Smitten with Filipino recipes

A Singaporean has written a cookbook on Filipino cuisine.

The Philippine media has even hailed him as possibly the first non-Filipino to write such a wide compilation of Philippine recipes. And all because he was inspired by his Filipino maids' cooking.

Mr Bryan Koh, 29, completed the cookbook last year. It covers food from three main parts of the Philippines - Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao.

It is titled Milk Pigs And Violet Gold (Philippine Cookery) after two iconic Filipino dishes - spit-roasted suckling pig (termed "milk pigs") and ube yam (which Mr Koh considers "violet gold" from the earth).

There are two versions of the book - a 612-page hardcover Singapore version which has not been officially launched and a three-volume Philippine version that was launched at the Holy Angel University in the Philippines three weeks ago. Both are in English.

The book was co-published by Mr Koh and the university's Center for Kapampangan Studies. Says the centre's executive director, Mr Robby Tantingco, 53: "I was flattered that a foreigner would be this infatuated with my country and its cuisine.

"As far as I know, Mr Koh is the first foreigner to write a book on Filipino cuisine, at least a book this well-researched. I'd even say that his book is better than many culinary books written by Filipinos."

Three hundred copies of each version have been printed. Sales figures for the Philippine version were not available at press time. Mr Koh, a baker who owns cake shop Chalk Farm at the Paragon shopping mall, compiled the recipes over four years and took two years to write the text. He also designed the book, took most of the photographs and invested about $20,000 in its publication.

His interest in Philippine food started when he was a young boy. He loved the cooking of two Filipino maids who served at his family's bungalow in Bukit Timah. His father is a doctor and his mother is the general manager of luxury boutique Dickson Watch & Jewellery.

Ms Lydia Baltazar, then in her 50s, worked for the family from 1986 to 1997. Ms Evelyn Mendoza, then in her 40s, worked from 1997 to 2009. They swept the floor, washed clothes and fed the dogs.

But Mr Koh remembers them most for their cooking. He recalls that Ms Baltazar made Philippine dishes, such as adobo, sinigang and pinakbet, every week and they were the family's favourite meals. Adobo is a savoury stew, sinigang a soup and pinakbet a mixed vegetable dish with shrimp paste.

Ms Mendoza introduced more fish dishes such as milkfish and slow-cooked mackerel tuna.

Says Mr Koh: "They were the best cooks in the household, preparing food with care and love. The house was often filled with the aroma of cooked meat and the dull hum of the working oven."

At times, the maids even allowed Mr Koh into the kitchen. He says: "My yayas (nannies in Tagalog) taught me how to chop onions and marinate meat. I learnt the basics of food preparation from them."

Ms Baltazar eventually moved to Canada and lost touch with the Koh family. Ms Mendoza moved to Russia to work for another family. When Ms Mendoza learnt about his cookbook, says Mr Koh, she told him she was happy and proud of him.

Indeed, the two maids had planted the gastronomical seed in him. Despite graduating with a mathematics degree from the National University of Singapore in 2008, he became a freelance food and travel journalist. That same year, while on a writing assignment in the Philippines, the idea for the book struck.

He says: "Eating Philippine food again reminded me of the delicious food from my childhood. That was when I decided to write a cookbook on Philippine cuisine. I was also motivated because Philippine food is one of the most under-rated and least explored cuisines in South-east Asia."

From 2009 to 2013, he made more than 12 trips to the Philippines. With the help of some Filipino friends, he approached cooks in public markets, restaurants, eateries, cafes and private kitchens.

Says Mr Koh, who is familiar with food terms in Tagalog: "Almost everyone was happy to share their recipes. Even those who preferred not to reveal exact quantities were fine with sharing which ingredients they used and their method of preparation."

Says one of Mr Koh's friends, retired advertising executive Alex Castro, 57, a Filipino: "Bryan was a patient researcher. He took his own photos and jotted down notes of the cooking demonstrations.

"He was very meticulous, paying attention to everything, from the names of the local ingredients to the utensils used, even the names of the cooks."

Other foreigners have written small pamphlet-type cookbooks containing local recipes before, he acknowledges. "But Bryan is the first to write about Philippine cuisine so extensively."

Filipino cookbook author Amy Besa, 64, who wrote the 2006 cookbook Memories Of Philippine Kitchens, congratulated Mr Koh on his book, saying: "It is a valuable collection of recipes and dishes that no one has ever done before. Bravo!"

Says Mr Koh, who is single: "Although I wrote the book, I do not consider myself an authority on Filipino cuisine. I'm just a scribe. I, myself, am on a journey to uncover more delicious Filipino delicacies."

This article was published on April 20 in The Straits Times.

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