Saturday, December 8, 2012

Diet? Ano 'yun?: Deconstructed Bicol Express and Bagoong

My mom hails from Gubat, Sorsogon, in Bicol. I wish I could lay claim to being a full blooded Bicolano, but I cannot. I can speak our version of Bicolano, called Gubatnon, but I still speak Tagalog in Legazpi and Naga. I barely understand the cooking outside of my hometown too, but I take pride in the recent trips I've taken to visit Gubat on my own to learn more about the food and places thereabouts.

I feel more in tune with my Tagalog side, really, but man, there's a flair for gata (coconut cream) and sili (chilies) that rages within me and I guess I am learning, albeit slowly, the ways of Bicolano cuisine. Because man, sorry Pampanga, my Luzon gastrnomic epicenter is Bicol, with Ilocos a close second.

I have always loved Bicol Express (a dish named after the Manila-Naga train line) but only learned that what I knew as Bicol Express was the Tagalog version in my college days, when I met students from Bicol University in the YMCA Student Conferences in Baguio. I was cooking Bicol Express in one of our inuman sessions in Baguio once (sorry, FEU) and a full blooded uragon  whom I befriended asked if he could cook side by side with me and present his version of Bicol Express. I said sure. So while I was loading mine up with pork belly, he was chopping up tomatoes and loads of siling pansigang (long green chili). I offered up what one would usually see in the streets of Manila, pork belly stewed in coconut cream with a healthy amount of chili. He served what was basically tomatoes and chili sauteed in bagoong (shrimp paste) and accentuated by crisp chicharon (rendered pork rinds). I was shamed man. An uncle also told me that Bicol Express is basically chilies stewed in coconut cream, where the coconut cream is reduced enough that it separates into oil and cream, as this makes it easy to pack and longer lasting and that the spicy veg dish was a favored travel and peasant food as the kick of the chilies made one consume less of the dish and more rice, fuel for the tiring day ahead. The addition of pork was rare back in the day, as pork was expensive. If pork was present, he said, it was in minute quantities. Also, the use of patis (fish sauce) as a flavoring agent is a Tagalog reimagination, and that the weak white color of carinderia (street food stalls) Bicol Express is unacceptable to Bicolanos.

So when Marvin, Boj and I opened the ill-fated St. Bede's Kitchen, we made sure we'd have signature dishes. Boj had his magnificent Mechado (flank steak stewed in tomatoes), Marvin his line of pancit recipes, and I had Tokwa't Baboy. But I wanted to come up with my own take to Bicol Express. So I experimented. This is the Bastardo recipe that melds TradIsRad techniques with my own twist.

Deconstructed Bicol Express

What you need:

Liempo (pork belly) cut into large strips
Gata (Coconut cream)
Siling pansigang (long green chili)
Siling labuyo (bird's eye chili)
Cayenne pepper (optional)

for the Bagoong
Uncooked bagoong
Cane vinegar
Small pork rinds
Siling labuyo
Brown sugar 
Dried bay leaves


How to do it:

There are three components to this dish, because, well, that's what deconstructing a dish means: you break down a recipe to different parts. 



This is an integral part of the dish because this is what gives it flavor. I planned to write about my take in bagoong on a separate post, but I'm just reusing a recipe I wrote before. It's a long and tedious process that is well worth the effort. The recipe is based on the super sweet bagoong I enjoyed green mango slices with, the one in a big tub that a man on a bike contraption carries around, along with large glass jars of water filled with green mango and singkamas (jicama) slices. This recipe was first posted on, a  friend's food blog when I guest posted there with my laborious take on Kare Kare.

First, start with chicharon, cabron.

There are two ways of going about the chicharon (pork rind crackling) part of the bagoong, you can do it the old school and simple way: boil fat and skin in a bit of water and let the fat render over low heat ‘til it gets crispy and golden brown (really, this process works better if you want to store the bagoong and not use it up all of it in one go).
I bought fat and skin trimmings from a nearby supermarket, but if you can’t find some, just have your butcher separate the fat and rind from pigue (pork butt/shoulder) or kasim (foreshank) and cut them into medium sized cubes. Add them to a deep sauce pan and do not add water, add oil halfway up the trimmings. Do this with everything at room temp and turn your stove to the lowest setting you can get it to. I had to turn the knob counter clockwise to get the flame as small as I had to get it. Now, this will take time and attention. Wait for the fat to simmer, there will be a lot of oily froth, small bubbles that tell you that the drying out process is working. You don’t want to crisp up the fat too fast, you want to dry it out as much as you can without actually air drying out in the sun.

