A Happy Belly at Home

On my first visit back to the Philippines in 2009, I was like a woman who had stumbled upon water in a desert, starved as I was for favorite Filipino dishes that I had been deprived of while living in New York. Things have changed considerably since then. Pinoy food in various iterations is far more accessible these days in the Big Apple. I can get Chicken Joy in Queens, Max's fried chicken in Jersey City, and even Maharlika's longga burgers and tapa skewers just a short walk from my place in Brooklyn.

Unencumbered by nostalgia and sheer desperation, I was able narrow down which meals truly made an impression on me on this visit to the Motherland. So for your food porn viewing pleasure, here are the Manila meals that still make my belly grumble fondly from the other side of the world.

No-Frills Filipino: Aling Tonya's Seafood Palutuan
When buying seafood from a fisherman isn't an option, a visit to the dampa is the next best thing. A dampa is a wet market, where the freshest seafood, meat and produce can be purchased in Manila. In some of these wet markets, one can actually shop for their ingredients and then hand it over to a restaurant within the premises, which will then cook up a little something like this:
Aling Tonya's is one of these restaurants, and it holds a special place in my heart as this was where my mom loved to have big batches of crab cooked for family gatherings. With my mom and the rest of the brood now in Seattle, my friends have been sweet to acquiesce to my demands for chowfests here. I like that you have the option to go into the dampa to buy your seafood or just leave it to the kitchen to do it for you. Either way, we always end up with a fantastic spread: butter and garlic-drenched crab claws, suahe (white shrimp) so sweet it only needs steaming with a bit of ginger, and kohol (snails) cooked in coconut milk, ginger and garlic. Add some green mango salad, steaming piles of jasmine rice, cold San Miguel beer, and choice high school flashbacks into the mix and you get a tummy full of good food and belly laughs.

For directions to Aling Tonya's, click here.

Innovative Filipino: Kanin Club
In 2011, I ate at Kanin Club for the first time—and spent a good chunk of a year thereafter daydreaming about my next rendezvous with their creative food. What won me over was how Kanin Club was able to do an inventive take on Filipino food without pissing off the Pinoys. See, Filipinos normally don't like Filipino food made fancy; it's comfort food and we like it the way we're used to it. But Kanin Club has managed to get past this by thoughtfully isolating what Filipinos love about certain dishes and tricking out those things to the nth degree. Take my favorite dish: the sinangag na sinigang (bottom, left).
Sinigang is a sour and hearty tamarind-based soup laden with pork belly, water spinach, and sliced radish (sinigang can also be made with fish or shrimp). One of the yummiest things to do when eating this dish is to ladle the tangy soup all over your rice so that every bite is soaked in sinigang goodness. Kanin Club took this practice and ran with it, concocting a sinangag (fried rice) soaked in sinigang flavor then topped with tricked out versions of everything you'd find in the soup: pork belly with butter-soft consistency plus crisp, tempura-fried vegetables. I personally think this dish would be even better if the pork belly was fried but I understand Kanin Club's reluctance to prod its customers towards a massive coronary. In any case, if you feel so inclined, deep fried pork belly can be had as a chicharon appetizer (top right) (and thereafter snuck into your sinangag na sinigang bites) or mixed into your dinuguan (pork blood stew), adding an addictive crunch factor to the hearty stew. If guilt tugs at you, order a salad (top left) to keep things healthy—but feel free to ignore the fact that the ratio of kesong puti (carabao's milk cheese) to tomatoes may be slightly skewed towards the good stuff.

For Kanin Club locations, click here.

The Best of Both Worlds: Mamou
When I say the word "home",  I mean one of two cities: Manila, the place where I was born and raised, or New York, the city I chose to live in 6 years ago. Both cities are chock-full of food that makes my heart sing—and Mamou stole my heart by taking some of my favorites from both worlds and serving it up under one roof. This is a restaurant that serves up pasta with truffle oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano, but also salads made with very Pinoy ingredients like tuyo (dried herring) and kamote (sweet potato) leaves and tops. But most importantly, Mamou brought my steakhouse dreams to fruition (and then some). 
Every time I would eat at a New York steakhouse, I would joke about how tempting it is to smuggle in a takeout box of jasmine rice—I mean, is there anything better to a Filipino than a juicy steak with a side of steaming white rice? As it happens, there actually is something better. Leave it to Mamou to top my steak dreams by creating the ultimate sinful side dish: rice fried in steak fat and drippings! Clearly, this is a restaurant after my own heart (figuratively and literally). 

For more information on Mamou, click here.

What about the other balikbayans out there? What are the restaurants that make you miss home? And the Manileños—are there fab new places I need to hit up on my next visit? Do tell!

Paradise Found in Siargao

It was love at first sight.

