Monday, May 25, 2015

Adobong "Siling Duwag" with Bagnet - featuring no heat sili from Ilocos

Ilocos is a cornucopia of  traditional local vegetables -- small round eggplants for pinakbet,   
big green eggplants (perfect for grilling), native less-bitter ampalaya, curly string beans called alucon and my absolute favourite  -- the no-heat, no-spice slender green chilies  also known as "siling duwag".  On this last trip to Ilocos, I found some in the market to take home.

I included most of the "siling duwag" in my pinakbet but kept some in reserve to make another dish, where it would be the star.

 Because it has absolutely no heat but has even a faint taste of a pimiento pepper, these chilies make great adobo.  Since I had a lot of bagnet, I decided to slice up a chunk to make a one dish siling adobo meal.  
All the main ingredients for this adobo were sourced from Ilocos -- the sili from Vigan, the bagnet and suka (vinegar) from  Laoag and  the garlic and shallots from Pinili.

First, remove the stems from the chilies.

Then sauté the garlic and shallots.

Stir fry the sili and let it cook till soft -- we are not going for crisp adobo here.

Once the sili has softened, add the bagnet, the soy sauce and suka and a piece of laurel.
Let simmer until suka is cooked through. Cook just as you would your regular adobo.

And here is my siling adobo with bagnet!  It can be made completely vegetarian, just leave out the pork.   It will work well as a one dish meal or as a side dish for fried fish.
It was a delicious souvenir of our North Road Trip!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Highlights of our Northern Road Trip 2015

From our house to Nueva Ecija through Nueva Vizcaya, Isabela and Cagayan and then up to the northern tip of Luzon, then down via Ilocos,  Norte and Sur  -- this is a road trip that we have been doing for almost 20 years.  We had been able to do it annually except that a busy work schedule (mine) got in the way in 2013 and 2014.  
I finally retired a few weeks ago so for 2015 -- our road trip was finally going to push through.

We set out very early Sunday morning, incidentally the same day that Typhoon Dodong was scheduled to directly hit Isabela.  In short, we would be right in the path of the storm, which weathermen were calling a very strong tropical typhoon.
Either the forecasts were off or everyone had just gotten slightly hysterical about Dodong because when we got to Isabela,  we experienced only intermittent rain and dark clouds.  

Dodong shifted his attention to Sta. Ana in Cagayan, just 80 kilometres away from Tuguegarao, our pit stop for the night.  It was signal number 4 as we drove into the city but there were no strong winds nor was there heavy rain -- thank you to Our Lady of Piat for seeing us safely through this (non) storm.

We woke up to a sunny and dry day -- Dodong had certainly beaten a hasty retreat.  
I took an early morning stroll to St. Peter's Cathedral, just a few minutes from our hotel.  
The cathedral, built more than 200 years ago  is undergoing restoration.  It was heartening to see that the parish seemed committed to not making any massive changes to this Spanish-era church -- the biggest in the Cagayan Valley.  

From the cathedral, we drove to Piat.   My true reason for trying to make this visit each year is so that I can visit Our Lady of Piat, a miraculous 400 year old statue of our Lady of the Rosary enshrined in the Basilica Minore of Piat.  She is Yena Tam Ngamin, patroness of Cagayan Valley, mother to us all and I am her (non-Cagayanon) child.

After our visit to Piat, we headed towards the tip of Northern Luzon towards Pagudpud in Ilocos Norte.  Another favourite and must stop place along the way is the spectacular St. James Church in Yguig, just a few minutes away from Tuguegarao.  
This magnificent church built in the 1700s  straddles a hilltop overlooking the majestic Cagayan river.  The place is also known as Calvary Hills as there are bigger-than-life statues depicting the stations of the cross, spread out across the rolling green hills behind the church.

A jubilant jump for joy -- I am just so happy to be here again.