Be patient with this, and I promise, the rewards are going to be awesome. Mix it up regularly, as leaving it to its own devices will mean that the bottom layer’s temp will rise and crisp up the rinds before you dry out the top layers. You should end up with something like this:

Doing this in a large batch gives you two options: you can re-fry some in very hot oil and get home-made chicharon (you can even freeze this at this stage, think: instant chicharon) and you can use some for the bagoong. Put them aside and not snack on them. This is a test of will.

Sauté garlic in oil until golden brown, add onions and caramelize (a fancy term that simply means to cook on medium heat ‘til translucent and soft). Add bagoong and bay leaves and sauté for a while. Once you’ve evaporated most of the liquid, add chilies, sugar and vinegar and leave alone ‘til it boils, uncovered. Add cayenne pepper powder, now lower heat to the bare minimum and let all of the liquid simmer out. This is crucial, if you want to keep the cracklings you will add to it crispy and not soggy. When you simmer out all the liquid, which will take, again, time and attention so that you don’t burn the bagoong, you can add the cracklings, which will then soak up all the flavors of the bagoong and keep it like a tight, crispy bagoong flavored crouton. Most people tell me my bagoong looks like corned beef. I say, “Yes, exactly how I remember the bagoong I so love on the green mangoes I ate as a kid”.

In this one, I added popped chicharon. But I'd advise you don't pop them when you add them.

Now that you have your bagoong ready, let's tackle the meat then.

Lechon Kawali

This one's tricky. Real tricky. I have tried many ways to get the pork skin to pop the way I want to. As you can see in the picture, the one I made recently was more traditional Lechon Kawali (fried pork). But I've tried popping liempo in many ways. 

Here's one I did not boil and slow-dried in the oven before frying in super hot oil.

Here's a three kilo monster that I stuffed and handed over to the local pugon (wood fire brick oven).

But for this recipe, I just used the quickest way I knew. Boil the large pork belly strips until fork tender. Dry them out as you cook the bagoong, in enough cold oil to cover them at least half way and low heat, color them 'til deep dark brown. Let rest for a bit as you heat up the oil and add them one by one so that you don't lower the oil's temperature. You need the heat to get maximum poppage. See, when you boil the pork, you work the skin and it gets thicker. When you brown it over low heat, it contracts again, but it's already been expanded, so when re-fried in hot oil, it re-expands and pops. Just how much is dependent on two things: just how dry you got it on the first fry and the temp of the oil in the re-fry. You can omit the boiling part if you can slowly dry it out in an over as the initial stages of cooking will mimic the expansion brought about by boiling.

Now, let's move on.

Express Sauce


Take bagoong and saute it for a bit. Add chopped siling labuyo and gata. Let gata reduce over a gentle simmer. Add loads, and I mean loads of chopped siling pansigang and reduce further. You can take it to the point where it breaks into oil and cream, but it really won't look good, so I just thicken it up to a sauce.

To serve, chop pork belly to cubes, line 'em up and top with the sauce.

Some notes:

The pink tinge of the sauce is because of the cayenne pepper I added and the color of my bagoong. I found that deconstructing it like this sates the craving for something crispy that a lot of people have while keeping the traditional flavors of the dish. It also makes it more presentable and delectable. And oh, this is Pulutan Tayo Diyan-perfect. Also, if you're out of the country and cannot get hold of uncooked bagoong... OK... fine... use the bottled crap from Barrio Fiesta and other providers that are exported. Sigh.

Juandering: Pares for the Ages

Beef Pares is a Filipino staple of Chinese origins that is a favorite of every hard working, low to middle class Pinoy who swears by his or her favorite joint. A joint that offers Beef Pares as its main draw follows a template: the cooking area is at the center, open to the diners who are seated around a table that frames the cooking area. Tables are often laid out outside of this main setup and most Pares joints use 'The Original' or other variations of a claim to being the inventor of the dish. Why this is so, I have absolutely no idea.

But one thing is certain. If you are of the middle class or lived in an urban street-centric community or barangay, then you most certainly have a love affair with Pares. I know I do. Now, I am not one to make superlative claims. I certainly will not say where the best 'this' or 'that' is, except for three things: Pares, Tokwa't Baboy and Pancit Malabon. We can debate about Bulalo, Sisig or any other Filipino mainstay, but when it comes to former three, I will stand my ground. I mean sure, chefs may whip up versions of these that are gastronomic wonders, but when it comes to the best, readily available and cheap Pares, Tokwa't Baboy and Pancit Malabon, I grew up eating the best.

So before I even write another lett --

Damn. Aint that a beaut.

