Pinoy yummies at Purple Yam
PINOY LOVE - Bea Zobel, Jr. () - December 19, 2010 - 12:00am

It was only recently that my brother-in-law, Patxi Elizalde, and my son Jaime, opened my eyes and palette to good food and good wine. They have patiently taught me during long, satisfying meals to savor each mouthful while discerning hidden ingredients. I now know a little bit more about the different types of wine.

All this renewed emphasis on eating has led me to ponder the role food has played in my life. I am reminded of how, like the arts and crafts, Philippine food has helped me to appreciate and eventually love my country.

Of course, my becoming more familiar with the fantastic products of our nation’s kitchens came much later in life. After all, I spent so much of my formative years elsewhere. Looking back, I am extremely grateful for being the product of boarding schools where I learned to be more independent. But I must say that in terms of dining, my early education was a barren wasteland. Most of our meals were served on long wooden tables set in large dark rooms very much like the ones you see in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. All throughout my boarding school days we mastered the art of wolfing everything down to have the extra time before the bell would ring for our next class.

As a young adult, my dinners involved gathering around the table with simultaneous conversations going off in all directions. We were so busy trying to catch up on each other’s lives as all seven siblings had become dispersed to different parts of the globe. Then during my married years it was all about preparing healthy but quick and easy dishes for my kids as they were growing up and speeding off.

It is only now that things have become sedate with the kids almost grown up, that food has taken on a totally new dimension. We now have more time to appreciate the carefully prepared meals at my parents’ home. I have begun to enjoy market food and looking for the myriad flavors of different countries.

It was only when I moved back to the Philippines 10 years ago that I began to notice the intrinsic tastes and variations of dishes that I had known as a child going in and out of Manila. Ever since my return, I have developed a craving for good Filipino food. Fortunately I had friends who took me around to savor the fares of our various provinces. For example, I had the great honor of being invited by Claude Tayag and his lovely wife Mary-Anne to their home in Pampanga, but that’s for another article.

This year, I’ve been spending a lot of time visiting my three children in New York. I was quite amused and admittedly rather proud to see my son taking such care in choosing the right restaurants during my stay there. I wondered where he got his gourmet tastes from as I wasn’t much of a cook. Then I remembered that Jaime had always been interested in food. He would always make me watch shows like Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Iron Chef. 

In fact, one segment of Bourdain actually featured a culinary tour of Manila and Pampanga led by Ivan Man Dy. Because of this, Jaime asked that he be taken around by this same guide as his birthday present.

Having become much more exposed to gustatory concerns, I found myself more interested in discussions about the chances of Filipino food ever becoming world-famous. Why have the cuisines of Vietnam and Thailand become so globally recognized? Can we ever catch up?

When my friend Rickie Camara told me about a Filipino restaurant called Cendrillon, which had been making waves in New York for many years, I decided to look it up. The place is now known as Purple Yam. I must admit that I was happy about this change since the present moniker just seemed more appealing. 

Restaurant owners Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan had chosen the original name because it refers to how Cinderella was called in France. As Amy explains, “The Philippines is the Cinderella of Asia and someday it will finally go to the ball!” This romantic idea notwithstanding, it turned out that no one could remember the name Cendrillon. Purple Yam is also more distinctive and apt. For this tuber is a true native of the Pacific islands, unlike pineapples, potatoes, chocolate, and even the ubiquitous chili which all came from Latin America.

Of course, the restaurant business, especially in New York, is no fairy tale. One has to be really good to survive. I was eager to test the place for myself.

I am happy to report that the food is delicious. I ended up making three trips and each time the place was packed with Americans. During my first visit, I was with my sister-in-law Lizzie and my daughter Paloma. They were both very impressed. On another visit, my tablemates couldn’t resist spooning up the sauce left on the plates! Definitely the adobo made with two types of vinegar and coconut cream was absolutely divine. 

Wonderfully, my opinion is shared by others. No less than Time Out New York named Purple Yam’s adobo one of the 100 best dishes in the Big Apple!

Aside from the finger-licking-good adobo, there are sisig, beef tapa, kare-kare, and lumpia. But what really takes the cake, so to speak, are the desserts — calamansi meringue pie, pandan flan, guava sherbet and signature homemade ube ice cream that was a lovely light lavender color.

Even the decoration felt close to home. I noticed the unusual lamps of bamboo and paper. It turns out that these were the creations of Filipino artist Perry Mamaril who is actually Purple Yam’s chef every Monday. My friend, Congressman Joey Manahan of Hawaii, had tipped me off that I should look for Perry so I made sure that I met him during my visit to the restaurant. What I learned about this fascinating man with his dreadlocks and red bandana was quite interesting. It turns out that he was given a visa to live in the United States because of his extraordinary abilities.

What made Purple Yam’s culinary success even more amazing is the fact that its owners have never gone to culinary school. Amy has a master’s degree in communications from Temple University in Philadelphia while her husband leaned to cook on the job.

So where did the delicious recipes on the menu come from?

Amy has a ready answer: love for home and Filipino cooking. The couple feels that life is too short to not do what one is passionate about. In their case it was clearly cooking. They both firmly believed they would not be successful unless they embraced their Philippine heritage first. They had to understand what Filipino food was all about, they felt that cooking should be about not replicating what others were doing. It was important that one cook with the heart.

Romy Dorotan (second from left) with WHite House chefs Cris Comeford (in black jacket). White Hous epastry chef Bill Yosses (left) and partner Charlie (right)

When I asked about the mixture of Filipino and Korean dishes on the menu, Amy explained that they had a Korean chef who wanted to share her mom’s home cooking. It was felt that it would be a waste not to utilize her considerable talents and skills. This was a takeoff point for plans to expand the global features of their menu. They thought of inviting guest chefs specializing in the food of Kerala, China, Maine as well as Trinidad and Tobago.

And what are the other future plans of our enterprising culinary pair? Amy and Romy hope to set up a cooking research institute that would document the regional cuisines of the Philippines. This institute would also serve as an archive to preserve traditional recipes, cooking techniques and equipment.

In a way, Amy and Romy are well on their way in realizing their dream. They have published a book called Memories of Philippine Kitchens. Leafing through this delightful volume filled with delicious pictures, scrumptious stories and appetizing recipes, one sees just how eating and history are intertwined. One also feels comforted: Here was one more glorious example that embracing our culture can produce beauty that is satisfying, down to the last morsel!

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