Now trendy, Filipino food is coming into its own

Filipino dishes prepared at Bistro 7107 in Arlington Va., include: clockwise from top, dinuguan, pork belly and ears in blood sauce; the vegetable and shrimp fritter ukoy; kare kare, an oxtail dish in peanut sauce; sisig, spicy pork belly and ears; and crispy pata, pork leg with soy-vinegar sauce.
Filipino dishes prepared at Bistro 7107 in Arlington Va., include: clockwise from top, dinuguan, pork belly and ears in blood sauce; the vegetable and shrimp fritter ukoy; kare kare, an oxtail dish in peanut sauce; sisig, spicy pork belly and ears; and crispy pata, pork leg with soy-vinegar sauce. THE WASHINGTON POST

Nearly three years ago, before most Americans could pronounce sinigang, let alone find a place to enjoy the sour soup, Andrew Zimmern predicted that Filipino cuisine would soon become the darling of diners who collect restaurant experiences like seashells on the beach.

If you survey the dining landscape today, you might wonder whether the Bizarre Foods host moonlights as a soothsayer.

From Los Angeles to New York, Filipino cooking has expanded well beyond its no-frills “point-point” eateries (the suburban outlets where diners point to steam-table dishes they want) to more refined restaurants that cater to diners who want wine, not soda, with their meals.

As a globe-trotting food hunter, Zimmern has a rare vantage point from which he can monitor world cuisines. He knows what food is bubbling just below the mainstream. Chefs tell him about it.

The TV host singles out Paul Qui at Qui in Austin and Cristina Quackenbush at Milkfish in New Orleans as two pioneers willing to take a chance on Filipino food. Others point to Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan at the Purple Yam in Brooklyn or the young owners behind Maharlika and Jeepney in the East Village as the trailblazers who eased American diners into the Filipino fold.

In the Washington area, three full-service restaurants, including a fine-dining room overseen by a James Beard Award nominee, now specialize wholly or in part in the cuisine; three more are on the way.

Regardless of who gets credit, one pertinent question remains: What has made Filipino cooking different from other Asian cuisines, which found acceptance much earlier in mainstream American dining rooms?

Overcoming an image problem

Knee-jerk pundits like to point fingers at balut and dinuguan, but these two are just fall-guy dishes: The former is a fertilized duck-egg embryo, something of a cross between an aphrodisiac and a drunken dare, and the latter is a stew of pork and offal simmered in vinegar and pig blood.

But neither represents the breadth, depth and deliciousness of Filipino food any more than fried duck tongues and sliced pig ears represent the entirety of Chinese cooking. Filipino dishes, after all, not only draw inspiration from Spanish, Chinese and Malay cuisines, but also channel spice, sourness and pungency, three of the trendiest flavors in American dining.

More thoughtful analysts note that as a U.S. colony in the first half of the 20th century, the Philippines assimilated countless American traits, including our primary language. Along with Tagalog, English is an official language in the Philippines.

When Filipinos immigrate to the United States, then, their English-language skills allow them to blend into American work and social life without the need to cluster around “Manila towns,” similar to the Chinatowns so common to U.S. cities. Unlike the Vietnamese or Chinese, they haven’t needed to open a restaurant as a way to cater to their own community, which often eats at home, or to generate income.

But that ability to disappear into American society has come with a cost, notes Nicole Ponseca, co-owner of Maharlika, a modern Filipino restaurant, and its gastropub sister, Jeepney. Filipino immigrants have struggled to have much of an impact on mainstream U.S. culture, especially around food and drink.

The problem is compounded, Ponseca adds, by a well-documented trait: It’s called “hiya” (pronounced “hee-yah” in Tagalog), and the word translates into English as “shame” or “dishonor.” Some Filipino immigrants in America have felt a sense of hiya around their food, with its duck embryos, pig’s blood, shrimp paste and other potentially hard-to-swallow ingredients.

Genevieve Villamora, co-owner of Bad Saint, a homey Filipino restaurant coming this spring to Washington, agrees. “When you’re a kid and your friends are grossed out by your lunch, or when you go to the office and see a sign on the microwave telling you not to heat your stinky food there, that’s when hiya can kick in,” she says.

Embracing Filipino cuisine’s ‘otherness’

To begin to combat these problems, Ponseca did two things: She got angry, and she got to work.

Back in the late 1990s, when she was a junior advertising executive, Ponseca conducted market research on the restaurant industry. She even moonlighted in bars and restaurants, washing dishes and serving as a hostess, to learn the business. Her goal was simple and complex: to figure out how a modern Filipino eatery could be competitive in the U.S. hospitality industry, which chews up and spits out amateurs.

“I didn’t want to add to the casualties of the Filipino culinary story,” says Ponseca, perhaps thinking of the long shadow cast by Besa and Dorotan’s SoHo restaurant Cendrillon, which closed in 2009.

Her efforts paid off. Starting in early 2011, Ponseca and her partners hosted migratory pop-ups that eventually morphed into a hip Filipino restaurant in the East Village. Maharlika would pull no punches. It would serve pig ears and snout, oxtail stew flavored with peanut butter, grilled chicken feet, and other Filipino staples, all sold under their Tagalog names.