The best Pares you will ever taste is located in Retiro, specifically, on N.S Amoranto cor. Dr. Alejos. We call it simply, Pares Retiro. Here's the map.

Along with Beef Pares, joints like this often serve different kinds of pancit, fried chicken and many other Filipino food staples. But I only really go to this one for two things: Pares and Bulalo. I grew up a short jeepney ride away from Retiro and the place is home to many great growing up memories. My childhood friends and I would troop to Retiro for a pig out to celebrate something or when we just want to stuff ourselves silly with awesome food. This place is integrated to almost all facets of my life as many of my school friends know and love this joint as much as I do. And I have taken new friends and relatives to this place. I have a personal record here of eight... 8 extra servings of garlic fried rice. A friend of mine, downed 11. ELEVEN EXTRA BOWLS of garlic fried rice. I have been paying my respects to this place ever since I learned to commute on my own, man.

To illustrate, here are before and after pictures of a visit recurring characters in this blog Marvin, Bojji and my visit here in 2009.

Before. Sorry, Marv (left). LOL

The chaos after. Actually, this was at a point in time when we collectively ate less, and thus, the poor showing.
The term "Beef Pares" is actually not the name of the dish, but refers to a partnership (pares translates to 'a pair' -- don't we just love stating the obvious?). Much like Fish and Chips mean fried, battered fish fillet and friend potato wedges or fries, Beef Pares is actually beef (camto or flank steak) asado (Chinese stew) paired with garlic fried rice. There is Chicken Pares, fried chicken paired with garlic fried rice. I have tried replicating their beef asado for years. Years man. And so have Marv and Boj. But the balance of sweet, anise-y and salty flavors of their version still escapes us. Boj, who lives near the joint and thus clogs his arteries with glorious stewed beef fat and sinew more often, says he's seen evidence of black bean paste in some of his beef asado orders. The basic flavor profile of the asado relies on soy sauce, acid that is either vinegar or kalamansi (Philippine lime) juice, anise, clavo de comer or clovas (cloves) and oyster sauce. I've tried adding chinese cooking wine, Sprite and a bunch of other stuff, but still cannot replicate the caramel and distinct salty undertones of Pares Retiro.

Through the years, after experimenting with accompanying orders for the pares (they have a great stuffed prawn and passable embotido), I, together with Marv and Boj, have settled into a default order:

Clockwise from top right: bulalo, chili sauce/kalamansi/toyo, lotong, garlic fried rice and beef asado.

Let's break these down, shall we?



This is not the meaty version which showcases the beef shank. This one uses the lower leg, from the foot to the start of the meaty lower leg. It contains little to no meat and is often labeled Batangas bulalo. Its soup is rich and heavy due to the collagen in the joints and skin. your protein here comes fromt he skin and the boiled-til-they-jiggle cartilage that are so sinful you should not dare this if you have cholesterol problems. Boiled slow and low, the soup is unctuous and has deep flavors because of ginger, onion leeks and all the bones that are in the dish. A dish redolent of fat and bovine, this is as sinful as it gets man.


Want to know if the pares is good in a pares joint? First, ask the waiter if they serve lotong. If he or she gives you a puzzled stare like you're talking gibberish, leave.

Lotong is the sauce of asado. Basically an extra kick to quiet your jonesing for more asado. Often it is served on the side with bits of fat and cartilage. I never claimed that this was going to be about healthy food, have I?


Garlic fried rice

Why even expound on this? Because if it isn't served in an orange bowl (reminiscent of its Chinese origins as a bowl is the most chopsticks-friendly vessel for rice), then it is not Pares. Period. No erase.

Stacking these guys up to personal towers of achievement was a sort of hobby/contest me and my childhood buddies had going when we were voracious teens who burned away all the carbs through small-ball street basketball with ice-water on the line.

There are, of course other offerings that you could try when you go to this place. And go there you must. I kid you not, getting parking space during any meal time (they're open 24 hours) is a challenge. Be it a heavy lunch or a drunken food binge, they are ready for you mate. Here are two things we tried the last time we went there.

Camto Soup

Yes, sirs and ma'ams, that is a soup of beef intestines. Explaining the very unique and bold flavors of beef intestine to someone who has never tasted it is like explaining the high of any red neck activity: you have to try it and you either love or hate it.


Sizzling Sisig

This one, honestly, is a "meh" at best. It's unimaginative and reeks of commercial, MSG-rich flavoring powder. Stay away from this if you go there.