It took us just  4 hours of easy driving from Tuguegarao to reach Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte, which was our base for the next 4 days.
Kapuluan Vista Resort looked the same as it did when we first discovered it years ago.
I wish I could say the same for its surroundings though.  Unfortunately the wrong kind of progress has come to this part of Pagudpud.

Jay impressed me with his new found drinking skills.  It must be due to Kapuluan's irresistibly refreshing margarita -- the best this side of the world!

While the road leading to Kapuluan is all messed up with horrific development and concrete resorts and buildings, there are beautiful trails leading away from the resort and into the still undeveloped areas.  There is hope for this piece of paradise yet.
We laced up our trekking shoes and explored the roads less taken...

Which led to wide open vistas of sand, sea and sky...

And surprising views greeted us at each and every bend of the dirt trail.  

We spent our mornings at the beach.  This used to be called Blue Lagoon and it was a pristine, amazing stretch of a white sand beach, a worthy  rival to Boracay.
But now it is overpopulated with monstrous resorts.   The small native huts have all been pushed back to one corner.    Still, if I closed my eyes and turned my back on the unwanted development, I could still gaze out at the sea -- no longer as clear or as blue -- and try to remember in my mind's eye, what I loved about this place before.

The best tasting grilled fish came out of a small hut with a sign that said "Palutuan" (Cooking done here).  The inihaw na tangigue was so good, we had it for lunch every day we were at the beach.

Friday came and it was time to drive home.  After many years of just passing through, we finally made the detour trip to the Bangui windmills. 

Maan in the Laoag Public Market sells the best bagnet and longganisa in Ilocos -- bar none.  She has been my suki for as long as I have been doing this road trip and it is always a delight to be able to say hello -- not to mention, load up on her temptingly tasty pork products.

Lunch time found us still in Laoag so I brought Jay to La Preciosa along Rizal St., one of the best places to enjoy authentic, old style Ilocano cooking.  
We ordered insarabasab -- grilled pork and pork liver with native onions and limes, our favourite poque poque -- a creamy eggplant and egg salad and for something new,  we tried the gamet soup -- made of mineral and iodine rich local seaweed cooked  with tucmem or baby clams.  Naimas! (delicious)

One cannot eat at La Preciosa without  a slice of their scrumptious, melt-in-your mouth carrot cake.   It finally satisfied the craving that I had from the first time I tried it more than a year ago.

Laoag to Vigan is just a short 80 kilometre drive away -- we arrived in this heritage city by mid-afternoon, just the right time to check in at one of the newest hotels.
Veneto de Vigan is set in a reconstructed old house just a few steps away from Calle Crisologo, the cobblestoned main street.
The hotel was just charming, with wooden floors and traditional furnishings but all the necessary modern facilities -- flat screen t.v., hot and cold running water,  wi-fi.
I cannot say enough about how gracious and helpful their staff was -- they even kept my precious La Preciosa carrot cake in their refrigerator for safekeeping!

We enjoyed strolling through Calle Crisologo -- Vigan City has handled itself well.
Despite the number of stores and antique shops and bars set within the centuries old Spanish era houses, development has been integrated well into the environment.  You don't feel as if modernity  has intruded into the past.

We were lucky to walk into the Cordillera Inn, a hotel set in an old mansion along Calle Crisologo.  We were looking for a quiet place to have dinner and they led us up to the third floor where we had the dining room all to ourselves.  The balcony looked out onto the cobblestoned streets and with the soft light on the old houses,  it was the perfect backdrop for this twilight photo.

Next morning, I took a tricycle to the Vigan Public Market.  With all the bagnet we had bought, I knew I wanted to make genuine Ilocano pakbet when I got home and where best to get all the ingredients than from the local palengke?

The vegetable section had everything that I was looking for!  Native ampalaya, eggplants, patani, squash blossoms, okra, shallots and onions and tomatoes.  Everything looked as if it had all been freshly picked just a few hours ago.

Best of all, I found these non spicy, no-heat-bearing chilies also known as "siling duwag" that seem to be found only in Ilocos.
While they look exactly like the spicy sili used  for sinigang and paksiw,  these are completely unspicy and best used in pinakbet and even cooked on its own, as adobo.

