ANGELES CITY (Philippines): Claude Tayag sees himself as a food missionary, hoping to convert people at home and abroad to the secret cuisine wonders of the Philippines.
The Southeast Asian nation’s table-fare 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 Asian food, but there are comparatively very few places serving Filipino dishes.
Back home, many locals also undoubtedly prefer their meals fast and cheap – in the style of their former American colonial rulers – with deep-fried chicken and hamburger chains dominating the food scene.
But standing in his kitchen over a huge pot of pork bone marrow slowly simmering in a traditional adobo-style mix of vinegar, soy sauce and garlic, Tayag insists Philippine food can “wow” 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 pork 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, 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 lemongrass 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, lemongrass and honey.
A particular highlight for diners is when they crowd around Tayag to take photos as he prepares a pork dish called sisig that sizzles and pops on a frying pan.
Popular particularly among late-night beer drinkers around the Philippines, sisig is made of finely chopped pigs’ ears and cheeks. Tayag serves it with boiled chicken livers, calamansi extract, white onion, salt and chilli.
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, particularly the poor masses who need cheap options.
“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 celebrity American chef Anthony Bourdain featuring him on his television show: “No Reservations”.
Bourdain appeared genuinely enthusiastic with Tayag’s varied dishes, and also with a trip to the central Philippine city of Cebu where he tasted one of the country’s favourite meals – whole roasted pig.
Raving about its crispy skin and juicy meat, Bourdain rated the pork – known as lechon – as the best he had eaten on his many journeys around the world, ranking it just ahead of the version found in Indonesia’s Bali.
For Tayag, such recommendations are proof that the Philippines can one day rate alongside the likes of Thailand and Malaysia as one of Southeast Asia’s famed 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.
Asked to describe Filipino food, Tayag says it does not necessarily have the obviously bold, intense flavours like spicy Indian or hot Thai dishes.
“Our flavours are more nuanced… there’s a nuance of sweet, sour, salty and bitter,” he says.
Tayag then explains one of his favourite expressions to describe how people in the Philippines feel when they eat the food they love – linamnam.
Linamnam, which has no direct translation in English, refers to a thrill, an excitement, a tingling sensation.