The New York Times offered qualified praise. The actual content of the review, of course, meant less than the fact that a mainstream newspaper paid attention to a Filipino restaurant.

“Maharlika is a gateway restaurant — an exotic excursion with a soft landing, a chance to discover an unsung cuisine without getting too down-and-dirty,” wrote Times critic Ligaya Mishan.

So why did Maharlika and, later, Jeepney strike a chord? They warmly embrace the otherness of Filipino cuisine, perhaps even fetishize it at Jeepney, where employees, instead of tiptoeing balut into the dining room, proudly shout out and parade every order to the table. It transforms hiya shame into a cacophonous ceremony.

There’s even an annual balut-eating contest, like the one by Nathan’s Famous, except you actually know what kind of meat you’re consuming with the Filipino dish.

The influence that these two places have had on other Filipino-American restaurateurs is immeasurable.

Pinoy: pungent and meat-centric

Inspiration is easy; execution is not.

Restaurateurs such as Pimentel, the Armstrongs and Patrice Cleary of Purple Patch, a new Filipino American spot in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, have to find a way to prepare and present Pinoy food to American diners.

The cuisine presents challenges: It tends to be meat-centric, making it inaccessible to vegetarians. It tends to rely on pungent flavors, like the fermented baby shrimp paste known as bagoong, which can make grown men flee a kitchen. And it tends to feature homestyle cooking, with dishes served family-style without courses, which can undercut the standard operating procedures of restaurants.

Then there’s the challenge of finding a qualified chef. It’s one thing to prep a batch of chicken adobo for the steam table at a point-point joint; it’s another to develop a plated version of the vinegar-marinated chicken that can be prepared fresh for every diner who desires it.

New-school Filipino restaurants have taken different approaches. Ponseca looked for a Filipino chef for seven years before opting to train a Dominican, Miguel Trinidad, in the ways of Pinoy cooking.

Trinidad prepared practice dinners at Ponseca’s house and traveled to the Philippines to better understand the cuisine. Before he ever sold a single dish, he spent years learning to master the food from the archipelago.

Cleary, co-owner of Purple Patch, had far less time to scout a chef. When she and her husband, Drew, took over an organic bistro, they had only two months to renovate the space and train a chef in Filipino cooking. They didn’t know it at the time, but they were actually training two chefs. Purple Patch and its opening toque parted ways less than a month after the restaurant launched in March; the kitchen is now under the guidance of sous-chef Surag Gopi, a 14-year veteran whose experience includes stints at small cafes.

But Cleary also has a secret weapon: her Filipino mother, Nemesia Hammond. Mom doesn’t actually work at Purple Patch, but she prepares hundreds of pieces of lumpia weekly at her home in Corpus Christi, freezes them and overnights the pork-and-beef spring rolls from Texas to Washington.

Bistro 7107, named for the number of islands in the Philippines, opted to hire a consultant after its opening chef wanted to concentrate on his cooking school. The Arlington, Va., restaurant now relies on Jessie Sincioco, one of a handful of celebrity chefs in Manila.

“The way we plate the food, it looks like restaurant food,” says Solita Wakefield, co-owner and general manager of Bistro 7107. “Everything relies on how you plate the food and present it.”

A different kind of soul food

But of all the Filipino restaurants that will soon dot the landscape, Bad Saint may have the most radical approach. Owners Pimentel and Villamora plan to open a 25-seat, chef-driven, seasonal restaurant that doesn’t put on airs or adopt an ironic tone. Their place will embrace the home, where Filipino cooking draws its inspiration and its warmth.

Chef Tom Cunanan calls his approach a mix of new and old schools: seasonal ingredients and timeless flavors.

“We’re staying true to the soul and the essential flavors of Filipino cuisine,” Cunanan says. “I grew up in a household where my mother had a garden and cooked Filipino food every night for dinner. When I think of the soul of Filipino food, that’s where it’s at — my mom’s cooking.”

Chicken adobo

Makes 4 to 6 servings

Adobo is a cooking process indigenous to the Philippines, a way of stewing meat or vegetables using vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, bay leaves and peppercorn. Here, the vinegar and soy sauce used in the marinade act as preservatives, and Filipino cooks will leave the adobo to sit for a few days without refrigeration. They often carry an adobo when they are traveling in-country.

And adobo is not limited to chicken. Other meats such as pork, beef, fish and squid are used, as well as vegetables such as Chinese long beans, called “sitaw” in the Philippines. Also, depending on where a person is from, adobo is cooked various ways: with or without soy sauce, fish sauce or coconut milk.

Emma Bloc, co-owner and chef at Manila Mart in Beltsville, Md., is from the Bulacan province, so she makes an adobo that has a saucier stew than what is typically found in her husband’s hometown of Cavite. But both dishes are packed with flavor.

