Re-learning to be a Filipino with pan de sal
December 20, 2009, 11:06 pm
Filed under: essay, food, interview | Tags: , , ,

Filipino pan de sal

Coming from a doctor’s appointment at that medical building on Broadway and Oak in Vancouver, pained in parts that have been poked, anxious to find comfort in any guise, a poster of giant pieces of pan de sal on the glass wall of a café across the lobby you’re shuffling to get out of, falls like a proverbial manna from heaven! It draws your body upright and your uncertain steps turn into a light gait as you walk into Elliz Café, but wondering whether or not it’s the pan de sal for which you’ve been craving.

Hmmm, the aroma wraps you like the warmth of a kusina where on mornings your grandmother or mom sets almusal with pan de sal on a bandejado—not newly-baked by either of them but in the neighborhood bakery, which a boy on a bicycle who had honked a horn delivered in a brown paper bag, still warm, sweetish and salty. Instantly transported, you gloss over the cafe’s glass-walls, sleek-lines yet homey feel with its earth tones and finish, and approach the counter shooting this question at the lady in the  -cash register-hardly having had time to weigh its appropriateness– “I’m expecting to have Filipino pan de sal, am I not?”

Mary Loa lights up with instant kinship and says, “Of course.” The conversation does not end there, siempre.

You have finished two pieces of pan de sal by now, dipping them on the mushroom soup your choice instead of the wonton soup—on request of Filipino customers, the café serves two kinds of soup, one a Filipino recipe—which you learn from Mary have been cooked, baked and more precisely “created” by 27-year old Joy Loa, Mary’s daughter who is baker, chef, and manager of the café.

Joy Loa of Elliz Cafe, Vancouver

The lunch crowd thinned, a sun swarming on the tables, yours lit as much as your spirit sated from the very first bite, Joy joins you as you had requested for a conversation, which focuses on the pan de sal.

“You can’t imagine how hard I worked to get the right consistency that gives the texture, aroma, and taste, you like all others who take a bite like and have been coming for more. Six months or so, that’s how long!” Joy almost rises off her chair for emphasis and her voice hits higher decibels, carrying with it her triumph on what to most Filipinos is staple bread.

At the café, regular clientele include not only Filipinos but Hispanics, who recognize it of course, yet love it better than theirs or so they confess. There’s the bollilos among Mexicans, and pan de agua among the Portuguese—who by the way introduced it to the Filipinos, according to historical notes. And why not? Fernando Magallanes, who discovered the Philippines in his explorations, is Portuguese. Canadians and other Caucasians as well, most of them doctors, their assistants and patients in the clinics within the building have since taken on the Filipino habit of asking for it to dip in their soup. A Japanese gentleman has not failed to come for more after his first bite.

Why should its crustiness yet soft insides, its saltiness yet sweetish hint be such a mystery? “I don’t know. It must be the weather, the water, the kind of flour available,” she says hinting at a less than scientific process she went through.

Her mom had sent her back to the Philippines when she finished a degree in nutrition at University of British Columbia (UBC), “to re-learn Filipino cooking.” The family had migrated 17 years ago when Joy was in the grades. Her parents had applied as investors, pulling out their business in Greenhills, San Juan, a posh suburb of Manila, and landing in Winnipeg. Joy remembers lots of trees and snow that first year. Her memories of adjusting were fun and easy except for C+ grades in Physical Education subjects. “Suddenly, I was running laps, playing soccer and basketball. We were doing gymnastics and volleyball in Manila, nothing that athletic at all,” she recalls.

Going back to the Philippines was for Joy reliving her childhood when as a 7-year old she went to the now-famed Heny Sison Culinary School. That early she learned how to bake cupcakes and muffins—today she creates muffins out of what’s fresh in the fruit market or what’s in the fridge. During that learning vacation, Joy set her hands on unraveling the secrets not only of the pan de sal but also of the chewy-but-mouth-melting ensaymada, flaky but not bread-y empanada with just the right fresh cooked taste of its filling, and the many breads Filipinos grow up with like pan de coco.

