Filipinos are obsessed with food. We eat six times a day. It’s the national sport,” laughs chef Myrna Dizon Segismundo. At the moment, though, the chef, who runs the Quezon City, Manila-based Restaurant 9501, is obsessing about vinegar. “We were travelling with four gallons of palm vinegar, but the security at Manila airport stopped us because it’s inflammable. It was routed through Bangkok but I’m not sure when it will arrive,” says Segismundo, keeping an eye on her BlackBerry. Segismundo is in Delhi for the promotion of Philippine cuisine at PanAsian, the East Asian cuisine restaurant at WelcomHotel Sheraton New Delhi, at Saket.
As the youngest of 12 children whose nanny doubled up as the cook, Segismundo grew up in the busy family kitchen. “It was practically my nursery,” chuckles the F&B manager-turned-chef, who has also hosted food shows and edited a food magazine. Author of two books on Philippine food, Segismundo is currently on “a mission of advocating Philippine cuisine” and documenting a diverse and mostly undocumented culinary tradition. As she wraps up an interview with Lounge, comes the happy news, as if on cue—the vinegar has arrived. Edited excerpts:
Mix it up: Segismundo is on a mission to popularize her native cuisine. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
You seem quite distracted that the vinegar consignment may be late. How important is it to the cuisine? Is there any special variety?
Philippine cuisine is heavily dependent on a variety of vinegars. There’s rice vinegar (which is also used in Chinese and Japanese cooking), there’s cane vinegar, and then there’s palm vinegar, a Philippines speciality. Rice and cane vinegars are a tad bit sour; palm vinegar sweeter—it makes all the difference. For authentic Philippine flavours, it’s important that you have the right vinegars. The sankutra, a kind of base sauce for nearly all meat dishes, is made with vinegar and seasonings. Besides, in a tropical country like ours, it’s extensively used as a preservative in pickles.
The Philippines has a rich history of trade. How much has that influenced the cuisine?
Significantly. Philippines has drawn traders and conquerors from Malaysia, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico and Japan. All these people left lasting influences on our culture and cuisine. Of course, the most marked influence is Spanish, due to the 300-year occupation. Then there were the Americans in the 20th century. Modern Philippine food marries all these influences to create a uniquely local flavour. So you may have a fried rice but with sausages and cured meat. We have a local version of sausages called longganisa, which is like chorizo.
At some point in our history, there must have been some Indian contacts as well, I think. Like, we call pickled vegetables atchara (pronounced achaara), same as your achaar. But we fell off the spice route. Not many spices are grown, so our cuisine, unlike Thai and Indian, is not as spicy. We do use some chillies though, like bird’s-eye.
Given the diversity, is there any one dish popular across the country?
There are quite a few. Kaldereta, a local version of a Spanish stew, is beef or goat meat cooked in tomato sauce, olive oil and garlic. But adobo, meat braised in vinegar and soy sauce, would qualify as our national dish. There are many versions of it, with beef or pork and chicken. We are a great pork-loving nation.
What are the must-have ingredients in a Philippine kitchen?
Vinegar. Fish and soy sauce, thanks to the Chinese influence. From the Spanish we learnt to use olive oil, though it’s not locally grown, and garlic. Tomato sauce is another Spanish-influenced staple.
Adobong Baboy at Manok (Braised pork and chicken in vinegar)
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 cup vinegar (cane, palm or white)
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/2 tbsp black pepper, cracked
1.5kg pork belly, with skin on, cut into 2-inch cubes
1kg chicken, cut into small pieces
Enough water to cover meat
Annatto water—2 tbsp annatto, or sindhuri, seeds soaked in 1/2 cup water for 5 minutes and strained (optional)
Combine garlic, vinegar, soy sauce and pepper in a sauce pot or wok. While the traditional recipe calls for palm vinegar, you can use balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar or even red wine for interesting variations. Add pork, chicken and water. Simmer over medium heat till the chicken is cooked. Remove the chicken from the pot, keep it aside and continue to simmer the pork till tender.
The pork fat will start to melt and release oil. Remove about two-thirds of the fat and increase the heat. Fry the pork until golden brown.
Put the chicken back in the pot and add annatto water and stir. Only some versions of adobo use annatto, primarily a colouring agent with a nutmeg-like flavour, to get a characteristic orange colour.
Gently toss the cooked meats. Some may stick to the sides, so gently scrape the sides of the pot and mix them into the gravy (the secret to a good adobo). Serve warm with pickled vegetables.
The Philippine cuisine promotion is on at PanAsian, WelcomeHotel Sheraton New Delhi, till Sunday. An average meal for two costs Rs3,500 plus taxes.