I cannot leave Ilocos without my haul of  "abel iloko".  Blankets, bedspreads, pillowcases, even towels -- these locally woven cotton cloth is soft yet durable and becomes even more comfortable with constant usage.  Best of all, abel iloko is part of the heritage and tradition of Ilocos and I am only too happy to contribute to its sustainability  by buying as much as I can.
Mang Joe and his wife were very happy I was their buena mano for the day.

And here is the last highlight from this year's memorable  road trip ... fiery red flame trees signal that it is summer in the Philippines and they lined most of the roads that we passed through.
I wish someone would plant more along the whole length of our roadways -- what a brilliant, fiery summertime sight that would be!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Nijo-jo and Daigo-ji -- 14 down and 3 to go on my Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage Site Bucket List

Last month's trip to Kyoto allowed me to strike two more UNESCO World Heritage Sites off my bucket list.  One was right in the middle of the city and one was a bit farther out in the mountains.
These two places coincidentally are also two very popular sakura viewing spots so it was a good time to visit.

Chieko san, our favourite Tours by Locals guide picked us up early at our hotel for our first stop, Nijo-jo.  The castle  is a popular tourist spot in Kyoto so to avoid the crowds,  an early start would be best.  The subway stop is right across the castle and this imposing and impressive sight greeted us as we crossed the road.

Nijo-jo was built by Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of Japan's "Big 3" shoguns (my irreverent description) in the 1600s.  It is a beautifully maintained historical and architectural marvel and definitely worth seeing.  This is the Karamon Gate, the entrance to the main grounds.

It seemed that the gate had just undergone refurbishment -- fittings gleamed gold in the sunlight and the carvings and ornaments were brightly and vividly colourful.

The Karamon Gate leads to the main structure -- a huge sprawling building called the Ninomaru Palace.  This was Tokugawa Ieyasu's actual residence and official place of business.
Visitors were received in the front areas of the palace while his personal living quarters were securely situated deep within.
The Ninomaru Palace features the famous "nightingale floors"  -- wooden floors that squeak as you walk on them, thus serving as a warning against intruders and would be assassins.
The Shogun was probably in constant danger even inside his own palace as he had guards and ninjas tucked away in closets, behind walls, even under the floors!
Chieko san provided us with this interesting fact and more insights into the history and culture of that period  as we walked through  the various rooms -- which really made us appreciate the palace even more.

Certain private rooms of Ninomaru Palace had floor to ceiling sliding screens that opened out to
the wonderfully landscaped Ninomaru Garden.
It is a traditional Japanese garden with the three most important elements -- rocks, water and trees.
I could imagine it must have looked like a serene and lovely painting to Tokugawa Ieyasu, as he relaxed in his private quarters -- it would have taken his mind off political intrigues, enemies and assassins.

The palace is strongly fortified by two moats, two walls, two gates and there is a castle keep where look-outs kept watch.   We climbed to the the top to catch this glorious view of the palace grounds and sacred Mount Hiei in the horizon.  Kyoto is such a well planned city -- no tall buildings mar the centuries-old views .  I can imagine Tokugawa Ieyasu's guards gazing out on scenery much like this one.

Nijo-jo is one of the city's prime viewing spots for sakura -- hundreds of various kinds of cherry blossoms are planted in the palace grounds.  On this particular stretch, shidarezakura or weeping cherry blossoms lined the path.

This mini garden is in front of a tea house -- unfortunately it was closed that morning but it would have been sweet to have had a cup of tea while viewing the bright pink blossoms of the sakura that bloomed right in front of it.

After Nijo-jo, our next destination was Daigo-ji,  on Mount Daigo, about thirty minutes away from the city on the Tozai subway line.  Like Nijo-jo, it is a famous sakura viewing spot so we were prepared to brave the crowds -- and true enough, it seemed everyone was in Daigo-ji on this spring day.

