- Bryan Santos
1.19.2021 Dinner in Manila
Lumpiang Shanghai with Banana Ketchup
Despite many Spanish culinary influences in Filipino food, one of the earliest and largest contributions came from Chinese merchants from Fujian. As far back as the seventh century, Chinese merchants were doing business in the Philippines, trading porcelain, silk and spices, bringing with them dumplings, spring rolls, and noodles. Today, Manila has the world’s oldest Chinatown and Chinese staples like spring rolls and lo mein are Filipino classics, eaten all over the archipelago. While there are infinite variations of lumpia, the most common are small cigarillo-shaped flutes filled with beef and pork and fried. And before you ask, the suffix of “Shanghai” is still a mystery, most people believe that it is just shorthand for “Chinese style.”
The banana ketchup on the other hand is perhaps one of the most representative dishes in terms of the fusion of flavors that have evolved over the centuries. Garlic, ginger, and turmeric are foundational curry spices, while allspice, rum and tomatoes are emblematic of Mexico and the Caribbean. Bananas and sugarcane vinegar are originally from southeast Asia and the concept of ketchup was introduced by the Americans. It’s sweet, tangy, savory, confusing and delicious all at once. Contains dairy, gluten, eggs, soy.
Like the lumpia above, pansit is the Filipino take on Chinese egg noodles. The name originates from the Hokkien word “pian e sit” which translates to “something conveniently cooked.” During Spanish colonization, pansit really took off all over the country, with Chinese hawkers called pansiteros selling the quick and convenient noodles to factory workers. Nowadays, it’s a ubiquitous dish for any Filipino gathering, the uncut noodles a symbol for a long life. Every region has their own special version of pansit, but one of our favorites is from the northern highlands city of Cabagan. A rich beef broth coats the noodles and is served with longanisa (a sweet sausage), pork rinds, blanched veggies, red onion, and Chinese garlic chives. Contains gluten, eggs, soy, shellfish.
Pata with Sawsawan
Filipinos love pork. Pata is translated to pork knuckle, shank, or hock and is fairly similar to the German roasted and fried schweinshaxe. While this dish has probably been around for centuries, its popularization is fairly recent. In 1958 the Ongpaucos family built their restaurant empire Barrio Fiesta with their delicious pata. As the story goes, the family’s son was castigated by his mother for overfeeding his friends. As punishment, he was only allowed to feed his friends the shank, but his crispy-on-the-outside, soft-in-the-inside pata began to steal the show. In fact, this eat-with-your-hand hunk of knuckle began to make its way to fancy hotels and even nightclubs! For our version, we confit-ed the shank and then deep fried it to get the perfect crispy skin.
For something so rich, a sawsawan is necessary. Sawsawan is a general term for the vinegary-sides that are prominent in Filipino meals and is perfect as a foil to the rich shank. Our version uses Filipino white sugarcane vinegar with raisins and chilies to get a sweet and spicy kick. Contains shellfish; gluten free.
Adobong Manok at Baboy
High acid from vinegar is what links all Filipino food and is likely one of the oldest cooking techniques from the region called kinilaw, similar to a ceviche of fish or meat. Historically, high-vinegar dishes were perfect for a tropical climate, protecting the food from bacteria and curing the meat. Adobo is unquestionably the national dish of the Philippines, but there are endless variations and regional specialties. Essentially, anything cooked in vinegar and spices is an adobo: the classic version includes soy sauce but some use achuete oil, others coconut milk, and others turmeric. The word adobo however, comes from the Spanish word meaning “to pickle in brine” and both Spain and Mexico have their own version of high-acid braising. Despite the confusing lexicon, Filipino adobo is distinct from the Hispanic counterparts - with Spain using a rich broth of tomatoes and chilies and Mexico using citrus and herbs - and has been cooked on the islands since pre-Hispanic times. We love all adobos, but there’s something comforting in the “classic” (i.e. most famous) dry version with chicken, pork, and soy sauce. Contains gluten, soy.
