WHEN THE HISTORIC Manila Hotel was refurbished during the '70s, a large space was set aside for a haute cuisine restaurant with a continental menu -- presumably the kind favored by travelers in hotel restaurants around the world. Few expenses were spared in its decor; the Art Nouveau theme lent a European elegance.
But somewhere along the line, the planners stopped looking to Europe for inspiration.
In the center of the restaurant they installed a huge iridescent chandelier made of thousands of the local capiz shells. At about the same time, they decided to forgo the coq au vin in favor of serving the Philippines' best regional fare.
The restaurant was named Maynila , after the old name for the capital city, and grand goals were set. It was to be a restaurant where "Filipino gastronomy comes into its own and takes its rightful place alongside the great Asian and European cuisines"--to quote part of a lengthy statement on the menu.
Most people unfamiliar with Filipino cuisine probably will consider this statement a supreme example of culinary hubris. But anyone who has had the good fortune to hop from one pearl to the next in this necklace of islands is likely to agree that the statement is far from an idle boast, for the Philippines has a strikingly rich and varied culinary repertoire.
Amongst the earliest settlers were the Malaysians, who brought with them a great love of coconut milk as a cooking medium. The Chinese See PHILIPPINES, H8, Col. 1 MANILA HOTEL PHILIPPINES, From H1 came shortly after with their noodle expertise, introducing a wide range of pasta-streaked soups and stews known in the Philippines as pancit. When Magellan landed in 1521, the country was named after King Philip II and soon adapted his Spanish passion for onions, garlic and roast pork.
To this interesting medley of ingredients, add the exotic fruits and vegetables common to the tropics. Blend in the New World's bounty--tomatoes, corn, potatoes, avocados and coffee brought by the Spanish colonials via Mexico--and you have a fascinating melting-pot cuisine unique in the world.
Because the Philippines comprises more than 7,000 islands--many of them mountainous--dramatically diverse regional cuisines always have flourished. Thus, when the chefs of the Maynila were given the job of selecting the best regional dishes of the country, they were not faced with a simple task.
To discover the finest that their country's cooking pots had to offer, 12 chefs traveled from island to island for two months, tasting, taking notes and collecting recipes for hundreds of dishes.
Returning to Manila, they held food tastings for a month, inviting both foreigners and locals to evaluate the food on the basis of authenticity, taste and presentation. After this careful scrutiny, an elaborate menu offering more than 60 dishes was printed and bound with such artistry that it would easily qualify as a coffee-table book.
On the menu, names of the dishes are first given in Tagalog, the national language, and then followed by an English translation and explanation. From Zamboanga, in the Moslem south, the chefs brought back manok sultana, breast of chicken served with a sauce of thinned and spiced carabao (water buffalo) cheese.
From the rice fields of Banaue in the north, they brought kuhol sa qata, the snails that appear during the rainy season, cooked simply in coconut milk. From Iloilo in the Visayan islands south of Manila, they brought the much-loved pancit molo, Chinese-inspired dumplings filled with ground pork and floated in a chicken broth spiked with garlic.
The menu of the Maynila amply illustrates the Filipino love of sourness. There is a whole category of dishes known as sinigang, a term referring to those preparations soured by such fruits as tamarind, green mango or calamansi--the local citrus whose flavor seems to blend the best of lemon and orange. Sinigangs are usually soups and at the Maynila may be ordered in five different versions, including baboy (chunks of pork with yam) and kanduli (fresh-water fish with bean curd and mustard leaves).
Living in an island nation, Filipinos enjoy a wide variety of fresh seafood. At the Maynila , giant shrimp are steamed in banana leaves, red grouper is poached with fresh tomatoes and wild lemon grass, and king prawns are simmered in coconut milk flecked with young peppercorns.
Certain dishes transcend regionalism and are considered national favorites. Such a dish is adobo.
Although chicken or pork adobo are usually meant when the term is used, adobo actually refers to any food that has been cooked in a vinegar-based marinade. The vinegar often used is tuba, the fermented sap of the coconut palm, and delicious adobos are made with a wide variety of meats, seafood and vegetables. At the Maynila , a favorite is pichon adobo, the braised-in-vinegar pigeon that is a specialty of the Pampanga region just north of the capital city.
The Filipino fondness for the sour and the tart is equalled by a love for sweets, perhaps a legacy of the Spanish. The leche flan at makapuno bears a close resemblance to the Spanish caramelized custard known simply as flan, but the dramatic Filipino signature is there with the dollop of makapuno--soft, gelatinous young coconut flesh--on top.
But there is no dessert more memorable than halo-halo (literally, "mix-mix"), a caloric rainbow of tidbits attractively layered in a tall parfait glass. Cubes of sweetened amote (sweet potato), red beans, bulaman (native gelatin) and ube (a glutinous purple yam) are mingled with shaved ice and coconut milk and topped with vanilla or coconut ice cream.
