In search of food paradise 



We haven’t taken the hour-long journey to Hen Long in nearby Surrey for quite a while, hence, missing how with a thick body-rope of Filipinos and other Asians, we would furiously navigate the knotty sprawl of bins and baskets that overflow with what seem like gems to our wistful, nay, greedy eyes, as friends had assured us—they who, we’d bump into, with a ‘high five,’ and a high-pitched, “Nandito ka rin!”

Akin to a pilgrimage, as Rose promised, I think it’s how Hen Long felt like—the oh-so-missed palengke we’ve all grown up with, which drew us paradise-like. Indeed, as home recedes farther, longing for food made from Saturday rituals of trudging say, to Sta Mesa’s wet market sharpens, like my sister, who would go straight to her suki for fresh-caught tilapia from Bulacan and just-that-morning gathered tahong from Cavite. And so, with innate primal sensory senses, she had tracked down not substitutes but the real thing before I got here to Vancouver.


I thought I had the upper hand in sourcing what would bring out something like genuine dishes from home, having visited and stayed those years, when I dared to enroll in writing courses at New York University’s Continuing Education programs and apprenticed with an editorial outfit for children’s supplementary reading workbooks. I discovered then, substitutions for say, tinolang manok with zucchini in place of murang papaya and hardy Italian spinach for dahong sili; in the absence of gabi for thickening, I used tofu for sinigang na ulo ng salmon, again with Italian spinach, finding nowhere in the neighborhood produce stores, talbos or pechay.


During Lent, searching for fish other than cod fillet, I had imagined I would find catfish, served as blackened fillet in restaurants, but like most fish here in North America, by the time it gets to the shelves, it’s unrecognizable filleted sans whiskers and skin. Diligent poking though among frozen bags had rewarded me with catfish nuggets, and of the best part—its belly, out of which I used to cook adobo that would last through the fasting season.


None of that for my sister, who, like most Filipinos, would not compromise the taste she remembers. Hence, we would train up to far north Surrey and walk a half-mile from the station to Hen Long market. What joy, indeed, to find fresh saluyot and malunggay leaves for dinengdeng (Ilocano abraw), thin eggplants and small ampalaya for pakbet, sometimes though limp and already brownish in the tips, sayote tops, as well, Manila clams and even paros or unnok among Ilocanos, and cuts for dinuguan with, of course, the essential dugo, pinapaitan, including the greenish papait juice.


But here’s the rub: Such bliss proves costly and why not, as one store manager in the small produce store a block away from home to whom I had complained about the $4 per pound mango from Cebu blurted out, “It was flown on a Boeing 747!” A thin bunch of malunggay leaves, for another, neatly bagged in transparent plastic, still green to the eye—but which when taken out would fall like confetti—costs almost enough to buy a kilo of rice in Manila. Sayote tops because of their limited shelf life would be as pricey as a kilo of beef from a karnehan in Quiapo.


Was it BC Premiere Christy Clark’s visit to Manila, which brought about an inundation of Philippine food in Vancouver, perhaps? We haven’t gone to Hen Long for a while (now housed in its own spanking grand plaza), it’s at T&T, a giant Asian grocery and produce market irresistibly located at our train stop close to home, where we’ve found the same eden; why wouldn’t we drop by almost daily even just to browse shelves with Saranggani bangus and tilapia cheeks, frozen gabi, saba, patani, kinudkod na kamoteng kahoy, laman ng buko, Pampanga tocino, Ilocano longganisa even Magic Melt ensaymada, Selecta and Magnolia ice cream.


Sure, haven’t we, as Filipinos, long adapted to other cuisines, not to mention what’s Hispanic and Chinese in our food, introduced to Italian and even French dining, as well as not too long ago, Japanese and Middle Eastern? I remember the burgers we loved as university students at the corner of Avenida and Claro M. Recto, but soon came McDonald’s. Long before the pizza chain conquest of Manila, D’Mark’s served what seemed closest to what we now bite into. Still, deep in our nests, the yearning for food with which we were brought up continues to rumble through our dreams.


Three weeks ago on a deep bin at T&T, along with Mexican papayas and Chinese pomelos, there gleamed big guayabano packs, to my slight dismay from Thailand; anyhow, though priced like two sushi dinners, my sister bought one for me, and frozen saba for her. On reaching home, we chewed on our memories, wordless in thought. And then, somehow reality sneaked in unbidden with a string of reklamo: The guayabano tasted too bread-y, and the saba not maligat. We stopped there and fell into what felt obvious—how is it ever possible to implant home in another hemisphere, anyway?


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

Rice:not just grain
March 31, 2009, 6:54 am
Filed under: essay, food, thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Until a tiny white hill hazed in its steam is served and I discern in it thousands of grain, only then, do the bowls of boiled fish, broiled meat and sautéed greens take on taste and meaning.


Rice for Filipinos is life, the dining table but the heart. Its life like ours has seasons that begin with planting, which also starts the cycle of producing and recycling. Right after harvest, grain is chosen for seedlings where most of it is hauled off for milling. But first the grains are beaten off the stalks and gathered un-husked. The stalks are left to dry in the fields as hay—when dried these will be used as bed for mushroom spawns or burnt one bundle at a time and soaked as shampoo. At the rice mill, the husk is separated from the bran: husk heaped on coals in an earthen stove keeps it warm; bran mixed into swine gruel enriches it.


Only whole dry grains are cooked; wet grain pounded by hand is topping for ice cream; grit is home-bred chicken feed. Rice should be served no more than one meal but leftover rice may be fried in lard and garlic for breakfast or it can be sun dried then fried for a crunchy snack.


Rice is cooked with two parts water but an extra cup can be scooped off while boiling, a pinch of salt added as healing drink for an upset stomach, and so is toasted rice boiled as coffee.


Boiled with chicken sautéed in ginger and garlic, rice becomes congee. Powdered rice makes a soft tasty cake if cooked with coconut milk and flavored with anise. Coarsely ground rice steamed in double boilers and topped sesame seeds pairs well with saucy minced pork cooked with blood paste.


Copyright 2009 by Alegria Imperial, an unpublished essay