Young and hopeful

FOOD FOR THOUGHT - Chit U. Juan - The Philippine Star

I just had a wonderful lunch at a pop up of this Cubao restaurant and I am happy. Having talked about Slow Food (www.slowfood.com) for over ten years now (when these young chefs were still babies), I am happy there is now a category called “Progressive Pinoy” food.

It means the young chefs creating adobo in a paté, using local seaweed called gamet in a butter and more new ways of using local ingredients. Since I am not often in Cubao anymore, I was happy to dine at a temporary space – called a pop up – in Rockwell for this new concept celebrating local ingredients. To me it is like listening to food culture from the mouth of babes.

And I am hopeful that these young chefs will be the key to preserving our endangered food and keeping our culture alive. They used their own playbook to demonstrate cooking techniques like sous vide, fermentation and lovingly creating sauces and deconstructed versions of usual dishes like the black pancit (noodles). I enjoyed mixing the egg noodles smothered with squid ink sauce with bits (tumpok) and mounds of crushed chicharon (crispy pork rind), green onions, kamias and a dollop of aioli with crab fat (taba ng talangka).

The noodles were topped with a big fresh prawn cooked perfectly sous vide style.

The salad used grilled local vegetables like the lowly kangkong (water spinach), sitaw (pole bean) and sigarilyas (winged bean) topped with pomelo bits and on its side were three dollops again of sauces and bits of crab. I love how you can tell the ingredients apart yet when it is plated but you can mix and enjoy it with your own touch (less of this sauce, more of another, etc).

The dessert was another beautiful creation using coconut ice cream on top of a brownie-looking piece, again smothered with bits of cacao nibs, nuts and maybe chocolate. I just had to order coffee to pair with this and to my surprise they had Benguet coffee (my favorite) and pulled into a beautiful espresso.

This is the way to introduce our local ingredients to the jaded dining crowd who always look for imported this and that. Though it is good to appreciate French butter and Wagyu steaks, we cannot eat it everyday as you may also tire of it. A refreshing break from imported ingredients is to try the creations of these young chefs.

And how they combine culinary skills with everything local is a feat. Anyone can whip up a mashed potato with Normandy butter and Hokkaido milk. The right imported ingredients in a chef’s masterful hands can definitely be world class. But to take local food to a higher level is a feat for the mission-driven, focused and innovative young chefs. I salute them with pride.

I was tickled pink at seeing local squash and mango among the side dishes. And the combinations are not forced or stretched but they flow with passion and ingenuity.

Kudos to the Hapag Mnl chefs Thirdy Dolatre and Kevin Navoa for taking Pinoy cuisine to a new level. And beverage manager Erin Ganuelas for her beautiful creations.

In the coffee world, young café owners also create hyper or ultra processed coffee – and you hear words like anaerobic fermentation, aerobic maceration, mixing coffee fruits with pineapple and other tropical fruits. This for me is a radical move to discover new ways to present Philippine coffee. This is a trend popularized by famous international coffee personalities who almost force coffee to taste like tea or a flavored drink. I am afraid this is not for me. It may be a way to convert tea drinkers to appreciate caffeine from another tree or to just experiment on different flavor nuances. I am luckily a traditional caramel and chocolate coffee afficionado. I like coffee to taste like how it smells. When you smell the aroma of freshly-roasted coffee it gives you the same positive vibe as smelling freshly-baked cookies or freshly-baked bread.

But trends will come and go. There was a coffee trend to focus on espresso-based drinks which are milkier concoctions – latte, cappuccino and mocha. Then followed the trend to let coffee drip slowly for 18 hours and call it a cold brew. There was a trend to mix coffee with sugar until it froths and called it a Dalgona. Trends come and go. But Philippine coffee will remain as the strong brewed coffee of centuries ago. So if I were you, do start with black coffee, sweet and hot – from its natural inherent quality from Nature. Unadulterated and pure, the coffee fruit is picked ripe, washed and dried under the sun or simply dried as a “cherry” and called a natural. They would have distinct flavors only Nature can create.

For Philippine coffee, Hapag gave me a Benguet espresso. It was very good. They were not pretentious to offer some Ethiopian Fancy or Brazil Gold. They were able to get good local beans and are proud to offer it as a house brew.

This is why I still do not understand why some café and restaurant owners try too hard by offering imported coffee, imported tea and imported chocolate. We do have our local sources and when one is ready, a taste test can be arranged with any micro roaster for coffee or with an artisan chocolate processor for hot cocoa and cacao nibs.

The time for local is now and has been for a few years now. I am so glad the younger enlightened millennials and Gen Z chefs and café owners are woke to offer artisanal salts, local coffee and even Cavite pepper. They are the next generation that Slow Food is hoping to include in our advocacy for good, clean and fair food. Bravo!

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