It was a game of hide-and-seek trying to find this quaint little café, lurking quietly amongst the tightly packed homes in Sikatuna Village, Quezon City. Weaving backwards and forwards through the narrow streets, roadworks adding a few unexpected twists and turns, we finally located the sign above the garden gate, behind which Chef Tatung has turned his own house into an intimate, homely restaurant.
I was invited to Tatung’s Garden Café by two highly focused foodie friends. The menu featured dishes from different regions across the Philippines, with particular emphasis on Chef Tatung’s Cebuano and Bicolano heritage, ‘all mixed up’ with Indian, Thai and Chinese, new fusion, old fusion and Chinoy (Chinese/Filipino fusion). This, of course led to lengthy, competitive debates on the origins of each item on the menu. Every conversational spoke I attempted to insert was either rejected as completely irrelevant, promptly deflected or sent them off at tangents. It was like putting a magnet into a bowl of ball bearings and watching them scatter.
As you can imagine, choosing the dishes we would eat took some time, but eventually decisions were made. None of which were made by me, I might add, as I obviously have no idea how to construct a properly balanced Filipino meal. As we talked through the menu, I was given instructions on what could and could not be consumed together. Apparently, I must balance wet and dry dishes. Any of my own feeble suggestions were met with a brisk ‘no, that won’t go.’ I stirred them up a little and then simply left them to it, while I admired the paintings and local craft on the walls.
By this time my stomach was grumbling ostentatiously, and it was with relief that I watched the waiter begin to carry our order to the table, but I wasn’t allowed to start eating yet, good heaven’s no! The appearance of every dish had to be examined, admired or criticized and photographs taken.
By the time I was finally given the nod to start, I hoed into the first dish with embarrassing enthusiasm, as if I hadn’t eaten for a week. My companions were still discussing where to start as I munched, suddenly self-conscious, through the Thai inspired shrimp okoy, a bird’s nest construction with strings of green weed and baby shrimp patties, shells and all. Despite my self-consciousness, I thoroughly enjoyed the texture of this dish, crunching with avid delight through the tiny prawns.
The lengua adobo with green olives and roasted garlic was quite simply luscious. I forgot, until I was three lip-licking mouthfuls in, that I had planned to be a little wary of this ox tongue adobo. Rich and succulent, I would happily have licked the plate.
Seaweed (sea grapes) and salted egg salad was dressed in a vinegar that ‘should have been served on the side’. Soaking too long in the vinegar, the sea grapes had ‘melted’ and no longer gave that satisfying pop on the tongue. Nonetheless, ill-educated as I am, I thought it went particularly well with the perfectly crispy pork as a kind of pickle or salsa accompaniment.
The pork – adobo bisaya – was slow-roasted and served with a coconut vinegar liberally mixed with garlic to cut through the fat. Such a dry dish with no sauce is typically southern I am told. I will happily head south to try more of the same.
A chicken dish, served in roasted coconut and yellow ginger sauce with okra was, I have to say, somewhat uninspiring. For me it needed more of everything.
As it turned out, it was a highly educational lunch. I discovered that Filipinos are fiercely regional – and these Filipina ladies just as fiercely Asian-oriented – they seem almost insulted when I suggested that some aspects of Filipino cuisine seem more closely related to the Pacific islands than China.
I also learned that the oil commonly invading my nostrils at street stalls or in shopping malls here in Manila is palm oil. For me this cheap oil, often overly recycled by frugal management, has a noxious smell that renders inedible every passing hot chip or calamari ring, but my sons are sick of hearing me whinge about it. So I won’t.
Back at the table, I watched, fascinated as my friends expertly taste tested the vinegar, in much the same way I might swirl a mouthful of chardonnay, to ascertain the different flavours.
As they tasted, they instructed, and I learned that baking or roasting is not a cooking technique used in Chinese cooking. Thus very few Chinese will own an oven.
Finally, dessert, and what else but the ubiquitous halo halo. This version is made from crushed ice and fruit: glacé cherries, fresh pineapple and banana, gata (first extract coconut cream), sago balls (like round Gummi bears), red mung beans, boiled peanuts, all topped with banana ice-cream. I am told it is rare to use fresh fruit in Manila, although common practice in the provinces. I find it surprisingly moreish, especially noting the yummy banana ice-cream instead of the more traditional but disconcertingly purple ube or yam ice-cream.
We also share a second dessert: a deconstruction of the common merienda or breakfast snack puto maya. It consists of three rice balls in coconut cream, cubed mango and trails of tablea (chocolate) sauce. Disappointed, we all agreed it was rather ordinary, despite it’s attractive appearance.
Unfortunately, with the last mouthful of halo-halo still sliding icily down my throat, I had to dash off to collect children from school, leaving my friends debating the culinary successes – or not – of our interesting repast. Thank you ladies. I thoroughly enjoyed delving into your national cuisine with you. Let’s do it again sometime.
But before I go, have you ever heard of banana ketchup? Apparently it was a 1960s invention, designed to accompany the fried chicken at one of Manila’s first restaurant chains Max’s. Made – der! – from bananas, it was then coloured with cochineal to make it look like tomato ketchup. Go figure!