x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Top Filipino dishes emerge from the junk food shadows

Claude Tayag aims to change the international impression of a nation with a poor culinary reputation.

The Filipino chef Claude Tayag.
The Filipino chef Claude Tayag.

Claude Tayag sees himself as a food missionary, hoping to convert people at home and abroad to the secret wonders of Filipino cuisine.

The South-East Asian nation's food has long suffered a poor reputation internationally compared with its regional neighbours.

Across the world, Indian curry houses compete with Vietnamese noodle soup shops or Chinese dim sum restaurants in offering a taste of Asia, but comparatively very few places serve Filipino dishes.

Back home, many locals also undoubtedly prefer their meals fast and cheap, with deep-fried chicken and hamburger chains dominating the food scene.

But standing in his kitchen over a huge pot of bone marrow slowly simmering in a traditional adobo-style mix of vinegar, soy sauce and garlic, Tayag insists Filipino food can impress as much as any other in Asia.

"It's a very misunderstood cuisine. Firstly, Filipino cuisine is so diverse," Tayag says as he stirs the dish that he is preparing for dozens of guests who have gathered at his home.

"You cannot explain it in one sentence. You need a whole day, a whole month to talk about it."

Tayag says it does not necessarily have the obviously bold, intense flavours of spicy Indian or hot Thai dishes.

"Our flavours are more nuanced … there's a nuance of sweet, sour, salty and bitter," he says.

Tayag, an artist, writer and chef, has turned his rustic home a couple of hours' drive north of Manila into an informal restaurant, where diners feast on a 10-course meal that takes them on a culinary tour of the archipelago.

The lunchtime extravaganza lasts for three hours and one version of his menu starts with an eclectic trio of dips - fermented rice, crab fat and a pesto made from the native pili nut.

It ends with a Filipino version of the Italian panna cotta – made from carabao's milk, which has a higher fat content and is thus richer than that produced by cows.

In between, grilled chicken is served after being marinated in lemon grass and a local lime-like citrus fruit called calamansi.

Throughout the afternoon, diners wash down their food with jugs of ice-cold tea made from calamansi juice, ginger, lemon grass and honey.

Bookings often have to be made weeks in advance for the restaurant that Tayag runs with his effervescent wife Mary Ann, who entertains the guests as hostess with in-depth descriptions of all the dishes.

Tayag, 55, says his restaurant's popularity is testament to a small but developing food culture in the Philippines.

"In every major province, there are people like us, working for the preservation and the propagation of slow-cooked food," Tayag says.

"And one can say there's a rediscovery of Filipino cuisine … it's come about slowly with the emergence of high-end Filipino restaurants in Manila, but also the cable TV travel and cooking shows. And the food bloggers."

Indeed, 15 years ago, restaurants serving top-end versions of traditional Filipino food were a rarity in Manila, let alone in out-of-the way locations such as Tayag's home in Angeles City.

Nowadays - propelled also by a fast-growing middle class - Filipino restaurants are starting to feature much more in the Philippines' major cities.

Nevertheless, Tayag acknowledges that US-style junk food remains the most popular option for most of the nearly 100 million Filipinos when they choose to dine out.

"We need to create awareness. We are fast losing our traditional ways … with the onslaught of these fast foods, the malls, and all that. You know, the American lifestyle," he says.

Tayag, who has written or co-authored three books promoting Filipino food, has won some international recognition for his efforts, with the celebrity American chef Anthony Bourdain featuring him on his television show, No Reservations.

Bourdain appeared genuinely enthusiastic with Tayag's dishes.

For Tayag, this is proof that the Philippines can become one of South-east Asia's food destinations.

"You always hear why Filipino cuisine hasn't made it internationally, like our Asian neighbours. Well, basically, it's just not understood very well," he says.