▪ 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

▪ 1/4 cup minced garlic

▪ 1/2 cup minced onion

▪ 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more as needed

▪ 1/2 cup low-sodium soy sauce

▪ 1/2 cup white distilled vinegar

▪ 3 bay leaves

▪ 4 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces (white and/or dark meat)

▪ 6 hard-cooked whole eggs, optional (see note)

1. Combine oil, garlic, onion, pepper, soy sauce, vinegar, bay leaves and chicken in a 2-gallon zip-top bag. Seal, pressing out as much air as possible. Massage to coat evenly, then marinate for 1 hour. (Alternatively, you can combine the ingredients in a large mixing bowl; turn the chicken pieces periodically to keep them evenly coated.)

2. Use tongs to transfer the chicken pieces to a platter.

3. Transfer all the marinade ingredients to a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Once the mixture has come to a boil, reduce the heat to medium; cover and cook for about 30 minutes to form a sauce, stirring occasionally, and adjust the heat as needed to keep the sauce barely bubbling. Taste, and add pepper as needed.

4. Meanwhile, heat a large (dry) skillet over medium heat. Working in batches as needed, pan-sear the chicken pieces until they are golden brown on both sides, 10 to 12 minutes, turning the pieces so they brown evenly. Cover and cook for 10 to 20 minutes, turning the pieces once or twice, until the chicken is cooked through. Return to a clean platter.

5. Uncover the sauce; cook until it has reduced further and is slightly thickened.

6. Place all the chicken pieces in the pot of sauce, along with the eggs, if using, tossing gently to coat. Once they are coated and heated through, the adobo is ready to serve. Cut the eggs in half lengthwise, if desired. The bay leaves are typically presented with the dish but are not consumed. You can discard them before serving if you like.

Serve chicken with steamed white rice.

The finished dish can be refrigerated for about 1 week or frozen for up to 6 months.

Note: To hard-cook the eggs, use a thin needle to poke a small hole in each end of the egg (to make them easier to peel). Place them in a medium saucepan and cover with an inch or two of water. Bring to a full boil over high heat, then turn off the heat, cover and let sit for 15 to 17 minutes. Drain, cool and peel.

Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 6: 510 calories, 39 grams fat (9 grams saturated fat), 35 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 200 milligrams cholesterol, 680 milligrams sodium, 0 grams dietary fiber, 0 grams sugar, 69 percent of calories from fat.

— Adapted from Emma Bloc

Barbecue pork skewers

Makes 24 to 30 skewers

This popular Filipino dish is based on the pork that restaurateur Meshelle Armstrong’s aunts, Tita Viloi and Tita Jet, make. Armstrong’s husband, chef Cathal Armstrong, tweaked the recipe a bit further, making it less sweet and using braised pork belly instead of pork butt (shoulder).

You’ll need to soak any bamboo/wooden skewers in water for at least 30 minutes before grilling.

The recipe calls for banana ketchup, which is sweeter than American ketchup. It’s available at large Asian markets.

▪ 1/4 cup canola oil

▪ 2 medium onions, coarsely chopped (2 cups)

▪ 40 cloves garlic

▪ 1 cup low-sodium soy sauce

▪ 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

▪ 8 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar

▪ About 19 ounces (1 bottle) banana ketchup, such as Jufran Banana Sauce

▪ 3 teaspoons kosher salt

▪ 2 pounds pork butt (fat trimmed), cut into strips that are 1 inch wide and 1/4 inch thick

For the dipping sauce (sawsawan)

▪ 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar

▪ 2 medium shallots, minced

▪ 1 Thai (bird’s-eye) chili pepper, chopped (not seeded)

▪ 1 tablespoon sugar

▪ Skewers

1. Heat oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Once it shimmers, stir in onion and garlic; cook for 5 minutes, stirring once or twice, until tender. Add soy sauce, lemon juice, brown sugar, banana ketchup and salt; stir to incorporate and form a marinade/sauce. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer; discard the solids (or reserve the garlic for another use, if desired). Transfer to a container; refrigerate until thoroughly chilled.

2. Combine sauce and pork strips in a gallon-size zip-top bag. Seal, pressing out as much air as possible. Massage to coat evenly. Refrigerate overnight.

3. Prepare the grill for direct heat: If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ashen, distribute them evenly over the cooking area. If using a gas grill, preheat by setting all burners on high (450 degrees) and closing the lid for 10 minutes; you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals or grate for 3 to 4 seconds. Keep a spray water bottle handy to tame any flames. Brush the grill grate.

4. Make the dipping sauce: Whisk together the vinegar, shallots, chili pepper and sugar in a small bowl.

5. Thread 2 or 3 slices of marinated pork on each skewer. Reserve some of the marinade for basting, and discard the rest.

6. Grill, uncovered, for about 5 minutes; begin to baste the meat with some of the marinade as soon as the meat loses its raw look. Cook until browned and lightly charred, then turn the skewers over and grill for about 5 minutes on the second side or until the meat is cooked through, basting as soon as the skewers are turned. The pork should be crunchy and caramelized on the outside.

Transfer skewers to a platter; serve with the dipping sauce and garlic rice.

Make ahead: The marinade can be made and refrigerated up to 3 days in advance. The pork needs to marinate overnight in the refrigerator.

Nutritional analysis: Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.

— Cathal Armstrong, chef-owner of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va.