New York’s Purple Yam now in Manila
Ching M. Alano (The Philippine Star) - July 31, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - You won’t miss the little white house with its old-world charm at 603 Julio Nakpil corner Jorge Bocobo, Malate. That old (newly renovated) house is now home to Purple Yam, which couple Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan just brought in from New York, where they run the first Purple Yam restaurant (before that, they had Cendrillon in Manhattan from 1995 to 2009).

You gingerly climb a flight of stairs and, in a New York minute, you’re met by Amy Besa with a smile as bright as sunshine even as foreboding dark clouds are starting to gather outside. Fact is, there’s a lot to smile about in this resto that’s gone the extra mile to bring Filipino dishes (and culinary techniques) that are fast disappearing from our tables and that even us Pinoys know little or nothing about.

Amy Besa and her husband/business partner, chef Romy Dorotan, will be remembered as the authors of Memories of Philippine Kitchens, which won an international cookbook award, the IACP Jane Grigson Award for Distinguished Scholarship in the Quality of Research Presentation. Sharing a consummate passion for food, glorious Filipino food, New York-based Amy and Romy are back home (eventually for good, says Amy) to cook for their kababayans and let their taste buds discover what Filipino cuisine is really all about.

It’s all about flavors,” Amy tells us, and at once, my eyes are riveted on an array of bottled vinegars lining a cabinet — mango, tamarind, kaong, etc.. “What I want to try is to make Philippine food exciting not just to foreigners but to Filipinos themselves because most people always think of Filipino food only in terms of dishes. There’s adobo, sinigang, kare-kare, and then what usually happens is people tend to say, ‘Oh, my adobo is better than yours’ or ‘My mother’s sinigang is better than your mother’s.’ I find that it becomes very divisive when you think that way. So, I want to veer the discussion away from just dishes and move to flavors. Because, when you’re dealing with flavors, you’re dealing with ingredients. So, you’re looking now at abodo made with different vinegars, with different flavors. Then you can play around with your adobo. Look at all the vinegars that we have. The principle of vinegar is sap or fermented juice, so anything with sugar will ferment. Our flavors in this country are really based on sourness, and I think what distinguishes us from most Southeast Asian countries is our love for sourness. When you eat adobo, the vinegar kicks you in the face. And that’s how adobo should be. I am dismayed when people tone down the vinegar and make it sweet because that is not adobo. But of course, adobo should have some sweetness in it, that’s why we advocate using fruit vinegars, like mango vinegar and tamarind vinegar, which are kinda sweet. And if you taste these vinegars, they still taste like how the fruit tastes.”

Before getting seated at the dining table, we get a taste of a genteel past in this little old house full of memories — a vintage piano and a turntable-turned-butler’s table that must have filled the room with music, oil paintings that were parts of Botong Francisco’s murals, old portraits, and tables made of the old floors in Amy’s bedroom.

So, what have Amy and Romy, with their team of young, vibrant chefs (all fresh graduates of the College of St. Benilde), headed by Joseph Galvez of Enderun Colleges, prepared for lunch to pamper our Pinoy palate?

“This is kinagang (a Sorsogon delicacy),” Amy tells me, as she puts in front of me a lovely dish with a fresh prawn and two gorgeous orange and white scallops sitting on top of grated coconut called lukadon (close to being a mature coconut). “It’s almost like a tamale and most people think it’s rice-based, but it’s really a mixture of lukadon and buko.”

“The grated coconut is mixed with lemongrass, shallots, achuete oil, and mint, and the whole thing is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed for five minutes,” Romy explains how the kinagang is done.

Amy, ever the gracious hostess, takes out a block of salt (called tultol) and shaves it on the kinagang, just a little to enhance its flavor. Of course, I didn’t need the extra salt or any help to demolish my kinagang.

“Only the people of Guimaras know the tultol, they use it like Parmesan cheese,” Amy shares. “It’s poverty food; people put it in their pockets to add flavor to their rice, which was all they ate while in hiding during the war.”

Of course, before our kinagang came the fresh native green salad, where Romy put together the freshest greens/ingredients he could find — green mango, singkamas, sayote tops, alugbati, pili nuts, pomelo, chrysanthemum, and eggplant. This you drizzle with Romy’s scintillating citrus (dalandan, dayap) dressing or a light mango (that could move your tongue to do a tango) or tamarind or kaong vinegar.

Of course, there’s chicken on Purple Yam’s menu. Pinoys are great fried chicken lovers — one chicken house even calls itself  “the fried of Marikina.”

Purple Yam’s chicken adobo is not your everyday adobo. “Instead of the commercial vinegar that you can get anywhere, I looked for these beautiful, real vinegars,” Amy gushes.