Speaking of coconut, Joy expresses her anguish, hanging her head a bit, saying, “If I could get fresh coconut cream, I could make rice cakes like biko, which is my favorite, bibingka, and yes, puto bumbong”. You agree with her as images of mornings after misa de aguinaldo, you could not resist puto bumbong that pops with a slight bang when cooked on a tubular pot with two tubes set to steam on a clay stove, so its name—this purple rice roll lathered with margarine and topped with freshly grated coconut meat cooked right at the church patio.

But Joy has not let a few frustrations faze her. Take what she considers her ensaymada challenge. “Mahirap gawin! Mahanginan lang, babagsak na ang dough. (It’s hard to make it. A whiff of air could deflate the dough.),” she reveals. Even while she recognized it as basically a “brioche” in school, making it as the Filipino ensaymada she realized was hardly in the books. It took her months to get it right.

At Christmas after she finally had pieces for tasting, she got swamped with orders—“one of them asked for 25 dozens! I must have been baking and topping these with cheese for at least three days and nights.” You do add that a Christmas table spread is hardly complete without ensaymada.

You have since taken your second bite of the sampling Mary had coaxed you to try. Indeed, it must be the ultimate yet from the many variations you had eaten—from simple town bakery sugared versions to the latest mouth-melting bite-size kind made by a chain bakeshop in Manila.

And there’s still half of the cassava cake you have hankered to taste, about which a family of Hispanic women seated at the table behind you have been hmmmm-ing about. It’s one of the items Joy has recently added when customers allergic to wheat asked for an alternative.

counter at Elliz Cafe

The sun has slipped lower from its zenith and the afternoon has signaled a new crowd which Joy expects. One of them has come in, a Filipino regular who drops by for two sometimes three dozen pieces of pan de sal to bring home. Today, she settles as well for only three of the ensaymada left on the shelf.

Joy takes me behind the counter where on a table she has spread 24 dozens of newly baked pan de sal. But it’s almost closing time, you comment. “Mauubos ‘yan. (That will all be gone.) Joy tells you.

Take-home for pasalubong, yet another enduring habit of Filipinos has worked for Joy and Elliz Cafe. “Because they also ask for it, someday soon, I’ll be serving pancit,” she says. You add, not serve but also wrap for pasalubong. With that, you walk to the counter and pay for half a dozen pan de sal to take home. But you had vowed to come back for a dozen ensaymada to share with friends on Christmas day.

Copyright © 2009 by Alegria Imperial as published in Silangan, Philippine New and Views, Vancouver, BC

4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I miss my hot pan de sals in the morning. With a generous spread of butter and dipped in hot coffee, these are the things that can never be replaced. Happy holidays to you!

Comment by junbelen

Thanks for ‘dropping by’, Jun!

I know how you feel. Who is the Filipino that doesn’t miss pan de sal and the many ways with it? That’s why, I couldn’t resist the sight of it on a poster like I narrated in this story.

Indeed, some things are irreplaceable–things from memory that seem engraved in the heart, and this we realize later long after these are missing.

Enjoy the holidays!


Comment by filipineses09

I wish Joy total success with Elliz what with her family’s dedication Alegria.
There’s a filipino food weblog at you might want to check.
Happy Holidays to you all! Mabuhay kayo!

Comment by pochp

Maraming salamat uli!!!

I’m sure Joy will appreciate your wish for her. Success doesn’t seem alien to her–I’ve witnessed her love for baking and loads of joy she puts into it.

I think I have accessed phoodjournal once; it’s overwhelming! But thanks for reminding me to drop in again.

I do intend to post other write-ups on food from those that I gather first hand–when Filipinos talk about food and cooking, there’s no end to it and no stopping them from revealing ‘secrets’; something new always comes up.

Maaligayang Pasko at Manigong Bagong Taon din sa iyo.


Comment by Guia Albano-Imperial

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: