Monday, June 25, 2012

My Pinakbet Recipe -- channeling my inner Ilokana

The after effects of our annual Ilocos road trip include Jay's secret stash of his favorite milk candy, my  hoard of crunchy biscocho from Pasuquin and not the least, mountains of bagnet and Laoag longganiza in the freezer.
The bagnet is just begging to be cooked along with pinakbet -- so it's time to channel my inner Ilocana and prepare my (to my mind) authentic Ilocano pakbet.

I enjoy making pinakbet but sometimes, it's a challenge to put the right ingredients together.  It's been raining the past days so our week-end farmer's market yields only a few of the things that would make this the real Macoy (pun intended).
Authentic ilocano pinakbet has a lot of vegetables but for this time, I only have the small round talong, the mini ampalaya and there is no alucon to be found -- that crazy, curly thin string bean so I have to make do with regular sitaw.
I wish I had patani and that uniquely Ilocano chili but, of course there is none to be had.
Of course pinakbet includes onions, tomatoes, luya and fish bagoong.
Plus, a big hunk of bagnet to add some cholesterol to this otherwise healthy dish.

The vegetables are sliced and diced and ready to go!

And the bagnet has been brought to room temperature and chopped in man sized bites.

I miss my old earthenware palayok which finally broke and has yet to be replaced.  So I make do with an ordinary pot.  I layer the vegetables and spoon the bagoong on top of each layer. This way,   I achieve a more even seasoning and saltiness throughout the dish.

The bagnet goes on top and is drizzled with more bagoong.
I think a truly authentic Ilocano pinakbet is one where the ingredients are not sauteed but merely left to simmer and cook in the bagoong, a little water and the vegetables' natural liquids.

After slow cooking over a very low fire, the pot full of vegetables and bagnet are reduced to this -- the vegetables are not crisp-crunchy as they can sometimes be in commercial pinakbet but neither are they squishy-soggy.  Everything is steeped in flavor and natural juices -- of talong, ampalaya, sitaw, luya, kamatis, sibuyas, bagoong ... and yes, pork juices too!

This is a one dish meal -- the crunch and crackle of the bagnet skin has been softened to yummy goodness. Slightly bitter ampalaya and spicy luya cuts through the umay factor.
Is it authentically Ilocano?  Only my inner Ilocana knows for sure!

Sarap ng Saramsam! Best of Ilocos cuisine in Laoag City

According to its website, Saramsam in Ilokano means constant and informal eating. 
Which is exactly what characterizes my eating habits but then again, I always felt that I had some Ilocano in me since I am so drawn to Ilocos -- we have been going on our annual road trip to this northern most part of Luzon for the past 17 years.

However it was only in 2010 when we discovered Saramsam Ilocano Restaurant.  Jun, a local guide, introduced us to this uniquely Ilocano place.

Saramsam does not look like your typical out-of-town eatery.  It is a mini showpiece of Ilocano cuisine, culture and heritage. The walls showcase contemporary art from young and aspiring local artists.

Naturally, antiques are a major part of the furnishings.  These old gaseras and this dark green
damajuana evoke bygone days.

Saramsam, true to its meaning, is an informal hodge podge - different kinds of chairs make up the mismatched dining table sets -- from heavy and carved wooden seats to light batibot chairs -- it all adds to the charm.
The crowd is relaxed and everyone, including out-of-towners like us, feel very much at home.

But aside from the vibe and the warmth of Saramsam, the main draw for me is the authentic and non pretentious Ilokano food.
While the owner does experiment with bringing the cuisine into a more contemporary and young setting,  proof is this amazingly good pinakbet pizza -- he does not take undue liberties but keeps these new tastes as  true and unabashedly real.
So pinakbet pizza tastes exactly as pinakbet would taste, albeit, baked on top of a pizza crust.
The owner of Saramsam is also a partner in another like-minded Ilocano restaurant called La Herencia, located right across the world heritage site of Paoay Church and which I wrote about in an older post.  Thus, there are many similarities in their menus.

I no longer eat meat but everyone in the family still does.  Since there are quite a number of us at lunch, we can order more items on the menu -- this is dinakdakan which is grilled chopped up pieces of pig head, blended with chili, green onions and for added creaminess -- mayonnaise or even sauteed pig brain.

This is adobong sili --  made with these only-in-Ilocos chilis that look scary hot but actually have no heat at all.  This is also very good with pinakbet.  I wish I could find this variety in Manila.

A cruet of fish bagoong stands on the table -- for sawsawan or for drizzling on rice.  This is possibly the best fish bagoong I have tried, so malinamnam and not malansa at all.  Unfortunately, it makes me eat more rice than I should.

My favorite is a side dish called (don't laugh) poque poque.  This is chopped grilled eggplant sauteed with creamy scrambled eggs, tomatoes and onions.  It's so melt-in-your-mouth good and happily vegetarian too.

Then, there is nalengta nga ikan -- a light fish stew with onions, lots of tomatoes and the aforementioned un-hot chili.  This is like a drier and less sour version of our tagalog sinigang.

My son's favorite and mine too until I eschewed all meat is insarabasab.  This is grilled and sliced pork shoulder,  mixed with lots of ginger, chili, onions and lightly soured with calamansi.  
Fortunately, I remember the taste only too well ....

After that very satisfying lunch and an introduction to the pleasures of Ilokano food that await us in the next few days, it's time to move on.
Here's to our next bout of informal and constant eating ... 365 days from now!
Agyaman ak kenka!  Dios ti agngina, Saramsam! 

The Bay Leaf Hotel, Intramuros -- Marvelous Views of Manila

It's not often that I find myself in Intramuros so I am always surprised (and sometimes dismayed) by new additions to this old part of the city.  A few Sundays ago, I discovered the quite new Bay Leaf Hotel, right beside the old Lyceum of Manila.  