Unlike other Southeast Asian countries, vegetables often take a supporting role in Filipino food. Typically, most vegetables are simply boiled with a bit of fermented fish paste. This is not because of lack of abundance: mustard greens, eggplant, okra, bitter melons, pumpkins and various sweet potatoes are all available. One potential explanation for this is that historically hearty or meaty dishes were a sign of wealth and prosperity, leaving vegetables to take the back seat. Despite this, the classic Filipino salad is necessary to balance the richness of the cuisine. Typically a simple salad of tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and fish sauce is the perfect slaw for any meal, but many Filipinos add eggs for the protein bump and extra umami. Contains eggs, shellfish; gluten free.
There are few things more enticing than the smell of garlic fried rice. In the Philippines, garlic fried rice is typically served for breakfast with a fried egg and a protein such as stir fried beef, pork or Spam. But why should it only be a breakfast dish? It’s simplicity makes it so sublime - rice and garlic infused oil - and it is the perfect accompaniment to all the dishes. Vegan, gluten free.
If French have patisserie, the Filipinos have kakanin. Though varying in shape and form, kakanin broadly are made with rice or rice flour and then either steamed or baked in banana leaves. These snacks are typically consumed during merienda, a snack time between meals, or as dessert. A special kakanin is bibingka, particularly popular during Christmas time and a classic snack after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. This cake is made with sweet rice flour, coconut milk, and butter before getting topped with grated cheese for the savoriness that defines Filipino pastries. In the Philippines these are wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in clay pots over coconut-husk fires - we’ve used roasted banana leaves in our version to get hints of the smokiness of an authentic bibingka. Contains dairy, eggs; vegetarian, gluten free.
Besides Tiki cocktails and fruit smoothies, beer is the go-to drink in Manila and makes for a perfect pairing with the decadent food. In Manila, the most common beer, by a longshot, is the Filipino San Miguel. In 1890 two Spaniards decided to open the first brewery in Southeast Asia in Manila - a day so momentous that the brewery’s inauguration day is known as “El Dia de San Miguel” or The Day of San Miguel. Although this beer has spread to China and Europe, it’s still hard to find in the US. Given the shared history between Mexico and the Philippines, a Mexican lager such as Modelo, Tecate, Vitoria, or Corona would all be great options.
If you’ve read any of our prior menu histories, you already know that tracing the origins of food and researching all the cross-cultural influences linking us all together is our whole schtick. And while every culture is intertwined with those around it, they have nothing on the completely mind warping menagerie that is the Filipino melting pot. This tiny archipelago nation with over 7,640 islands truly is a microcosm of the entire world, an amalgam of the countless traders and invaders over the last few centuries. It is unlike anywhere we’ve ever visited, unlike any history we’ve read about, unlike any other food we’ve eaten. For lack of a better phrase, Filipino food is truly one of the world’s oldest “fusion” cuisines - not the modern forced connotation, but rather occurring organically over centuries.
In order for this menu to make sense, we must first very briefly discuss the broad strokes of Filipino history. Originally inhabited by seafaring travelers from other Southeast Asian islands, this loose assortment of islands came under the Indian, Chinese, and Islamic spheres of influence, the latter of which established multiple Sultanates in the region and whose influences are still deeply rooted in the southern provinces. Magellan then “discovered” the islands, claiming them for Spain before he was slain in battle. The Philippines remained under Spanish domain for ~400 years, governed by the Mexican Viceroy and linked to Acapulco via the cross-Pacific galleon trade. After Spain lost the Spanish-American War, the US was given the Philippines (along with Puerto Rico and Guam) and, despite promising independence, stayed in power until the Japanese invaded the island in 1942. If all this sounds frustratingly familiar, it is, but the Philippines was actually viewed at the time as the best-case scenario for colonization, with both the Spanish and Americans investing heavily in education, health and infrastructure. The island had the highest literacy rate, lowest infant mortality rate, and best standard of living in East Asia at the turn of the 20th century. All that goodwill was squandered, however, during WWII when the Americans and Japanese essentially viewed the nation as collateral damage, resulting in one of the bloodiest war zones and all but razing the capital of Manila to the ground. Today, Manila is the single densest city in the world, with much of the infrastructure built since the war.
