Friday, November 13, 2015

Mama Sita's Mga Kuwentong Pagkain and a Creative Encounter with Puerto Princesa Cuisine at Alab

It's been said that food has a direct connection to the history of the place it originates from, evolving and changing in a dynamic and organic manner. Yet it remains a tasty morsel of the past re-imagined and experienced in the present. This link with the past is recreated in a sumptuous dinner celebrating the indigenous and local cuisine of Palawan and Puerto Princesa at Alab...   

Cultural historian Doreen Fernandez believed that "eating goes beyond the act of consumption for the sake of sustenance" and stressed the point that "eating is an action of ingesting culture." The Mama Sita Foundation, in collaboration with ADMU's Department of Sociology and Anthropology and Cultural Heritage Studies Program and Chef Tatung's Alab Restaurant presented "Puerto Princesa's Cuisine: A Creative Encounter" last November 10, 2015, a culinary journey of rich flavors and culture, and an insightful immersion to the unique flavors of Palawan. The unique dinner experience also revealed one of the many strands of our rich culinary heritage, woven in a tapestry of local flavors that truly represent our national identity.

Chef Myke "Tatung" Sarthou's inventive culinary style remains firmly rooted in traditional cuisine (for more on Chef Myke Sarthou's Alab Restaurant, see my previous post here), highlighting regional variations for a uniquely local dining experience making him the perfect choice to execute the evening's special dinner. The distinct local flavors of Alab Restaurant also provided the perfect setting for the yearly "Mga Kuwentong Pagkain" contest by the Mama Sita's Foundation,  inspired by Teresita "Mama Sita" Reyes' own chronicles about food. A natural storyteller and avid listener, Mama Sita has collected and compiled both recipes and stories preserving the richness of our culinary heritage while providing social and historical context and insights through the years. Food is, after all, a sensory experience reflective of culture and history.

In honor of Teresita "Mama Sita" Reyes' passion for food, the Mama Sita's Foundation  holds an annual competition, "Mga Kuwentong Pagkain," to promote awareness and appreciation for Filipino cuisine and to preserve our culinary heritage (for more on the contest, visit Mama Sita's website here).

At the tables, Mama Sita's range of local and regional vinegar varieties were displayed as part of the evening's special dinner. These included Coconut Nectar Vinegar, Coco Floral Sap Vinegar (Sukang Tuba), Anghang Sarap (Spiced Sukang Tuba), Cane Vinegar (Sukang Iloko), Distilled Cane Vinegar and Cashew Vinegar.

Coconut and cane sugar are the popular base ingredients for the different vinegar varieties, providing its own unique flavors representative of the region. At the dinner, Cecille Nepomuceno (L), Mama Sita's Information Officer; and Alab's Chef Myke "Tatung" Sarthou (R) provided a brief backgrounder for the evening's special dinner. 

Before dinner, Dr. Fernando P. Zialcita, Director of ADMU's Cultural Heritage Studies Program and his students shared valuable and key insights on the distinct elements of Palaweno cuisine, identifying three major indigenous culinary streams: the Tagbanua, with its focus on forest food and seasonal ingredients in tune with the rhythm of nature; the Cuyunon, highlighting the freshest seafood and local meat with minimal spices and often seasoned with fresh fruits and lemongrass; and the emerging Palawan-Vietnamese cuisine,  a localized, "Palawanized" version of Vietnamese dishes with bolder and sweeter notes that can be traced back to the Vietnamese migration after the fall of Saigon. Based on these culinary insights, Alab's Chef Myke Sarthou, fondly known as "Tatung", created a special menu celebrating both Filipno cuisine and individual creativity. "The menu plays on the elements that create dishes," explained Chef Tatung, featuring raw, boiled, grilled, and steamed dishes. Layers of even more flavors can be discovered by diners with a wide range of dipping sauces, including a variety of local vinegar by Mama Sita's. My encounter with Puerto Princesa cuisine began with the "Do-It-Yourself Kinilaw," a local version of Ceviche, with the whole range of Mama Sita's vinegar products and fresh ingredients like spicy red and green chili, garlic, calamansi, sour green mangoes, tart tomatoes, red onions, thinly sliced cucumbers, and coconut cream.

Local cuisine is often dictated by the surrounding resources and ingredients, and one of Palawan's distinct features include a bountiful coastline with the freshest seafood. The interactive dish included fresh and raw Prawns with Lato, edible local seaweed, prepared and ready for a customized Kinilaw dish...

