Food, Glorious

A lush life
in Davao

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Food, glorious food
by Conrado de Quiros
Columnist, Philippine Daily Inquirer

A READER, Noel Cortes, has written a nice letter in reaction to my columns last December on noodles, adding some new bits of information to the subject. Here are parts of it:

''I would like to suggest some noodle eateries that you missed in your features. Due to my fondness for food--it shows in my girth--I asked my father, who is a Manileņo if Ma Mon Luk was indeed the first eatery to introduce mami to the Philippines. He said no! The place that first offered mami to this country, he said, was Ma Kong Mami House located in Salazar Street, Binondo, Manila. The name was later changed to Mazuki after a labor dispute. I think the dispute had to do with the management wanting to terminate some old personnel.

''Anyway, I am a frequent visitor of the place. The mami served there is of the Shanghai variety, which is of course flat. It goes with the traditional chicken broth and generous amounts of chicken meat. To savor the best taste of the soup, you have to go there first thing in the morning. That's so you can get the first boil.

''Another mami variety worth trying is the asado mami. The chicken broth goes with pieces of pork asado without the fat. But an added concoction is the asado sauce that you pour on the broth before taking your first sip. And oh, the feeling is like heaven. Before I forget, place at least a tablespoonful of onion leaves on the soup. It makes the taste even more heavenly.

''Another mami eatery to consider is the Kim Hiong Restaurant in Ongpin Street, right in front of the fire station. You can't miss it. They cook Chiu-chow-style (Chiu-chow is a coastal province of China) and serve the mami quite differently. The noodles and broth are served separately.

You should try the wanton beef mami. The beef is boiled with sangke (a Chinese herb), light soy sauce and vetsin. It is generally cooked to a tenderness that melts in the mouth. But this depends on the patience of the cook, which depends on the number of customers in the place. When there's a crowd, the cook is not particularly inclined to wait that long.

''Another item worth considering there is the wanton balls. Man, I tell you, the taste is something else. Normally, in this preparation, restaurants use ground pork for the filling. Here, they chop the pork with a cleaver so the meat is coarser but tastier. It is then mixed with shrimps. I have sampled wanton/siomai in various establishments here and abroad, and I swear this is the best.

''The place though is quite dirty and there's a strong odor coming from the kitchen caused by the Chinese herbs. But I tell you it's worth the visit.

''I work in Makati but have an officemate who lives in Marikina. I've asked him about Aling Salud Restaurant, and he says it is quite popular there. I asked him to bring the pancit you described, the one with the lechon toppings. I tasted a similar dish in Lukban, Quezon. It's called pancit habhab. Maybe it's the same thing.

''Goodbye for now. Maligayang pancit and manigong bagong mami!''

* * *

Being a Bicolano, or at least having spent my childhood in Bicol, I am constantly kidded about my fondness for hot food, and even challenged to contests in that respect by veritable fire-eaters. I have declined the challenges, and wish to inform future challengers that although I love hot food, I can only tolerate certain levels of hotness. I cannot--and will not--aspire to the levels of fire-eating true-blooded Bicolanos have become known for.

Those levels are truly awe-inspiring, at least for the rest of us Filipinos. They're probably just par for the course for the other Asean countries--particularly Thailand, which likes its food really hot. We are the odd man out in Southeast Asia, even culinary-wise. I remember some years ago how a group of people from the Asean kept pining for hot food--they found Filipino food too bland--and ended up pouring spices into their plates in a desperate bid to improve the taste of what was there.

But the Bicolano passion for hotness (in more ways than one) is not far behind. I remember coming home to Naga in the 1970s with a group of friends from Manila. To give my friends a taste of Bicol, I bought pinangat, a concoction completely unlike the Tagalog pinangat, which is fish cooked in a certain way. The Naga pinangat consists of chopped young coconut mixed with shrimp or fish or meat, wrapped in thick gabi leaves (preferably dried), and cooked in volumes of coconut milk. They do not spare coconut milk there.

I asked the vendor to give me both the hot kind, for the intrepid, and the bland kind, for everybody else. A couple tried the hot kind--and belched fire. The pinangat meat was a burning red, siling labuyo having been abundantly mixed into it. After a few mouthfuls--and gallons of water--they gave up and applied themselves to the bland kind. Alas, even the bland kind turned up to have chopped siling labuyo liberally sprinkled into it. Everyone was gulping water with every bite. Beads of sweat were forming on their foreheads. I should have remembered that when you tell a Bicolano, '''Yung hindi maanghang,'' he will give you food that is not as hot as the maanghang but which is still pretty hot. The concept of food without spices is unthinkable there.

My fondness for hot food has not reached those levels. But it has reached a level where I can't eat without a variety of spices. My daughter is amused and wonders why I insist on chili sauce and not Tabasco on certain kinds of food (and vice versa), or on powdered chili and not labuyo on other kinds of food. Isn't one kind of hot the same as another?--she asks. I reply, with the patience and wisdom of Yoda, that it is not. Hotness is not just a question of degree, it is also a question of quality. Hotness, like saltiness or sweetness, has infinite shades and hues and gradations of taste.

But why wish to burn your tongue at all when you don't have to? When I hear that question, I reply with even more weary patience and sagacity. Were it not for spices, I say, Magellan and Columbus might never have been tempted to circumnavigate the world.

Philippine Daily Inquirer Internet Edition
January 8, 1999

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Ma Mon Luk is not
the first to introduce
mami in the Philippines.

The first to do so is
Ma Kong Mami House in Binondo.