So how do you even begin to trace the history of Filipino food? Well, there’s indigenous influences, which explain the heavy use of vinegars and citrus that forms the basis of adobos and kinilaw. Chinese traders from Fujian left an indelible mark on the cuisine bringing noodles and dumplings to the islands. While southern Filipino food relies predominantly on the use of spicy coconut curries with Islamic histories, the rest of the country has Filipino-ized Spanish and Mexican ingredients and techniques to form a canonical repertoire that has been exported as Filipino food globally. And of course Uncle Sam’s burgers and fries made their way over too. So that’s indigenous, East Asia, South Asia, Europe, North and Central America all represented in one itty-bitty archipelago. If you need further convincing, read our menu description of the delightfully bemusing banana ketchup.
When I was in Manila in late 2019, I was lucky enough to catch one of Carlos Celdran’s last “Walk this Way” tours of Intramuros, the original walled city of Manila, before he was exiled to Spain for speaking out against the church’s interference with family planning legislation and subsequently dying of a heart attack. The tour ended with a sampling of halo-halo, a quintessential Filipino dessert that is a concoction of various ingredients. “Halo-halo” literally translates to “mix-mix,” and in the tour guide’s own words, “To be a Filipino is to be a halo-halo.”
Given the large selection of deliciousness to choose from, we’ve presented our Dinner in Manila as a Kamayan, a traditional Filipino feast served on banana leaves and eaten communally for special occasions. In my opinion, any day you have Filipino food is a special occasion, so January 19th is as good a day as any for your very own kamayan.
Featured Recipe: Lumpiang Shanghai with Banana Ketchup
Makes 25 spring rolls
For the Filling:
1 lb ground pork
1 lb ground beef
1 tbsp minced carrot
1 tbsp minced celery
1 tbsp minced water chestnut
1 tbsp minced onion
2 tsp minced garlic
1/4 cup shaoxing cooking wine (or substitute dry sherry, mirin, or cooking sake)
1/3 cup soy sauce
1 tbsp black pepper
1 tsp salt
25 spring roll wrappers
2 egg, beaten
Oil to fry
In a large bowl, combine all the filing ingredients and mix well with your hand. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Lay a wrapper out on a clean surface and spread a heaping tbsp of the filling along the bottom of the wrapper. Brush the edges of the wrapper with some of the beaten egg and then roll it up tightly in the shape of a flute. Repeat with all the wrappers
Heat oil until it registers 275F. Working in batches, add the lumpia to the oil, being careful to not crowd the pan and flipping every few minutes so they cook evenly on all sides. Fry until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Serve hot or room temperature with the banana ketchup
For the Banana Ketchup
2 tablespoon canola oil
1/2 cup finely chopped sweet onion
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon finely chopped seeded jalapeño from
2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1.25 cups mashed ripe bananas (about 2 large bananas)
1/2 cup white vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons spiced rum
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
Water, as needed
Heat oil in a medium saucepan then add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Add garlic, jalapeno, ginger, turmeric, and allspice and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds
Stir in bananas, vinegar, honey, rum, tomato paste, soy sauce, and salt. Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for 15 minutes, stirring often. Remove from heat and let cool for 10 minutes
Transfer ketchup to a food processor and process until smooth, about 1 minute. Thin with water as needed to reach a ketchup-like consistency. Season with additional salt and vinegar to taste
Recipes Inspired By:
Nicole Ponseca’s NYC-based Filipino restaurants Maharlika and Jeepney were two of my first encounters with Filipino food. She co-wrote an amazing cookbook with Miguel Trinidad that provides incredible regionalized recipes
This is an incredible NYT feature on Angela Dimayuga also has some amazing resources and recipes
A short read on Filipino history, and honestly the Wikipedia is very good too
Carlos Celdran’s obituary in the NYT; he was an activist, actor, playwright, and a comedian who gave phenomenal walking tours of Intramuros, Manila
Filipinos are a nation of emigrants, many moving to the Middle East and US for employment. Bourdain’s Manila episode focus on the Filipino diaspora in the US
An interesting forum for Filipino recipes and food history