Daigo-ji is a Shingon Buddhist temple.  Built in the 1500s,  its most famous patron was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, another one of the "Big 3" shoguns.  
He expanded and enhanced the temple grounds for his famous sakura viewing party to which the elite of Kyoto were all invited -- it must have been their version of a red carpet event.  
The Sanboin or the head priest's residence is surrounded by one of the most delightful traditional Japanese gardens I had ever seen.  I couldn't understand why photos could not be taken in the garden so I can only offer you this photo of this graceful sakura tree in the forecourt.  
As I stood there under the branches, a breeze blew soft pink petals all over me -- a blessing from  Buddha -- and perhaps from Toyotomi Hideyoshi too.

The five story pagoda of Daigo-ji is Kyoto's oldest building, dating back from 951. It is a Japanese National Treasure.   The pagoda is the original structure and the only one in the entire complex that has stood through fire, earthquake and other natural disasters.  The other buildings have all been reconstructed and rebuilt.  What a survivor!

This is the Kon-do or the Main Hall of the temple grounds, also designated as one of Japan's National Treasures.  Daigo-ji is a vast complex that encompasses the entire Mount Daigo area.
For today, it is just too big and there are too many people to properly enjoy and explore so we take our leave.  But not before I make a silent promise to Toyotomi Hideyoshi that I would come back,
just not during sakura viewing season.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Takuma Gion Shirakawa -- an exquisite dining experience in Kyoto

The major cities of Japan have unique  food profiles.  Culturally and racially, the country itself may seem homogenous but the cuisine is varied and different from place to place.
Tokyo mega-city, uber-modern Tokyo has more Michelin starred restaurants than anywhere else.  
Osaka my favourite fun eating city,  is casual, welcoming and happy and has a motto to match ... "kuidaore" or "eat oneself to ruin".  
Sapporo in the north has a reputation for having the best seafood and boasts of a  dish that traces its lineage to Genghis Khan. 
Kyoto,  elegant,  genteel and crowded with centuries-old temples and shrines is famous for shojin ryori or vegetarian temple cooking and kaiseki ryori --  Japan's version of haute cuisine, the ultimate in culinary artistry. 
Experiencing a kaiseki meal had always been high on my foodie bucket list.  
If I could indulge in a kaiseki meal in Kyoto, it would be,  to quote Mastercard -- "priceless".

When she heard of my wish,  good friend and Kyoto resident Meiko san set out to help fulfil it.  
On this last trip to Kyoto, she made a last minute, same day reservation in my name at one of Kyoto's best restaurants -- Takuma Gion Shirakawa which serves what you could call "mini kaiseki" meals. 
I had no expectations -- after all, we were in the middle of Kyoto's sakura season and the restaurant is right alongside the lovely Shirakawa stream in Gion, one of the best places to view sakura.  Surely it would be full!
But, the restaurant reservation gods must have been extra kind because she was able to get reservations for dinner for two at Takuma's 8:00 p.m. seating.

Takuma's entrance is on the side street right before the stream.  My friend and I showed up promptly for our dinner reservation. The  noren at the entrance features a stylised egret, a bird that frequently shows up, posing and preening on the clear shallow waters of the Shirakawa.

The restaurant has two floors and we were seated on the first,  along a wooden counter where we looked straight at the chef and his staff working in the open kitchen.  There is room for about 14 diners.   I wished we had been seated right beside the huge picture window looking out on the illuminated sakura scene outside but then I would have had to contend with curious (and possibly envious) looks from the people outside, across the way.

Everyone eats from the same kaiseki menu at Takuma Gion.  The menu is laid out on my lacquer tray, handwritten in beautiful calligraphy.  I cannot read Japanese but I tried to count to keep track of the dishes as they came along.  Kaiseki ryori features many small courses and I thought I counted 7 items on the menu.

