Of rice and men

FEAST WITH ME - Stephanie Zubiri-Crespi (The Philippine Star) - January 29, 2015 - 12:00am

For rice-eating Filipinos, ArroZeria at Century Mall should be a little piece of heaven.

Some 13 years ago I was a bright-eyed Filipina in Paris. In between school hours I was interning with the Philippine Permanent Delegation to UNESCO and would often help out when the embassy had some guests over.

I will never forget one time when a group of Filipino officials came to visit the French Senate and I was assigned to tour them around the city. After breakfast at the Senate, which I can only imagine to have been a lavish spread of crusty baguettes, flaky croissants, rich pastries, French butter, artisanal jams and the like, one high-ranking official expressed his un-satiated hunger: “Ano ba yan? (What was that?),” he exclaimed. “Puro tinapay ang almusal! Kailangan ko ng rice! (Breakfast was all bread! I need rice!)”

All of the delegation nodded in agreement; rice was a necessity. I quickly changed my plans to bring them to a nice boulangerie for a grab-and-go lunch and took them to a small chinese traiteur where white rice was measured in weight in plastic containers accompanied by all types of saucy Asian dishes. A large communal sigh of relief as these important men dressed in suits huddled up in canteen-like surroundings to dig in to their comfort food. It was an endearing sight, one that I understood well because it was only during my student days in Paris that I truly craved for the pillowy comfort of rice and adobo — you can take the Filipino out of the Philippines but not the Philippines out of the Filipino.

In a country where unlimited rice is a billion-peso concept, it in fact comes as a surprise that something like ArroZeria has not opened yet. Literally translated, the restaurant’s name is a “Ricerie,” which can somewhat be defined as a place where rice is made and sold.  This paella-focused eatery is the brainchild of the people behind creative fine dining restaurant Vask. The menu starts off disarmingly with a selection of sandwiches (perfect for bringing along to the cinema), some salads, an array of tapas, from homemade pâtés to classic croquetas and crispy fried fish, some big-bite mains such as the rib eye Chuleton and my personal favorite, the Jargo Asado or pan-seared red snapper, fluffy with bits of crisp jamon and tomato concassé. However, the star — or should I say, “hero” — of the menu is definitely the Arroces.

There are the classic versions that Filipinos enjoy such as the Valenciana, but it’s the other variations that will pique interest. “I want diners to try different things,” explains chef Chele Gonzalez. “For example, the Caldoso is a soupy kind of rice dish that comes from my region in Spain. You would eat it on a cold, rainy day. The Meloso is a bit richer, saucier, more flavorful and we also thought it would be nice to do some risotto type dishes.”

Fideua is something that is not too easily found in the Philippines and I’m glad they have it on their menu. Although the Fideua Negra with squid and octopus is their bestseller, my husband and I preferred the De Costillas, thin noodles cooked in broth with some smoky pimenton and capsicum, rich pieces of marinated pork ribs and the coveted burnt-crisp bottom accompanied by that satisfying noise while scraping it off the pan. Ahhh, socarrat

That being said, what I find most compelling about this restaurant is the story of the rice itself. The rice that is used in all their dishes is a local one, found in the heart of the Cordilleras. In collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute, ArroZeria was able to find a local heirloom rice that is most similar to the traditional Spanish arroz bomba

“It was a 16-hour drive and when we went to Kalinga and Ifugao in the mountains they asked me, ‘Why are you here?’ I think a chef has to be curious and has to keep learning,” shares chef Chele. “Another thing is to ask why? Why a foreign chef will come to another country, why he has to bring his cuisine, his ingredients and import everything… Why can he not continue being curious and keep learning, and just open his eyes and look around? That is the beauty of being a chef. I want to keep learning from all these beautiful things that are unique to the Philippines, the nature, the indigenous practices, and with that knowledge make something out of it. But in all of that we still have to preserve this heritage.”

That night, in this brand-new restaurant with contemporary design, filled with young, edgy, well-heeled, cosmopolitan Filipinos in the middle of the glamorous metro with modern skyscrapers, was this Spanish chef speaking with wonder and passion about the far reaches of our country, concluding with, “When I was in the mountains I was telling myself, ‘Wow. This is magic.’”

At that moment I couldn’t help but ask myself how many of us native to this beautiful country have that same awe. It’s evident that the residue of colonial mentality still persists with foreign brands often beating out local ones. Is this the pivot that we are waiting for?

With the upcoming Madrid Fusion with Michelin-starred Spanish chefs like Elena Arzak and Andoni Aduriz coming here to briefly take over the culinary landscape while embracing local ingredients and techniques like cooking in bamboo, it seems like an apt foil to this persisting colonial influence. Despite years of many famed local chefs pushing our indigenous produce forward, will it finally be the presence of these prestigious foreign chefs that will make the difference? Will long-lost ingredients and heirloom rice finally make a comeback?

That remains to be seen; however, today there is a little restaurant that could. I just learned this morning that to generate enough production to sustain their needs, the people behind ArroZeria are investing in seeds. I feel that it is so fitting that this close tie between restaurant, heritage and producer happens to be based on rice — the food staple of our people. I’ve always found it fascinating that the words in Tagalog for rice and eat are so close: “kanin” and “kain.” It is, in reality and in practice, quite synonymous for us Filipinos. It is what most of our countrymen work so hard for every day — to put rice on their plates, to nourish their families. It is the symbol of prosperity, of labor and devotion.

To quote Steinbeck’s emblematic novel Of Mice and Men, “I’ve seen hundreds of men come by on the road an’ on the ranches, with their bindles on their back an’ that same damn thing in their heads… every damn one of them has a little piece of land in his head… just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of land.”

Just like those officials in Paris in the Asian canteen and my student self longing for home, or the OFWs, the laborers and workers who put in long hours every day for their families — for us Filipinos, to be faced with a steaming plate of rice is a little piece of our heaven.


ArroZeria is located on the fourth floor of Century City Mall, Makati, telephone 217-6563.










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