My food tour, my 1st stop: Cagayan de Oro
When the Cagayan de Oro specialty of sinuglaw – a smoky, zesty combination of grilled pork sinugba and tuna kinilaw –appeared on tasting menus at this year’s Madrid Fusion Manila, I knew I made the right decision to chase this dish’s origins in Northern Mindanao.
Twenty-six hours after leaving Toronto, Canada, my first regional culinary tour of the Philippines was off to a sweet start!
Traditional pamahaw (breakfast) at Cogon Market
I landed with an intense appetite for kakanin, or native rice snacks available in sweet and savoury varieties. First stop for many locals is Cogon Public Market, where you can visit Nanol’s Cafe to order sikwate and puto maya – the regional hot chocolate and sticky rice pairing popular in Cagayan de Oro.
Sikwate is made by combining crushed Philippine tablea chocolate into a large pot of water at a brisk boil, using a sturdy wooden batirol to whisk air into the rich hot chocolate mix.
Here, puto maya is a sticky rice pudding made of white and purple rice from neighbouring Bukidnon, freshly squeezed coconut milk, ginger and a bit of sugar, kept at a constant simmer (a stage of cooking known as “in-in”) for hours. Once the rice grains reach their characteristic bite, they’re cooled on sheets of banana leaves and wrapped into neat triangles, or served on small plates.
Regional cooking with Mindanao fruit
I first learned of sinuglaw from Michaela Fenix’s book Country Cooking: Philippine Regional Cuisines, where she writes “sinuglaw is what stuck in my mind” about food from Northern Mindanao.
An amalgamation of sinugba (grilled) and kinilaw (ceviche-style) cooking techniques, sinuglaw is made of grilled pork belly and raw tuna dressed with a citrus and hardwood fruit grown only on the island – the sweet suwa and mealy tabon-tabon, endemic to Mindanao’s hardwood forests.
At the VIP Hotel, Chef Isidro Soriano keeps sinuglaw traditional with finely sliced shallots, chilies, green onions and red peppers in the mix. To prepare the dressing, the dry tabon-tabon fruit is scraped into a bowl and whisked with one-day old tuba, or sweet coconut vinegar.
Almost immediately the fruit turned the sweet vinegar into a milky, tart liquid; cut with the sourness of the citrus, it made for an incredibly complex three-ingredient dressing.
Topped over market-fresh tuna and chunks of flame-kissed pork belly, this dish hit all the right flavour notes. The dressing draped over each piece generously – especially over the tuna, with their exteriors slowly being “cooked” by the citrus and vinegar emulsion. A subtle heat from the chilies came through with every bite, and a sharp bite from the shallots and ginger brought everything together nicely. I kept coming back for more.
A new ‘soul food’ that speaks of the land
The second those earthy mushrooms grilled over charcoal hit me, I knew Chef Chino Mempin’s cooking was the real deal: Filipino food true to its roots, presented to bring out the best in each ingredient from the land, air and sea. At Restaurant Damaso, Mempin serves two salads that are excellent examples of this cooking philosophy.
Oyster mushrooms for their Warm Mushroom Salad are sourced from the town of Claveria, Misamis Oriental which is 45 minutes away. They’re earthy and robust, a reminder of the woods they came from.
“Every time the grower has these, I get everything they have,” Mempin said. “We grill the mushrooms whole over an open fire, baste them with an aromatic butter, then top with burnt breadcrumbs from day-old baguettes.” The blackened breadcrumbs definitely looked like embers from a long gone fire. “Lasang uling talaga, di ba?” Mempin offered. “Tastes like charcoal, right?”
I nodded in absolute agreement; paired with the mushrooms, each forkful of that salad had the flavour profile and textural components you craved for in street side barbecue.
Next, the Pato Bihod Salad (Duck and Cured Fish Roe Salad) showed mastery of new cooking techniques embraced by a growing number of Filipino chefs.
Three words don’t convey enough of what went into this dish! Mempin starts with a duck egg cooked sous-vide - where food is sealed in an airtight bag and submerged in a temperature-controlled water bath to slowly and evenly cook for several hours.
I dreamt about the texture and richness of that deep yellow yolk for days, and the egg whites cooked sous-vide, smooth as a fine custard, are a delicious revelation for everyone.
Streaks of garlicky aioli lined the bottom of the plate, roasted baby potatoes (crisp outside and pillowy within) nestled the duck egg up top, and foraged begonia leaves, wild cress, purslane and alugbati scattered the top of the mound. Above it all, Mempin’s house-cured bihod (fish roe) gets microplaned on top, giving this decadent dish a further nudge of luxury, all for under PHP 200.
Like many boundary-pushing chefs, Mempin is a torch bearer for Filipinos trying to present their understanding of the cuisine, in ways that best speak of their values and culinary heritage. The result, as enjoyed by food-obsessed travellers, are dining experiences unique to this time and place in Philippine cuisine. – Rappler.com
Nastasha is based in Toronto, Canada and writes about Philippine foodways at nastasha.ca/blog. With thanks to Eileen San Juan and Nollie Arguelles of the Cagayan de Oro Hotel and Restaurant Association (COHARA) for extensive assistance with shaping the author's itinerary in the city.
Are you an OFW with a story to tell? Send contributions to email@example.com