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Dining in Manila: is the capital of the Philippines the next great food city?

A mix of Chinese, Malay, Spanish and American, Filipino cuisine offers much more to discover than just adobo and lechon.

When it comes to Filipino cuisine, it’s hard to get past the stereotypes: balut (boiled duck foetus), adobo, sisig, bacalao and pancit are some that come to mind.

But for the uninitiated who have yet to cast their dining net beyond the likes of say, Bangkok, Hong Kong or Tokyo, there is much more to Manila than feeds the eye.

Possibly no one knows that better than Margarita Forés – chef-restaurateur and undeniably the global food ambassador of Filipino food who tirelessly spreads the word from New York to Japan. She’s the owner of Cibo – a successful Italian restaurant chain in Manila – as well as three other concept eateries and a catering business. In 2016, she was named Best Female Chef in the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Together with likeminded Filipino chefs, she wants the world to see Manila as not just a street food mecca but a serious global dining destination.

What is Filipino cuisine?

”It’s a real celebration of different cultures that influence what the Philippines is all about,” says Chef Forés excitedly.

”It’s an amalgamation of Chinese, Malay, Spanish and a bit of American influence,” adds Bruce Ricketts, chef-owner of the Japanese inspired Mecha Uma.

The Chinese influence is perhaps a little more obvious because the old business district was right beside Chinatown, says Toyo Eatery’s Jordy Navarra. ”You would see Chinese dishes with Spanish names. Which is unique in itself, in the sense that all these countries influence what (Filipino cuisine) is today.” Take for example, dishes such as morisqueta tostada – the Filipino version of Yangzhou fried rice – or arroz caldo, referring to breakfast congee. There’s even a name for it – Comida China.

Toyo Eatery

Jordy Navarra cooks elevated Filipino cuisine at Toyo Eatery.

The difficulty in putting Filipino cuisine into a specific category is what makes it so special, says Josh Boutwood of the progressive restaurant Helm. ”We may not have a true identity but that in itself is a cuisine.”

Getting to the world stage

The rest of the world seems to agree, as attention is increasingly turned towards Manila’s fine dining scene. Claude Tayag – food writer, artist and chef of private dining kitchen Bale Dutung, credits Margarita Forés’ Best Chef accolade in 2016 as one of the main reasons, along with the growing number of Western-trained chefs who have returned home to flex their own creative muscles.

Jordy Navarra – who trained at The Fat Duck and earned a reputation for his modern interpretation of local cuisine – broke into the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 list at number 43, after snagging the Miele One to Watch award in 2018.

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Another feather in Manila’s cap was when it hosted Madrid Fusión Manila from 2015 to 2017. Acknowledged as one of the world’s most important gastronomy events, ”it put so much attention on Filipino cuisine and ingredients because it brought the greats of the world to Manila,” says Chef Forés. ”Chefs like Elena Arzak, Joan Roca, Andoni Luis Aduriz, Enrique Olvera, Virgilio Martinez, Yoshihiro Narisawa, they were all here.”

Challenges for local chefs

While the level of cooking talent is undisputed, ”finding a variety of sources for ingredients is always a challenge,” says the 34-year-old Chef Navarra who uses almost 100 per cent locally grown produce, except for beef.

”In Manila, we are lucky that our labour costs are not high, but the price of local ingredients is constantly going up,” says Helm’s British-born Chef Boutwood, 32.

”We want the farmers to get the money themselves (without the middleman). But even if we buy directly from them, we don’t want to pay the lowest price. You want to do good for their community. It helps them start the next yield, the next cycle of crops.”

Even so, getting the quality of local vegetables, fish and herbs that the chefs want on a day-to-day has been a strain on farmers. Says the 30-year-old Chef Ricketts, ”I was really cooking a lot of local flavors that I liked but, but the produce isn’t always up to par.” It’s especially pertinent to returning Filipino chefs who are used to cooking at world-class dining destinations such as the US for Chef Ricketts; and Sweden and Spain for Chef Boutwood.

Bruce Ricketts

Chef Bruce Ricketts and his Japanese-inspired menu at Mecha Uma.

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Going local, then, requires patience, time and a good deal of cash. But where there’s a will, Chef Boutwood shows the way. He buys a whole week’s worth of greens and ages them via curing and fermentation, ”or else we’re battling with inconsistencies the whole week”. But such unpredictability ”keeps us on our toes,” says Chef Navarra. ”We’re reacting to the product that’s provided, which in a sense is what’s great about it. The product dictates how we cook and there’s something very Filipino in that also. If you go through rural Filipino cuisine, it’s about gathering what’s around you and cooking it.”

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Looking ahead

Chef Forés hopes that the current wave of chefs such as Jordy Navarra and Bruce Ricketts will inspire young upcoming talents.

Says Chef Boutwood, ”I would love to see homegrown chefs really push the boundaries.

I want my team to leave one day and do what they want to do on their own. I hope they create their own legacies in the process. They’ve learnt enough here to be confident and say, ‘I can pull something off, I can achieve this’

Chef Navarra agrees. ”Our restaurant surviving gives other people the idea that they can push whatever style they want to do.” ”When I see local restaurants become recognized around the world, I feel like I’ve won something too,” adds Chef Ricketts. ”It awakens something inside of me as a Filipino.”

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.