St. in Ermita. The mother of all Pinoy buffets was born, which was then still unheard of in Manila, offering some 54 different dishes, all with a Batangas twist. Among her loyal habitués back then were journalists Jullie Yap, my mentor the late Abe Aguilar Cruz (restaurateur Larry Cruz’s dad) and my own father Katoks Tayag (who first introduced me to Tita Cely’s cooking when I was still studying at UP Diliman in the mid-’70s).

Many years later, when I became a professional artist myself, I, too, became a habitué at the Grove, this time at its P. Burgos St. branch in Makati, which later moved to Pasay Road. So I can truly claim that I’m a second-generation Tita Cely fan. This was during the time I was hanging out with the erstwhile Thursday Eating Club, with fellow foodies Glenda Barretto of Via Mare, caterers Ely and Cecile Aurelio, Nancy Reyes Lumen of Cook Magazine, Louie and Nina (nee Daza) Puyat, Yves Remondeulaz of Sigafredo Café and Richard Ching of the Manila Bulletin.

Quite recently, Tita Cely opened her Sinigang Bar at the Save-a-Lot food court along Pasong Tamo Ext. in Makati City. Though no longer the eat-all-you-can buffet, she still serves the best home-cooked food as before. It’s the kind of food most Pinoys will not tire of having everyday. It is honest, unpretentious and straightforward, and reasonably priced at that. It’s much the same kind as Tita Merce’s in Clark (Philippine Star, Nov.13, 2002), but at Tita Cely’s, the Batangueña in her is evident.

Her specialty (aside from the sinigang, of course) is the sinaing na tulingan sa kamias. This is no ordinary seafood dish, as one true-blue Batangueño will attest. It’s much like the paksiw na isda, but the similarities end there. Tulingan, being of the tuna family, is bled dry, then slow-cooked in a palayok for three hours. It is flavored with sun-dried kamias, an ingredient perhaps only the Batangueños use. It is similar to sun-dried tomatoes, with its acidic flavor becoming more intense as it is dried.

Other specialties are the adobong puti (no soy sauce added), pork binagoongan, ginataang langka, sanglay na tilapia (pechaywrapped and cooked in coconut milk) and many more.

Going back to her famous sinigang, her serving of maya-maya fish comes with lato (fresh seaweed), while the sugpo is served with asparagus tips. Hers is a truly dynamic sinigang that speaks of the Pinoys’ ever growing preference for fresh ideas in food.

As for dessert, one has a choice of her bilo-bilo (that’s pinindot for Batangueños, ginataan for the Tagalogs, sampelot for the Kapampangans), the made-from-scratch halo-halo, with its ice silken shaved (not crushed coarsely by machine), or the deadly saging saba served with shaved ice and capped with a Nestlé Créme topping.

By the way, if you’re planning to go there, better make it early to beat the lunch crowd. Still and all, the long queue is worth the wait.
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Tita Cely Sinigang Bar at the Save-a-Lot food court, along Pasong Tamo Ext. in Makati City, is open Mondays to Saturdays, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.. For inquiries, call 812-8371.

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