Shanghai mami

Asado mami

Kim Hiong Restaurant in Ongpin
serves Chiu-chow mami.

Wanton beef mami
with Chinese herb.

Wanton balls.

Aling Salud Restaurant in Marikina serves pancit with lechon toppings. 

Bicolano cuisine

Bicol hot cuisine at par with Thai hot food.

Naga pinangat with coconut milk wrapped in taro leaves.

Pinangat with siling labuyo

Hotness is not just
a question of degree, it is also a question of quality

Were it not for spices, I say, Magellan
and Columbus might never have been tempted to
circumnavigate the world.

A lush life in Davao
By Doreen G. Fernandez

EVERYONE should begin a visit to Davao with a
glass of fresh pineapple juice, just off the fields,

thick with foam, shot with sweetness. It is a symbol and
harbinger of the city--said to be the largest in the world area-wise--fruit capital of Mindanao, source of some
of the best yellowfin tuna (inihaw na panga, barilis, etc.)
around, filled with orchids and other cutflowers, and now
rich with hotels.

The Marco Polo Davao, related to those of Hong Kong,

Singapore and Xiamen in China, is a partnership
between Marco Polo Hotels Hong Kong and Halifax
Davao Hotel Inc. It stands high (18 floors) in the heart
of town, on C.M. Recto Street, across the street from the
Ateneo de Davao University and the Aldevinco
Shopping Center.

Our exploration started right after we got in from the
airport: lunch at the Cafe Marco, with its international
buffet. It was the best way to try a large buffet, to have
the food-loving brothers, Bien and Lory Tan, sampling
each at his own pace and whim, and reporting on
everything good. Try the smoked malasugui (sailfish),
said Bien; it is made only for the Marco Polo. And the
salad of green mango, pepper and Davao pomelo. Lory
especially liked the steamboat, with its generous
assortment of soup-making meats, fish and vegetables,
and yes, the malasugui sashimi.

I liked the bam-i with its two noodles, crisp vegetables,
and especially prime fishballs handmade by the chef.
Because this was Davao, one of the desserts consisted of durian fritters--mild, a good introduction to the timid. It
led Lory to remember durian shakes, suman, ice cream,
and to propose the creation of a durian buchi, since he
had sampled one built around a giant strawberry. Why not
around a luscious section of durian?

Successful touch

We scattered to wander, promising to meet at dinner, but
Lory and I, in the name of research, ventured down the
street to Patio Valencia--for merienda. Trying to taste the
extensive menu in one try, we had adobong balut
(16-day-old balut cooked in vinegar), another bam-i,
more moist than the first, and a real winner: Kinilaw
2000 of tuna with ginger, calamansi, onions and ''mango
in vino.'' This was the unique, successful touch--green
mangoes tasting faintly of dayok, the bagoong made from
fish innards.

Dinner at the Lotus Court Restaurant was by its Hong
Kong chef. (The hotel manager, Charles So, is also an old
Hong Kong hand). This started with a barbecued
meat/cold cut platter: roast pork, roast duck, suckling
pig, roast chicken and sausage--to tuck into
butterfly-shaped steamed bread (pao) with or without hot
or Hoisin sauces.

Soup came in silver swing-top cups, of braised shredded
duck meat (with tiny curls of skin) with compoy (dried
scallops). A steamed seafood bun came next--in crab
coral (aligue) sauce. Next, perfectly tender stir-fried
small spiny lobsters (crayfish actually, Bien said) that
came off their shells with alacrity.

Chicken roasted was served with Hoisin and fermented
bean curd sauce; eel was fried with salt and pepper. Fish
maws and pork sinews (litid) were braised with large
tender black mushrooms. Crab was sauteed with chili
sauce Singapore style (with aligue).

Dinner jewel

Jewel for the dinner was the famous, elusive fish found
only in Mindanao waters called pigek (grunt), steamed to
absolute tenderness with black beans. It was luscious, and
we picked gently at the roe and the stomach, and all the
flesh off the bones, the fins, the head. When in
Mindanao, insist on your right to have it--probably at a
Chinese restaurant. You won't find it on any other island,
I am told.

Crisp toffee bananas, sweet cassava dumplings, and more
of the chrysanthemum tea that had gentled the dishes,
ended the meal, and we went off to dream sweetly in the
comfortable rooms.

Breakfast was at the coffee shop, and I must confess that
among all the breads, cereals, eggs (cooked to order),
waffles, etc., I fastened on the bacon, which was
perfectly crisp and greaseless as I hadn't seen bacon in
the last decade or so. It was so good it felt guilt-free.

At lunch we were back at the Lotus Court, this time for
some of the 35 varieties of dim sum available (the chef
promises a total of 50 in a few months).

There is a little checklist in Chinese and English, including
such old favorites as hakao (shrimp), Chiu Chow and
Shanghai dumplings; steamed pork spare ribs with garlic,
deep-fried seafood taro puff, radish cake with Chinese
sausage, steamed rice flour roll with scallops, and what
Bien called his ''true love,'' baked barbecued pork pies,
some of which he carried back on the plane.

We visited the crocodile farm, and the weaving at the
Davao Insular, and of course shopped for batik and
malongs at Aldevinco. But the focus of this trip was the
lovely assignment to try out all the Marco Polo outlets.
And of course stay in one of the rooms, with the 17th
floor picture window opening up all of Davao including, on
clear days, Mt. Apo. And yet I could have been happy just
with the spray of waling-waling in my bathroom. Lush
life, indeed.

Philippine Daily Inquirer Internet Edition
June 16, 1999


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