I honestly have to say that you have not had Pares unless you go to this place man. It's unpretentious, but is flocked by people from all walks of life in all hours of the day. Want more proof that this is a must-visit place? Here's a friend's post about it on her blog. If you don't like their Pares, as Bojji once said, "Wala kang taste buds," (You have no taste buds).

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Juandering: Quattro + Nation

Often, people go to trendy restos, bars, distilleries and other hangout places because of the name, location or simply because everyone seems to be going there. I went through that phase, the clubbing and binging on expensive drinks phase. But these days, I am more about finding good food. Sure, new restos with the promise of new food experiences excite me, but I don't know, I am allergic to 500+/plate places. I scour the metro for more honest food in accessible places. I found a place recently, at the corner of Kamuning and T. Morato: a hole in the wall that offers the triumvirate of highly marketable Ilokano fare: Ilocos empanada (glad it's finally becoming a trend), Bagnet (Lechon kawali++) and Vigan longganisa. I'll write about that place again and feature it here. Just need to bring my camera next time.

So I go on food hunts, but when it comes to places to share a lot of beers with people you care about, the old tradition of "inuman". Where I go for drinks is not dictated by trend or cool factor, not anymore. Where I choose to drink is not even really dictated by cleanliness, to be honest with you. I have this place I have been going to for years now, and it does not get its patronage because of it's certifications from the health bureaus. When my friends and I drink, we have to have good food.

Main bar area

My oldest and most trusted bar in the Timog area is Quattro. It started as a kick off point for night outs back in college and has evolved into a trusted bar I can always bring new friends to, or meet old ones in. I even developed friendships with a few waiters there and am still recognized when I walk into the joint.

The owners of Quattro have opened Nation in Sct. Borromeo, near Flight. It's an offshoot of my old fave but has entirely different look. While Quattro has that homely, cozy, bohemian vibe with it's old wood trimming chairs and eclectic decor, Nation is more modern, with well planned seating and minimalist decor and furniture.

Outside seating (front)
Indoor seating
The place is trendy modern Pinoy, in the spirit of Tides, chill out places with open spaces with a draw that you really don't understand. Why are people flocking to these places when the offer nothing of note in terms of food, are not really pocket friendly and are hard to get to?

With Nation, I finally understood the draw: the exclusivity of these places not being accessible to public transportation outside of a cab means that the straddle the line between exclusivity and accessibility. In these sorts of places, young and youngish people get to hang out without having to a., worry about the hoi polloi of people who can walk into, say, Quattro without b., having to spend as much as they would in places like Distillery or the many bars in The Fort.

What I love about Nation is that apart from the cool Pinoy pop art that lines it's walls, it meshes old traditions with new design. From the indoor seating ventilated by ceiling fans that remind one of old homes and lit by modernist lighting framed by abaca decor, to the outside seating accentuated by plants and antique looking furniture, to the patio-like outdoor area with the cloth umbrellas, the styles mesh well and lend the place a unique and classy look that sets it apart from the more jam-as-many-people-as-we-can style of Tides.

Outside seating (back)
But enough of this aesthetic nonsense. I am not an interior designer or architect. Let's talk food. Quattro grabbed me by offering competitively priced beers and generally above average bar food. With its Baked Fished Fillet, it has marked itself in my list of go to places forever. By chatting with Orly (a longtime Quattro waiter and the sole reason we even learned of and ventured into the place), we learned that the stuff we love in Quattro is essentially being ported into the Nation menu, with some additions. Now, I really don't take pictures of food before I eat it, not unless it's noteworthy, but often, even though. So let me just describe them to you.

What I absolutely do not like about a lot of bars out there is that often, they hire crap cooks who belch out bland, oily and overpriced dishes that no amount of beer would make me enjoy. But Nation is essentially Quattro v2, so order a Baked Fish Fillet for me when you go there. Enjoy the foil wrapped Tanigue fillet swimming in oil and its own juices, topped with a mayonnaise based sauce. Then go for their Gising Gising, a mixed veggie dish mixed with fish and squid pieces, drenched in peanut and oyster sauce. Or get the Crispy Liempo Bits that my friends love and the surprisingly enjoyable Crispy Bangus Belly. Now, they've glitzed up the menu with some additional fare, and I have tried their Sinuglaw and improved, crunchy Sisig, but I have my old faves and they will always show up in my table.

So check out this new chill out place for the food. Good enough and cheap enough for you to enjoy the night out while laughing uncontrollably at your friends' or your own drunken antics. The service is great, I guarantee it, as many of Quattro's waiters have been with them since I started going there in 2005. And my main man Orly's in Nation, so I know you'll be treated to attentive and warm service.

To get there, here's Google maps.