I grew up Ilokano and Ilokano food is very austere – everything is simply boiled, broiled, or eaten raw. So dining away from the Spartan Ilokano cuisine and my peasant boyhood had always been an adventure.
I was about ten when I first read stories about the dungeons of medieval Europe. The prisoners slept on straw mats and were fed only bread and water. What a good life, I thought. It was only on Sundays that my mother would bring home pan de sal from the market.
My first formal dinner was at the Carbungco restaurant near Santo Tomas University. I was a new assistant literary editor of the Varsitarian, the college paper, and the staff was invited to a formal dinner by then Secretary General of UST, Father Francisco Munoz. I was a stranger to all the finery, the food, and the different kinds of knives, forks, and spoons. The wine glasses were always filled. Then, after dinner, what looked to me like an almost empty glass of wine was placed in front of me. I gulped it down. My eyes and throat burned. That was my first brandy.
I had the good fortune to dine at the White House when I first went to the United States in 1955 as a State Department fellow, and I never miss the chance to brag about it. General Dwight Eisenhower was the President then. I enjoyed my simple American fare very much. My host was an Ilokano cook, who had been a U.S. Navy sailor, and we ate in the kitchen.
I read somewhere that the great Swedish writer, Isak Dinesen, ate nothing but oysters and champagne. My daughter, Jette, and I had an unforgettable feast of oysters in Paris in 1971.
We spotted an ordinary-looking restaurant with a sign outside announcing oysters. We ordered one dozen, and then another dozen. When the bill came, I was shocked. I paid and we walked away, but the Ilokano in me made me go back to ask why the bill was so high. Each oyster was one U.S. dollar, equivalent to seven U.S. dollars today.
Jette and I had another memorable meal in a Dublin restaurant, where we had our first Chateaubriand. But it is not the steak that I remember. It was the young Irish waiter. Perhaps it was his first time to see a pretty brown girl. He could not take his eyes off her, and I yelled at him. The service napkin hanging on his arm had caught fire from the lighted candle on our table.
Speaking of steaks, the best steak I’ve ever had was at Gallagher’s in New York. I went back after a decade, and it was not as good as I remembered it. My host asked me how it was. I said the steak had character.
Also in New York, my Random House editor, Sam Vaughan, took me to the Four Seasons. It was my first time to see steak tartar on the menu, and sure that I wouldn’t get food poisoning in that fancy restaurant, I ordered it. The raw steak was topped with a raw egg.
I think though that the Ilokano kilawin – diced goat skin -- tastes better.
I visited Moscow for the first time in 1967 for the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. I stayed at the National Hotel, the most famous hotel in Russia, where Lenin stayed during the October Revolution. My room had no lock or key; a middle-aged woman sat at the end of the corridor, watching the guests.
It was at the National Hotel that I had what is perhaps the most delicious breakfast of my life – freshly baked Russian black bread, all the fresh butter and caviar I could slap on it, and a cup of aromatic Russian tea.
I have always been partial to soba. My best soba lunch was in this restaurant in Kanda, where the waiters announced each dish with flourish. Kanda is an area in Tokyo where all the bookshops are. My hosts were the anthropologist couple, Louie and Kyoko Kikuchi, who studied the Mangyans and the Cordillera people.
The best Japanese meal my wife and I have ever had was at the residence of the Japanese ambassador. Never before have I had chawanmushi so delicate or beef so flavorful and tender.
My favorite Japanese restaurant in Manila is Tanabe. My Japanese journalist friends call it the best in Manila. The staff know that I will want cold soba or chirashi with only half the usual amount of rice, just the way my wife wants me to have it.
I have other favorites in Manila. The best siopao is at Emerald, in front of the U.S. Embassy on Roxas Boulevard. The best chicken barbecue is at the Aristocrat, also on Roxas Boulevard. The Hainan chicken and laksa at Tao Yuan in Malate are the best in Manila. Chowking serves the best halo-halo, and the best tropical fruits are at Robinsons Supermarket in Ermita. The ensaymada at Za’s on Bacobo remains incomparable until today.
Gilbert Teodoro, whose Ilokano is far better than mine, and I were once talking about typical Ilocano peasant food that is now extinct. He reminded me of ar-aro, a small fresh water fish. It was usually found in waterlogged rice fields, and is either broiled or boiled.
I have looked all over the public markets of Northern Luzon for birabid. It is a shellfish with a very thin, almost translucent shell. It is usually found in the rice fields and small ponds during the planting season. Before cooking it, the mucus the shell excretes has to be thoroughly rinsed off. If not, you can get slightly dizzy from eating birabid.
A regular on our dining table at home is papait. It is a weed which grows at the beginning of the rainy season. It is bitter and you have to grow up eating it to like it. The small leaves are blanched with hot water, flavored with bagoong, and served with diced tomatoes and onions.
Way back when I was a boy, I was in the fallow fields gathering weeds for my pig. I came across papait, and immediately uprooted the whole plant. My mother admonished me. I should always leave some for the next hungry person, she said. This was one of my earliest lessons on compassion.
First published in The Philippine Star, February 2, 2019 https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2019/02/02/1890073/ilokanos-notes-fancy-dining
Photo Credit: Anak Ti Luna