By the name alone, I knew it was connected to the university. (NB Bay leaf is "laurel" in tagalog, and the Laurel family owns the Lyceum of Manila)

The hotel stands across the old walls, is it extra or intra-Muros? I think it's within.  The facade is of a shade of beige and gray that is a lighter shade of the walls.  Tucked into a corner of Intramuros, not too tall nor too nouveau -- it seemed it wanted to just blend in.

Bay Leaf has quite a number of food and beverage outlets -- a small coffee shop downstairs, a fine dining outlet upstairs but it is the Sky Deck View Bar, on the rooftop that is the crowning jewel of this small hotel.

With an amazing 360 degree view of Manila,  the Sky Deck View Bar is a terrific place to sit, have a drink and just wait for the sun to set.  It is 5 pm when I climb to the rooftop -- on a cool and windy Sunday afternoon in May.
The place is almost deserted and I have my fill of the view, from every corner of the roof top.

Ten floors above the city, Manila looks much cleaner and greener.  It certainly helps that the old Muni Golf Course is right across but somehow, in the fading golden afternoon light, even City Hall and the old clock tower are quite photogenic.

On the other side of the golf course is the view towards Escolta, Binondo and Sta. Cruz.  I didn't realize how many tall structures are now in that part of the city.  Old Manila has certainly changed -- and not always for the better.

This is the view from the side of the hotel.  The dome belongs to the Lyceum. The cranes that you can barely make out in the horizon are part of North and South harbor piers.
The sun starts to set and against its fading glare and brightness, I can barely make out the spires of the Manila Cathedral and San Agustin Church.
Aaah, but perhaps it's time to put the camera away and enjoy this solitary spot -- with the sweeping high and wide views of parts of my old and new Manila.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Um-Ni Korean Fusion Resto -- small restaurant, big food discovery

It's a little bit hard to find since it's hidden in a small corner beside the steps leading to the street. It's also obscured by bars and large posters advertising beer and band schedules.  
It's also a small, odd shaped place but if you pass by Um-Ni in Paseo de Sta. Rosa and you go right past it -- you will have missed discovering one of the best places to enjoy Korean food.

We specifically drove to Sta. Rosa last week-end so that I could bring everyone to this Korean place that I had literally stumbled on a few months ago.
You can imagine my dismay when the sign said at the door said "Closed" -- oh no, I panicked.  They've gone out of business!
But there were people inside and apparently,  they had just forgotten to turn the sign over to read "Open".

That kind of oversight probably gives you an idea of how casually this place is run.  After taking our orders, the waitresses started applying eye shadow, right at the counter.
But let's not quibble -- we were here for the authentic and very good Korean food -- service be hanged!
Besides, when we got there, we were the only ones in the place -- this small 14 seater restaurant was ours for now -- so go ahead Ms. Waitress and put on your pretty face.

In addition to a written menu, the wall decor at Um-Ni consists of photos of the various Korean dishes they specialize in.  There are also some Japanese inspired dishes like pork cutlets (tonkatsu) and cold soba, which is probably why they call themselves a "fusion" restaurant. 
As usual, I wanted to order everything I saw on the wall!

This soup which I had tried the first time I ate at Um-Ni is called odeng tang or fish cake soup. It's easily become one of my favorite comfort soups.
The waitress gives you a choice -- spicy or not and I decided to go for the hot and spicy version, even if it was hot and sunny outside.  The better to work up a sweat, to cool the body down!
The odeng tang broth is umami-licious with hints of anchovies but it was also chili hot. Thin triangles of fish cakes and rolled fishcakes on barbecue sticks floated in the broth.  So good!
An order can be shared by two to three people but if you're like me, you can probably finish the entire bowl by yourself.

For those who prefer a non spicy soup, the doenjang jjigae (spelled as denjang chigae on the menu) is made with fermented soybean paste, a staple in Korean cooking.  It comes with tofu slices, julienned vegetables, mushrooms and pieces of meat.
This is very tasty -- and non threatening to those who want to avoid the usual heat of korean food.  An order comes bubbling hot in its own stoneware bowl and is paired with rice.

For the meat eaters, I ordered chin man doo or steamed dumplings made of minced pork, cabbage and scallions.  There are 12 good sized pieces per order.

Since Korean fried chicken has become such a trend, what with the popularity of Bonchon Chicken, we decided to order Um-Ni's Korean fried chicken. This order of half a chicken came with 5 pieces.
I was told that it was very crisp, tasty, non greasy and was definitely and infinitely better than Bonchon!

The photo on the wall labeled Kimari tempura looked very interesting and when I was told that it was chapchae or glass noodles and vegetables rolled in nori or seaweed and fried in tempura batter -- I knew I had to order it -- finally, a real vegetarian dish!
It was a terrific discovery --  the texture of slip-slidey glass noodles with the crunch of nori and tempura batter was a combination that really worked!
We also ordered a hae mul pajeon or a seafood pancake.  It had generous slices of squid and shrimp -- mixed with the usual pajeon batter of flour, egg and scallions.  Um-Ni's pajeon has that authentic taste although it was a bit sloppier and softer than most -- perhaps due to the disproportionate amount of ingredients mixed with the batter.

After all that good Korean food --I was glad for the foot rest thoughtfully built into the small tables at Um-Ni.  Time to put my feet up and relax after a filling and fulfilling lunch!
Since there were more of us on this visit, we were able to sample more dishes. My first visit was definitely not a fluke!  Um-Ni is indeed a great foodie discovery, albeit hidden in the corners of the Paseo de Sta. Rosa mall.
It's definitely worth the drive!