Then, more fresh seafood was served for the Do-It-Yourself Kinilaw dish, including fresh Tuna and Squid, reflecting the rich diversity of Palawan's marine resources. The deceptively simple dish relies on the freshness of ingredients for pure and clean, uncomplicated  flavors...

...and finally, fresh Oysters on a Half Shell to complete the Do-It-Yourself Kinilaw. The first step is create the kinilaw dressing, with Mama Sita's Coco Floral Sap Vinegar, the iconic Sukang Tuba, a local vinegar extracted from the sap of coconut flowers. Add some coconut cream to balance the acidity, along with garlic, chili, red onions, calamansi, fish sauce, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Add in some fresh prawns, squid, tuna, and oysters, and top with the edible seaweed.

Simply let the fresh seafood, seaweed, ad vegetables absorb the sour tartness of Mama Sita's Coco Floral Sap Vinegar for five or more minutes, as the colors of the seafood transform to a pale white, cooked in the vinegar. In true Cuyunon style, the Kinilaw's simplicity draws its flavors from the freshest ingredients. The briny sweetness of the fresh prawns, tuna, squid, and oysters are punctuated by the sour and acidic notes of the Coco Floral Sap Vinegar, the heat from the chili, the tartness of the tomatoes, the distinct sharp bite of the red onions, and the sour sweetness of the green mangoes. It's a rich medley of local flavors in a bowl.

Chef Tatung then served his take on Puerto Princesa's iconic regional dish, the distinctly Palaweno Lauya, a comforting soup with tender pork hocks boiled for three hours with local beans and sweet jackfruit. The Tagbanua style of cooking often combines meat with fresh fruits, and this hearty and comforting soup delivers countless layers of mild sweetness from the tender pork and jackfruit.

Local Palawan craft beers were also featured in the special dinner, with handcrafted artisan beer by Palaweno Brewery made with indigenous local ingredients for unique flavors. The growing trend and popularity for craft beer is also driven by the use of indigenous and local ingredients for a truly local experience. Palawan is known for its natural honey, and honey and the local water adds that distinct Palawan flavor to Palawan Brewery's line of craft beers. Five variants from Palaweno Brewery were served, including American Amber Ale, Belgian Wheat Ale, Honey Kolsch, Ayahay IPA, and Honey Nut Brown to pair with the different dishes.

As we waited for the third course, I prepared another bowl of Kinilaw, this time with Mama Sita's Cane Vinegar, or Sukang Iloko, paired with the refreshingly clean, crisp and mildly sweet notes of the Palaweno Brewery's Honey Kolsch. Perfect. Another must-try is Mama Sita's Cashew Vinegar, a personal favorite with its bold and intense notes almost like a local version of balsamic vinegar. The tart sweetness also makes it ideal for desserts.

After a few more rounds of Palawano Brewery's Honey Kolsch and Kinilaw, the main dishes were served, with Grilled Chicken Inato, Grilled Pork Belly, and Puso, soft organic brown rice wrapped in palm leaf. The Cuyunon style of cooking meat is typified by its very minimal use of spices, and Chef Tatung seasons the tender and savory pork and chicken with just salt and nothing else before grilling. The mild and delicate notes of the pork and chicken are enhanced with the simple salt seasoning, bringing out its flavors layered with a hint of smokiness.

Pair your grilled pork and chicken with Palaweno Brewery's Honey Kolsch, Ayahay IPA, or the malty Honey Nut Brown. The natural richness of the juicy pork and chicken were perfectly complemented by the refreshing and clean notes of Palaweno Brewery's line of local craft beers.

For dessert, Chef Tatung served his signature Egg Yolk and Honey Custard topped with Toasted Palawan Cashews and delicately steamed Sticky Rice Balls, ending the special Puerto Princesa-inspired dinner on a high note. Raw, boiled, grilled, and steamed, Chef Tatung's creative menu reflected the richness of Palaweno cuisine in a unique and epic celebration of indigenous local flavors. Each bite not only delivers bold flavors, but an insight in the rich tapestry and diversity of flavors woven in our culinary heritage. And it's about time local cuisine gets its share of the limelight in the blossoming culinary scene. I'm pretty sure Teresita "Mama Sita" Reyes would agree...

Alab by Chef Tatung is located at 67 Scout Rallos Street, Tomas Morato Avenue, Sacred Heart, Quezon City or call 364-9631 for inquiries and more information.

For more information on Mama Sita's wide range of products, visit their website here, and additional details on the Mga Kuwentong Pagkain contest here.

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