Señor Alba’ secret ingredient

Dina Sta. Maria (The Philippine Star) - December 9, 2012 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - When I was a kid and restaurants were not as numerous and ubiquitous as they are now, eating out was a rare and real treat. It meant dressing up, going out at night (eating out always meant dinner, never lunch) and getting to sleep later than the usual 8:30 p.m. (9 p.m. when there was no school the next day) schedule.

When the treat was really special, the family would go to Madrid or to Alba. My mother, who was a fastidious and excellent cook, preferred the latter, because – under the watchful eye of an imposing Castillan gentleman in the kitchen – the food quality was reliably excellent. You could have Alba’s Paella, Solomillo a la Pobre and Lengua a la Sevillana a hundred times, and they would be as good each time.

Alba thus formed for me the standard for Spanish cuisine, and now, after 60 years in the Philippines, Señor Anastacio de Alba is revealing the secrets of his kitchen.

Together with his son Miguel, who has inherited his kitchen – and hopefully his impeccable taste and mastery of the art – Señor Alba has come out with a book, “The Alba Cookbook,” which contains “best loved Spanish recipes and practical tips on cooking and the good life.”

The book does not dazzle with fancy pictures photoshopped to perfection and printed on glossy paper in a book heavy enough to justify a steep price tag. The Alba Cookbook is of a very handy size, with eight colored pages in the middle of the book, the rest text in easy-on-the-eyes 12-pt font, black and white photos and some drawings on yellow non-glare paper – the type of book that you have on your kitchen table as you try to replicate the recipes, hopefully with a good – and delicious! – measure of success. 

The best – and most logical – place to start is Paella, and there are 12 pages in the book devoted to it. There are six recipes, from the standard Paella Valenciana to Paella Filipino (with sisig and cochinillo), from Arroz a la Regencia (with chicken in a creamy mushroom sauce, not strictly a paella, as it is cooked in a ring mold rather than a paellera) to Paella de Adobo. The cooking procedure for Valenciana is explained step by step – with photos even. All other recipes have straightforward instructions, from list of ingredients (measurements are specific) to clear, numbered procedures.

Each recipe has a little introductory paragraph, which contain interesting trivia or helpful hints. For example, for Huevos a la Flamenca (Gypsy Eggs): “This colorful dish was named after the Flamenco, a style of music and dance which combines stomping of the feet, strum and twang of guitars and melodious voice wailing. This music originated with the gypsies, who settled in the southern part of Spain.” For the popular Gambas al Ajillo (shrimps sauteed in olive oil, garlic and chili): “It is always best to use fresh shrimps to help the quality and overall taste of this dish. To determine whether shrimps are fresh or not, look at the head when purchasing at the market. It should be light in color and the antennae intact.”

On top of all these, there are at the end of the book three pages of a very helpful glossary of Spanish food and cooking terms, as well as two pages of “Señor Alba’s Practical Cooking Tips,” compiled from hours upon hours over a lifetime spent in the market, in the kitchen, in front of a stove, and at the dining table.

Samples: “For stock, boil fish for 20 minutes, chicken for 40 minutes, and beef for 2 hours.” “Any kind of raw ingredient has good properties. The more you cook, the more you kill the properties.”

And the best advice of all: “To cook delicious dishes, be happy and cook with love. As much as possible, sing! The food will always come out better.”

Señor Alba openly shares a secret: “The secret of my success (as an immigrant in this country), is this: on my first time here, I learned and embraced the trade and culture of the Filipinos. I learned they don’t make a tragedy of things like in the EDSA Revolution – they were there selling and eating mani, barbecue, saging na saba, etc. I learned how to live like a Filipino.”

But there is an even greater secret of his success. On the title page of the book, above his signature, is the salutation “Con todo mi amor” – with all my love. That is how he cooked and ran his restaurants and that is, in essence, the secret of his success – everything done “con todo mi amor.”

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