If there’s something fishy going on in Purple Yam’s ever-bustling kitchen, it’s only the bacoco fish that’s stuffed with tomato, sampaloc leaves and karimbuaya (a succulent plant that grows in Abra, Ilocos Norte). It is then wrapped in pandan leaves and put on a bed of banana leaf and coffee beans with coconut milk, and then roasted. Ah, the flavor of the coffee beans seeps into the fish! Enjoy your fish and have your coffee, too!

Try Romy’s spring rolls, too, and you’ll simply roll with delight! Romy uses strips of swordfish, saba, and cilantro, and rolls them in egg wrapper.

“My criticism is we focus on lechon or fiesta food so it looks as if we’re very heavy on meat when in fact, we have a lot of fish,” Romy observes. “As I learn more of our ingredients, I can create more dishes. We’ve experimented cooking duck with basi (Ilocano sugarcane wine).”

Purple Yam also has its cured tuna — simply cured in sugar and salt, and served with native greens and organic duck eggs from Sorsogon.

To cater to the sweet tooth, Purple Yam has its to-die-for buko pie — with its double pie crust baked to a golden brown, brushed on top with egg wash, and served with vanilla or purple yam ice cream.

Don’t forget to try the mango tart with the most crispy crust, oozing with mango jam, and topped with homemade mango ice cream. Purple Yam has its little ice cream maker. It also has Ian Carandang’s delightful fruitsicles — I just love the guyabano and kiwi flavors!

But of course, Purple Yam has halo-halo generously topped with freshly toasted pinipig.

Purple Yam sources its various ingredients from different provinces. “Kung saan-saang lupalop ng Pilipinas,” says Romy.

“Every week, we’d go to the bus terminal to pick up packages from Cagayan,” says Amy. “We get whatever is in season in a certain province. We’ve been trying to get lato (seaweeds), but it’s hard to source them. There’s one thing I realized about our food. The best of what nature gives us is ephemeral so you have to enjoy it when it’s there and where it is. You can’t take it out of its setting because it won’t taste as good. It’s hard to understand our food and many people don’t understand that. My advocacy is to make people aware of our ingredients, of which we have three kinds — the unknown, the ignored, and the underappreciated. Just because it grows around you, like the camias, you look down on it. You can do a lot with the camias. There’s camias candy from Abra. We make chutney from camias instead of mango — it tastes like prunes, even better; it’s chewy; ang sarap, sarap, sarap!”

Amy tells us more of her advocacy: “I want to support local farmers, fishermen, small producers (like she recently practically wiped out the supply of kaong vinegar in one town). My advocacy is to support people with integrity — those who don’t add chemicals or anything that will make their produce unhealthy, and they’re doing it the proper way. I love this country, I love my people, I love my culture. And if you love your food, it follows that you love your country and your culture because food is a product of the people. If you eat a talong, you know the farmers grew that. When I look at a vegetable or rice, I know what work went behind that. The farmers sometimes work against nature, the elements, drought, and pests. So, when the food comes to your plate, you know how many people, how much effort went into it.”

Amy likes to describe her food as healthy, using all-natural ingredients, with no chemicals or artificial flavors added.

Amy calls it “re-imagined” cuisine, not reinvented because “you acknowledge what already exists, then you take it and make it your own.”

She elaborates, “We like to get what is good from other cultures and make it our own, ganon ang Pinoy. For me, what’s important is that the food came from you, yon ang panlasa mo. It’s what you value, which is why your adobo is different from somebody else’s.”

Romy shares Purple Yam’s simple recipe for success, “We make good food, cook it the best we can using the best ingredients. It’s simple, no-fuss food that’s vibrant, organic, and full of flavor. Walang kaartehan.”

Let your taste buds be dazzled by Purple Yam’s simple cooking as chef Cocoy Ventura cooks up famous Isabela dishes and more on Aug. 22-24. Sourcing his ingredients from the Amancio Farm, chef Cocoy is doing some duck specialties. The special food fest will also feature Isabela’s famous pinilisa rice (red in color, it’s glutinous rice like champorado) and the moriecos (glutinous rice with latik filling from coconut milk and brown sugar, and wrapped in banana leaves).

Ah, if you love good old Pinoy food, it’s easy to get tickled pink when you dine at Purple Yam!

* * *

Purple Yam serves a seven to eight-course dinner (with all its seafood, free-range Pamora chicken/duck, meat specialties like cochinillo) at P2,500 per head Friday and Saturday, and a native brunch at P1,500 per head on Sunday. For reservations, call Amy Besa at 09267133523; e-mail acbesa49@gmail.com.

ADOBO AMY AMY BESA FOOD PEOPLE PURPLE PURPLE YAM ROMY YAM
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