Love That Lumpia
Filipino cuisine surprises with tangy, slightly sour tastes.
Thursday, July 3, 2003
Photo: The Other Fusion Cuisine: Filipino food reflects the influences of varied Asian and European visitors.
Hidden in a U-shaped mall off Reservation Road in Marina, Fiesta Manila has been quietly perfecting its Filipino food--one of the world''s oldest fusion cuisines--for two years. All the customers were Filipino the day I went, which I took as a sign that the food must be as tasty as what they would cook at home.
I used the "turo-turo" system of pointing at what I wanted to order from the hot table in this small eatery that evokes the "carinderias" that dot the 7,000 islands of the Philippines. Co-owner Pamela Concepcion advised me that portions easily serve two as she set out a Rabelaisian feast for my 12-year-old daughter and me.
Menu items change daily at Fiesta Manila, but lumpia, pancit, and pork adobo are always offered. Lumpia ($.75 each), the egg rolls of the Philippines made with the same ingredients as their Chinese cousins, get spiced up with sweet-chili dip here. Pancit ($4.50), savory, transparent rice noodles stir-fried with scallions, green beans, and carrots, reflects another Chinese contribution to Philippine cuisine. The dish gets its bright orange color and flavor from a sauce of shrimp juice and annatto seeds.
Fiesta Manila serves scrumptious pork adobo ($3.50), the national dish of the Philippines. Vinegar, soy sauce, and garlic make up the stewing sauce for this dish, which surprisingly does not taste sour but has a slightly tangy-savory flavor. Reynaldo Alejandro speculates in The Philippine Cookbook that Mexican puerco en adobo was the ancestor of this dish that the Spanish brought to the islands.
The restaurant''s longanisa sausage ($.75) recalls Spain''s pork, garlic, and garlic chorizo sausages. These sausages were mild-flavored and tasted great with my coconut juice. The Spanish also brought beef and New World food products like tomatoes and peppers to the South Seas; they show up in Fiesta Manila''s unctuous mechabo beef stew ($3.75) made with soy sauce.
Indigenous Malay fare is represented by a coral-colored dish called Lanka ($3.50), otherwise known as jackfruit stew. This was my first time eating jackfruit, and it reminded me of tender, somewhat sour artichoke hearts. The stew is made with coconut milk and shrimp paste. The coconut milk tempers the pungent flavor of the shrimp paste, leaving a sweet tang in the mouth.
A Philippine meal would not be complete without fish, and I loved the crunchy, tart taste of the Bangus milkfish ($2/piece). I was hankering after a San Miguel beer--also a product of the Philippines--to go with this dish, but, alas, I was the designated driver.
Next I tried Pinkabet ($3.50), which Pamela suggests to her vegetarian guests in addition to stir-fried soy, which her husband Glen whips up in the kitchen. Pinkabet, which might be described as a Southeast Asian ratatouille, here features squash, spinach, eggplant, bitter melon, and green beans in a shrimp-flavored sauce. The sweetness of the squash balances out the bitter taste of the melon.
Pamela asked me to try sinikang soup ($3.75). Tamarind makes this soup tart, but the pork stock gives it a delicious flavor, along with bok choy, eggplant, tomato, and radish. I tried beef nilanga soup ($3.50) as well, but preferred the sinikang.
While I was busy tasting, my daughter was downing mango juice and polishing off her barbecued pork kebabs ($2 each). The salty, sweet pork had a caramelized coating and tasted better than lollipops. One thing that I noticed about Philippine food is that it is mild, unlike the chili-hot dishes of many other Southeast Asian countries.
The one dish I did not care for on my visit was the Filipino fried rice ($1.75). The scallions, corn, and carrots in the brown rice made it look appetizing, but the taste was bland. But I like salty flavors, so other diners might find this dish perfectly fine.
The prices at Fiesta Manila will encourage you to try everything, but you really should leave room for the picture-worthy Halo-Halo dessert ($3.75). "Halo" means "mix" in Tagalog, which is exactly what goes on with this layered Philippine sundae of caramel custard, diced gelatin, preserved jackfruit, ice cream, crushed ice, and sweetened beans. The crushed ice makes it taste lighter than it is. I must say I had never thought of using caramel custard in a sundae before, but it certainly marries well with ice cream.
Good food, not decor or dinnerware, is what interests me, so I didn''t mind the utilitarian chairs and linoleum floor. Red and white checked tablecloths covered all the tables and made the place look sweet. A big-screen television played soaps while we were there, and "lolas" (grandmas) played with their grandchildren. The restaurant is clean and has a white light around it--thanks to the Holy Child altar above the cash register, not to the Halo-Halo.
3170-G Vista Del Camino, Marina
Open Mon-Sat 11am-8pm; Sun to 5pm.