Saturday, December 21, 2013

Cooking Filipino for a Pinoy Pasko feast


The long-awaited publication of my thesis offshoot research came to be this year, with Dsouza, S., Gal, Y., Pasquier, P., Abdallah, S., and Rahwan, I. (2013), "Reasoning about goal revelation in human negotiation", IEEE Intelligent Systems, vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 74-80, March-April, 2013 finally making it to press. As first author, I felt obliged to be the host for the celebratory get-together. By the time we all got our hard copies and the case was finally closed, it was close to year-end, and I thought "Why not make it a Christmas lunch?".


Decked my hall with color-coordinated decorations, as usual, and my "Christmas bamboo".


As for the choice of the cuisine, I have long nursed the ambition to prepare a traditional Filipino Christmas sweet as part of my Christmas cooking experiments. Seeing as I was going to host a meal, I decided to make it the dessert, and just make the whole meal Filipino. To set the mood, I tuned the radio to local Filipino radio station TAG 91.1, and poured some Filipino coconut water as a welcome drink for my party of 5.



My menu was to consist of dishes that were as uniquely Filipino as possible -- no kaldereta or pancit here. I chose to start with a special Filipino dish: sinigang, a tamarind-flavored soup. I started by dropping 5 small quartered tomatoes and two medium chopped red onions into a pot, adding 8 cups of water to boil.



I then added and simmered boneless pieces of two medium milkfish (bangus, a Filipino favorite) for 10 minutes, followed by 8 large pinches of tamarind pulp for another 5.



Finally, I added about 200g cut string beans (sitaw), a large bundle of cut spinach (could not find kangkong) and four whole long green peppers (siling haba).



Served hot and seasoned with Filipino fish sauce (patis), this was delicious and appetizing, and went very well with shrimp crackers. A great start to the meal, and extremely simple to make.



Another uniquely Filipino dish is pinakbet, a vegetable stew from the northern part of the country. You can actually get the ingredient veggies for this neatly cut and packed at Filipino-oriented supermarkets. It's just a bittermelon (karela, to Indians), two Japanese eggplants, a couple of cups of okra, a small squash, a bunch of sitaw, and a tomato --- all cut into broad chunks -- with a finely chopped red onion. I topped all this in a pot with 4 tbsp sauteed shrimp paste (bagoong), and cooked them with a cup of water for about 20 minutes, until the vegetables were tender.



Adding 400g shrimp and a little more shrimp paste in the last few minutes of cooking rounded things off to make a colorful and tasty dish.



A Filipino feast specialty is kare kare, a peanut-based stew of oxtail with vegetables. For this, I put 750g oxtail pieces in a pot with three quartered small red onions, three finely chopped cloves of garlic, and a teaspoon each of salt and pepper, with enough water to cover everything. I simmered this for about 3 hours, skimming fat and foam off the top, until the oxtail was tender.



I then stirred in chunks of a large eggplant, two small heads of bok choy, and a large bunch of sitaw, for about 20 minutes of further simmering, before adding 6 tbsp of creamy peanut butter (stirred into the broth in a separate bowl first).



It's a bit fatty, but the oxtail meat is extremely tender and tasty, and the peanut broth goes well with white rice.


And what Filipino feast would be complete without adobo, the "unofficial national dish" of the Philippines? A simple dish as it was, I made it by mixing 265 ml soy sauce, 265 ml water, 135 ml vinegar, 40 ml honey, 2 tbsp minced garlic, 4 bay leaves and 1 tsp black pepper, and simmering a kilo of chicken pieces in this for about 45 minutes.

I then drained and grilled the chicken while I discarded the bay leaves and simmered the remaining liquid down to about a cup, pouring it over the grilled chicken to serve. Second helpings were requested at the dinnertable, so I guess it can't have been too bad.
   

Finally, the reason for the meal of the season: bibingka, the quintessential Filipino Christmas cake. I stirred a cup of brown sugar into 50g of melted butter to start.



I mixed 2 cups of rice flour, a tablespoon of baking powder and a half teaspoon of salt into the butter and sugar, and stirred in 400ml of dessert-type coconut milk with 6 tbsp of fresh milk to make a toffee-colored batter.



I baked this at 190C for about 35 minutes (if I could find banana leaves, I would have lined the pan with those), taking it out midway to top with grated edam cheese (another Filipino Christmas thing).



Cooled, brushed with butter, and topped with more brown sugar and fresh grated coconut, it was much appreciated by guests, served to them as it was with the Filipino traditional Christmas ginger tea salabat (2 inches pounded fresh ginger and 2 tbsp brown sugar, boiled into 4 cups of water).

I hope this inspires some of you to try making some of these. All the best, and Maligayang Pasko (Merry Christmas)!

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