We were started off with an amuse bouche or small appetiser of  tender baby squid,  fresh and sweet shrimp and lightly boiled greens.  Kaiseki ryori showcases different styles and techniques of traditional Japanese cooking but every dish complements the other.

Next up was a small dish of a few choice pieces of sashimi -- tuna and snapper, nestled on a bed of  ice.  One of the chef's assistant's put a small dish of what looked to be a yellow creamy dip on my tray.  This is Takuma's signature Awa Shoyu or whipped foam soy sauce -- utterly unique and so delicious.   The chef came by and explained that it was made using soy sauce and egg whites.   
I'm afraid I was completely inelegant and slathered it liberally on my sashimi.  
Where is rice when you want and need it?

This clear soup had uniformly sized  whitefish all clustered together.  If I didn't peer close enough to see the tiny dots of their eyes, I would have thought they were just strands of silken smooth noodles. 
A small pinkish white fish cake was placed on top and looked like one of the sakura blossoms I could see outside the window.

This slice of masu or trout was salt grilled and the skin was slightly charred and crisp.  The pickled grilled leeks that came with it were crunchy,  salty-sour and smoky.  

Octopus tentacles, simmered in a sweetish sauce came with a thick part of a bamboo shoot, 
and other small boiled vegetables like daikon, edamame and a bright red slice of tomato.
Contrasting flavours and textures in a fine porcelain bowl.

It was not at all intimidating to eat at Takuma Gion -- I was a bit nervous at first because I thought it would be formal and sophisticated and I might make some culinary and etiquette missteps.  
My Nihongo is also almost non existent so how would we be able to communicate?
But the chef put us at completely at ease.  He would come by my seat and explain the dish and what the ingredients were -- with the help of a pocket translator.

Each dish arrived, freshly made and cooked, one after another.  Once you are finished, your tray is cleared and the next item placed in front of you.  Some of us ate faster than the others, some ate slower  but the chef and his staff noted everything and it was amazing that we all seemed to be eating in sync. 
This small plate of kyo yasai or Kyoto vegetables, lightly battered and fried tempura style, made me wistful for my past vegetarian days.

I think the chef has a way with his sauces -- this dish of raw fish and clams was accompanied by a zesty, zingy dip that each diner assembled by himself.  The sauce dish contained vinegar over which you poured a bit of honey and sprinkled with as much (or as little) of the freshly minced ginger as you liked.   This synthesis of such strong basic flavours worked so well together.

Some of the dishes came in covered bowls -- it was always with anticipation that I lifted the lid to see what delightful morsels would be headed for my mouth.  When I saw this pink mochi floating in a seemingly sweet sauce and topped with candy coloured garnish, I was sure it was dessert but the chef who was passing by laughed and said no -- but that I should bite into it and see.
It was a rice ball as I surmised but it was savoury and definitely not dessert -- at least, not yet.

Our kaiseki ryori meal was about to end.  The last items placed on the tray included a small serving of gohan, a bowl of delicately flavoured miso soup with mushrooms, a few pieces of tiny, unbelievably tasty grilled dried anchovies and some bits of tart and salty tsukemono
This is the time honoured and traditional way that signals the end of the meal.

Our trays were whisked away but wait -- there was dessert!  My betsubara (or second stomach, only for dessert) would not be going home unhappy.   A small soup spoon carried just a mouthful of a very creamy and delectable creme brûlée -- it was served with just two slices each of strawberries, pineapple and tiny segments of grapefruit.  Again, sweet and creamy,  juicy and tart -- with a touch of acidity.  But,  it was one of the cleanest and most satisfying desserts I had ever had.
It was the prime example of wa or harmony, masquerading as dessert.

It was also time to say our thanks to the chef and his team.  What an amazing and exquisite meal in such a gorgeous and charming setting.  I could not thank them enough for such a marvellous dinner.

Truly hospitable and very kind -- the chef saw us all the way out to the entrance.  I am sorry I was not able to get his name but I hope to ask him next time I come back for another kaiseki experience  at Takuma Gion Shirakawa.