A half-developed duck egg embryo scooped from its shell and a stew made of chunks of congealed pig blood are a hard enough sell to adventurous gourmands, let alone a global dining public. Yet to characterise the cuisine of a country of more than 7000 islands and 100 million people with two dishes is short-sighted in the extreme. Welcome to the next frontier of produce and fine dining: The Philippines.
The aformentioned dishes, balut and dinuguan respectively in the country’s Tagalog language, are thankfully easily outshone by the deep and rich slow cooked adobo stew and roast suckling pig (lechon) as the country’s real signatures. But it’s across high-end dining, especially evident in the capital Manila, that a culinary revolution is gathering real pace.
If you need an indicator of how seriously Filipino cuisine and produce is now being taken, then Elena Arzak is a great place to start. She was a star draw at Madrid fusión Manila, the largest culinary event ever to hit The Philippines that bought together the most influential and avant-garde chefs from Spain, The Philippines and Asia in a series of events around progressive gastronomy. “I wanted to come here since I first heard about this event,” she said. I have great respect for Filipino cuisine and chefs - they have a lot to share and are extremely proud of their origins, produce and culinary legacy. The transformation happening now is really exciting and has turned into something truly unique.”
That transformation has many faces, not least of which are restaurants serving cutting-edge cuisine to rival any in South East Asia. Jordy Navarra worked at The Fat Duck and under Alvin Leung at Bo Innovation in Hong Kong before opening Black Sheep. In common with a number of his contemporaries he thoughtfully and playfully riffs on Filipino produce and dishes.
‘Bahay Kubo’ references a Filipino song that celebrates a classic provincial home made from indigenous materials and all the natural bounty that grows around it. It contains all the ingredients listed in the song and comes plated as a mound of soil (dehydrated eggplant with peanuts) with green shoots poking through. The beauty is in the execution as he delivers a nuanced dish that allows the composite parts to shine. But this is no gimmick where the story is made to fit – the dish is the story, one that is beautifully scripted.
Another sounds odd, on paper at least. Squid ink mash with beef? I needed convincing, but a dramatic dark grey brushstroke arrives topped with beautifully seared Kitayama beef from Mindanao, along with crisped leeks. It is excellent - the squid ink adds depth as well as colour to the perfect pureé, the leeks the textural contrast, while the 28 day aged tenderloin is cooked sous-vide before being torch- seared.
If wagyu from Mindanao in the southern Philippines is a surprise, it’s just one more example of the country’s extraordinary natural bounty beginning to find its way onto global as well as domestic menus. The untapped potential seems enormous: Calamansi is leading the way through its unique sweet and sour citrus lift, but pili nuts, flavored vinegars, heirloom rice and tiny baby cucumbers are not far behind. Both Elena Arzak and Luis Andoni Aduriz spoke in Manila of how the ingredients they encountered were a revelation.
Another chef at the vanguard of the renaissance is Rob Pengson, manning the pass at Manila’s The Goose Station - a wry pun on dégustation. At the restaurant, part of the portfolio he has built together with his wife Sunshine, Pengson “challenges traditional cuisine by ignoring dogma and infusing culture and heritage into cooking.” That’s a big claim but is ultimately borne out by his menus, notably one named after the country’s national hero, the polymath and non-violent revolutionary Dr. Jose Rizal.
Dishes represent different eras of Rizal’s life so Foie gras taho reflects his feelings of inadequacy living in late nineteenth century Barcelona where no one he met had even heard of the Philippines. Pengson’s interpretation takes a street food classic of sweet tofu and tapioca, covering it with sublime foie gras mousse and a stunning Pedro Ximenez sherry reduction. Even more dramatic is the extraordinary squab, a beautifully-plated riot of blood made from beetroot gastrique and sand made from coconut curd and pili nuts, showing how Rizal waged war through his pen, not a sword.
Not only does Pengson represent the new wave of the globalized Filipino diaspora who proudly celebrate their national cuisine and culture, he’s also empowering the next generation of young chefs to do likewise through The Global Academy, an educational institution he founded to promote modern gastronomy to the local restaurant industry. Thousands of students have already graduated with many moving on to top kitchens in Manila and around the world. With Navarre, Pengson and many others leading the way, the future is looking even brighter for a country at a culinary tipping point.