Filipino food is a tough sell in America, though there’s no good reason why. I have a disproportionate fondness for it, which is probably due to my exposure to it during my formative teen years and natural underdoggy bent. I was thrilled when Memories of Philippine Kitchens, a hefty, memoir-ish cookbook came out late 2006. I read a bit every night before bed (yet I’m having trouble soldering through Secret Ingredients—I’m really trying to overcome my New Yorker aversion). Maybe this weekend I'll actually tackle a few recipes.
I think the cuisine lacks the immediate punchiness of Thai food or the perceived lightness of Vietnamese. It’s kind of a Chinese-Spanish-Malay mishmash that doesn’t taste exactly like any of those three. You could even count a Mexican influence (by way of Spain) when you consider Filipino versions of menudo, flan, empanadas and tamales. I don't know who turned them on to Edam cheese, however, but it's totally a Pinoy Christmas thing.
The hot and sweet flavors that I truly love aren’t so prominent. Filipino fare plays with the bitter, sour and salty ends of the spectrum and many dishes are stewed to mellowness. Yet, I still really enjoy the food, so much so that a classic problem arose. Our two top could not support everything we ordered and we ended up having to move to a more accommodating table. I should just warn waiters upon being seated that we order for four. Unlike most fussy New Yorkers I've encountered, I like leftovers so it’s almost always planned into the equation.
Only a hater could have a problem with lechon's crispy skin and chewy flesh. This is the perfect pork preparation. I swear I’m going to attempt it one of these days. I would kind of be an awesome Super Bowl snack. But what sets the meat apart is the dipping sauce. I realize that vinegar, breadcrumbs and liver sounds disgusting, and I had no idea until fairly recently that those were the backbone of lechon sauce because the condiment just tastes wonderfully savory with a touch of sweetness. There must be umami at play because I want to put it on everything.
I usually avoid chicken adobo because I’m afraid it’ll be boring. How exciting can soy sauce, vinegar, garlic and bay leaf be? Pretty good, it turns out. Maybe my one attempt was just uninspiring because I used boneless, skinless chunks instead of chicken parts. The magic is in the skin and bones, I think.
Pinakbet is essentially vegetables like green beans, pumpkin, okra and bitter melon boiled to softness, but the flavor is robust. I only ordered this out of vegetable duty but was kind of blown away by the non-blandness. Ok, it doesn’t hurt that nuggets of lechon are hiding out in nooks and crannies.
Kare kare can be overwhelming with its peanut buttery sauce; I only picked out a few bites of oxtail before falling victim to too much richness. It’s not a bad idea to add dabs of bagoong, fermented shrimp paste served alongside (I didn’t capture the condiment in any photos). Salty and pungent for sure, but the creamy dish can take the shock.
I’m a sucker for crazily hued chiffon cake. I think this ube had some help from artificial dye, but purple is pretty. I'll try anything unusually blue, purple or green. And after staring at the front bakery case throughout our lunch I had to take something to go. The insides were a little mangled, though.
Engeline’s * 58-28 Roosevelt Ave., Woodside, NY