Another dish, lumpiang ubod, is explained by Gilda Cordero-Fernando in her fascinating essay-cookbook, "The Culinary Culture of the Philippines": "Ubod is the heart of the coconut palm where the leaves and nuts are formed. It is a supreme luxury of a dish because the tree dies when the ubod is removed. The Visayans (who started this kind of lumpia) set aside sacrificial enclosures of coconut trees barely a foot apart, all meant to be cut down in their babyhood to make lumpiang ubod."
Cordero-Fernando's book--as well as other Philippine cookbooks--is available through Alemar's America Inc., 34 West 32nd St., New York, N.Y. 10001.
Ingredients for making Filipino dishes can be found at the following Washington-area shops: D'Asian Mart, 5210 Indian Head Hwy., Oxon Hill, Md.; Philippine Mart, 14318 Jefferson Davis Hwy., Woodbridge, Va.; Philippine Oriental Market, 3610 Lee Hwy., Arlington, Va.
Here are recipes for two dishes served at Maynila : LUMPIA UBOD (Crepes stuffed with hearts of palm, shrimp and pork) (Makes 14)
This delicious recipe is not as complicated as it looks at first glance. Although the thin, feathery lumpiang crepes are a bit tricky to make, their taste rewards the effort. For the filling: 2 tablespoons corn oil 2 large cloves garlic, mashed 3/4 cup finely chopped onion 1/4 pound ground pork 7 1/2 ounces heart of palm (i.e., a 14-ounce can, drained), sliced into matchsticks 6 ounces shrimp, peeled and diced 1/3 cup finely chopped Chinese cabbage, tightly packed Soy sauce to taste For the pancakes: 3 large eggs, separated 3/4 cup cornstarch 1/4 teaspoon salt 3/4 cup water Oil for frying For the sauce: 3 tablespoons sugar 1/4 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons soy sauce 1 cup water plus 2 tablespoons 1 tablespoon cornstarch For serving: 14 lettuce leaves, approximately 2 to 3 scallions, green part only, cut in half lengthwise 3 cloves garlic, finely minced (optional)
To prepare the filling, heat the oil in a large saucepan. Brown the garlic. Add onions and saute' until they are soft, about 3 minutes. Add the pork, hearts of palm, shrimp and cabbage and cook until vegetables and shrimp are just done, about 3 minutes. Add soy sauce to taste and set aside.
To prepare the pancakes, beat the whites until they are frothy. Blend in the yolks. Dissolve the cornstarch and salt in 3/4 cup of water and stir this mixture into the eggs. Let stand for 10 minutes. The batter should be quite thin; if it thickens upon standing, stir in a little more water.
Heat a 7-inch crepe pan (preferably non-stick). Brush the bottom with oil. Spread 2 tablespoons of batter in an arc around the pan and tilt the pan quickly to spread the batter into a very thin pancake. Cook about 30 seconds over low heat, or until the pancake can easily be lifted up with the fingers and moved with the help of a spatula onto a nearby plate. (It is difficult to make the first one or two pancakes come out well, but if they continue to develop holes, your pan is probably too hot.) Brush the pan with oil before making each pancake and separate pancakes with sheets of waxed paper. You should have about 14 pancakes. Set aside.
To prepare the sauce, combine the sugar, salt and soy sauce with 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil. Dissolve the cornstarch in 2 tablespoons of water and stir into the boiling liquid, stirring constantly until thickened, about 3 minutes.
To prepare the lumpiang, place a lettuce leaf on each pancake and 2 heaping tablespoonsful of filling along the diameter. Place 2 to 3 pieces of scallion on top and roll the pancake. Set onto individual serving dishes or a platter. Serve lumpiang warm or at room temperature with sauce drizzled on top or served in a dish on the side. The minced garlic may be served in a small dish for an additional topping, if desired. PINAKBET (Pork and Vegetable Stew with Shrimp Paste) (4 to 6 servings)
This dish is from the Ilocos region in northern Luzon, a harsh and sparse land whose cooks have to use quite a bit of imagination to vary the cuisine. Ilocanos rely a good deal on bagoong, a salty fish paste, to flavor their foods. 2 tablespoons olive oil 3 large cloves garlic, mashed 1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced 1 slice ginger, peeled and minced 3 medium-size tomatoes, peeled and chopped 1 pound lean pork, cut into 1-inch cubes 1 cup water
10 ounces frozen okra or lima beans 1 eggplant (about 18 ounces), peeled and cut into 1-inch dice 1 medium-size bitter melon, cut into 1/2-inch slices (optional) Shrimp paste to taste (soy sauce may be substituted, but characteristic Filipino flavor will be lost) Rice for serving
In a large, heavy stew pot, heat the oil. Saute' the garlic until light brown, stirring constantly. Add the onion and ginger and cook until the onion is soft, about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, pork and 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer, covered, for 50 minutes.
Add the okra, eggplant, bitter melon and shrimp paste. Return to the boil (be sure to break up frozen vegetables), lower heat, cover, and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the pork is tender and the vegetables are cooked, about 15 to 20 minutes. Adjust the seasonings and serve with plain boiled rice.