SINGAPORE - What is Filipino food?
That was the central theme of a media tour I went on recently in the Philippines.
The Singaporean founder of Makansutra, KF Seetoh, who led the tour, had warned us that we were not going to get an answer to the question that even local chefs have a hard time addressing.
We were going to be merely scraping the tip of the iceberg, Mr Seetoh said, due to the diversity and colourful background of Filipino cuisine.
The tour was a prelude to the upcoming World Street Food Congress, which will be held in Manila for the second straight year from May 31 to June 4.
And although we didn't get around the defining Filipino food at the end of it all, one thing I noticed about each of them was that they were never bland. They were all rich in not only taste, but also culture and history - with many dishes, you can savour the foreign and indigenous influences from centuries ago.
We sampled more than 30 types of food over 15 hours (including travelling - and jamming - time), visiting seven eateries in Manila and Pampanga province, aka the culinary capital of the Philippines.
Here are my favourites, listed in chronological order of the itinerary:
The clear broth may look plain, but it's full of flavour. This comes from simmering beef shanks and marrow bones for hours, until the fat and collagen are melted into the stew.
2. Chicharon bulaklak
A popular appetiser and pulutan (beer grub) in the Philippines, this is essentially deep-fried ruffled fat. Sounds super unhealthy, but it's super shiok.
3. Balat ng manok
Deep-fried chicken skin, another pulutan favourite. Unlike the chicken skin I've tried in Singapore, the one we had at Bulaluhan sa Espana in Manila came with a thick seasoning batter which tasted somewhere along the lines of KFC's Original Recipe.
4. Ginisang ampalaya
Sauteed bitter gourd with eggs, sometimes with meat thrown in as well. The one at Bulaluhan sa Espana was served with pork, and came with a good level of saltiness. Ginisang ampalaya is usually served with rice at breakfast or as an appetiser at lunch.
A type of freshwater sardine found exclusively in the Philippines, deep-fried to a crispy crunch.
6. Tortang talong
There are plenty of things we cook omelette with - what about eggplant? This is an amazing combination unique to the Philippines. The eggplant is grilled first, then flattened before it is fried into an omelette. I like that the squashed eggplant blends perfectly into the savoury omelette so I didn't get jelak (Malay for cloyingly rich), which I usually do from too much of the mushiness.
7. Pork tocino
We were taken to Pampanga to for this sweet cured meat dish, as the province is known to have the best. We had the good fortune to try the ones cooked by Lillian Borromeo, hailed as the queen of traditional Pampangan cuisine. They reminded me of bak kwa, but they were heavier on the porkiness and not as sweet.
8. Pork longganisa
Also known to be a Pampangan specialty, pork longganisa is similar to lup cheong (Chinese sausage), but richer in taste and very garlicky. It has its roots in the Spanish sausage called longaniza.
9. Kalderetang kambing
Goat meat stewed in tomato sauce. It is supposed to be a little spicy but I personally did not feel any heat at all. The place we went to, Taldawa, specialises in goat meat dishes using animals farmed by the owners themselves.
I'm not a fan of tau huay (soya beancurd), but the Filipino rendition blew me away. I much preferred the brown sugar syrup, called arnibal, to the palm sugar syrup that is used in Singapore. Then there was the soft, melt-in-your-mouth silky tofu which was awfully (in a good way) close to custard.
Another dish I liked more than the Singaporean version, namely ice kacang. I don't know about others but the one we had at farm-to-table restaurant 25 Seeds was not overwhelmingly sweet. It contained a good mix of ingredients from purple yam to jackfruit and topped with brown sugar and pinipig - immature glutinous rice that is pounded and toasted.
12. Pancit luglug
Rice noodles in a thick, shrimp-flavoured gravy, accompanied by ingredients such as hard-boiled egg, prawns, fish flakes and chicharon (pork crackling). It's somewhat like dry laksa, sans coconut milk.
13. Sisig paella
A divine marriage between paella and the Philippines' culinary star sisig - chopped pig cheeks and chicken liver served on a sizzling plate. A creation by 25 Seeds' owner and chef Sau Del Rosario, this dish will be making its public debut at the upcoming World Street Food Congress, and will be available at 25 Seeds from June 5.
Roasted suckling pig renowned for its extremely crisp skin. The best ones are said to be found in Cebu, where celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who will be speaking at the World Street Food Congress, also declared he had "the best pig ever".
The writer's trip was sponsored by Makansutra and Tourism Promotions Board Philippines.