Siargao dazzled me the first time I laid eyes on it—brilliant aquamarine reefs one second, lush mangrove forests the next. As I soaked up each vibrant glimpse from our precarious propeller airplane, I knew that I was going to be utterly, hopelessly seduced by this island.

Siargao is an island off the tip of Mindanao, the southernmost region of the Philippines. It sits alongside the Philippine Deep, the third deepest submarine trench in the world, surrounded by expansive coral reefs. The combination of these two factors, plus some gnarly seasonal winds, give the island's waves their impressive power. It's because of these fabled waves that Siargao holds near mythical status among surfers. Two summers ago when I holed up at a surf camp in Ericeira, there was no shortage of folks wanting to know a) why on earth a Filipina would come to Portugal to surf when we have perfect water and waves back home, and b) could I please, please, please arrange a surf trip for them to Cloud 9?

In Siargao, Cloud 9 isn't just an idiom; it's the moniker of a surf break so epic that it draws surfers from all over the world. We visited Siargao during the low season—literally and figuratively. Summer was officially over in the Philippines and kids had gone back to school, so the island was pretty quiet. The waves were also small, by Siargao standards. Locals say that when the surf's really high during the habagat (monsoon) season, which goes from August to November, those waves can get as high as halfway up the tower.

Nevertheless, I was nowhere near ready to dance with Cloud 9—but it was lovely to watch the locals get down and boogie. I plucked rides out of Quicksilver, instead, just next door. It's a beautiful and kind place to surf for a padawan on a longboard. The waves seemed to catch and hold the board with finesse. Paddling back out to the line was almost meditative, with the water generally calm between sets. And need I elaborate on the joy of surfing in a bikini vs. wetsuit?

Since I'm still a newb, I went out with an instructor, who made damn sure I caught plenty of waves—partly so he could surf while I rode, and at times, at the expense of people I unwittingly dropped in on as a result of such ardent multi-tasking. But I couldn't complain; at P300 per hour of instruction, plus P200 for a day of surfboard rental (a pocket-friendly $13.50!), it was a very sweet deal indeed. On my first try, I caught a wave and had a wonderfully long ride, making it seem as if no time had passed since my last surf session in Ribeira d'Ilhas.

Surfing is undoubtedly Siargao's primary draw. But even when the tide is low, Siargao doesn't stop putting on the charm. The beachfront below is exquisite in and of itself—but the fact that one can frolic here and then soothe surf-battered muscles with blissful massages for very reasonable prices at Nuat Thai just beside it makes it an extra heavenly place to be.

For P400, you and a boatload of friends can sail to Dako Island, where you can float in shallow turquoise waters in absolute peace and quiet—or, if you're like me and weirdly buoyant, float with a rum coke in hand. A bottle of Tanduay rum and liter of soda costs less than P200 (that's under $5, if you haven't looked up the conversion rate by now)—and no one will stop you from drinking while floating.

It's totally worth feeling like popcorn in a microwave oven on the bumpy ride over to Magpupungko Beach. When the tide is low, a network of crystalline limestone pools appears, where you can swim and stare bug-eyed at exotic baby fish darting between clumps of seaweed. If you're looking for an adrenaline rush, there are also massive rocks and deep trenches that create opportunities for heart-thumping dives (Tip: If you haven't mastered a cannonball, this isn't the time to try, lest you end up doing a butt-flop instead that will leave your skin red and stinging for hours #truestory).
Siargao is a place that can snag your heart and never let go. Just ask the newest locals—surfers of Swiss, French, British, Australian, and assorted other nationalities who left their old lives to make this enchanting island their home. Or the visiting surfers, who meant to come for a week and ended up staying for months. The presence of such an international crowd has turned the island into a curious and intriguing place. The vast majority of this island remains very provincial. AC might not be standard in all accomodations (and certainly not WiFi)—but if the craving hits, you can easily find a place with fantastic wood-fired pizza or even some authentic tajine.
But if it's Siargao's rural charm that you're after, there's plenty of that to go around, as well. The main method of getting around is still by habal-habal (that would be a motorcycle built to pile on as many people as possible), or jeepneys stacked to the brink of toppling over with produce, foodstuffs, and warm bodies. You can easily have a banana pancake for your post-surf nosh—or you can purchase fresh-off-the-boat crabs on the shore and ask Manang Laida to cook that goodness up in her beachside shack.

By the time I bid Siargao goodbye, I was a woman hopelessly smitten—and I will love you from afar, Siargao, until we meet again.


How to get there: There are three flights per week between Cebu and Siargao. Book here and offer eggs to pray for good weather if you can't allow a bit of rain to alter your travel schedule. (Yes, Filipinos do have patron saints for everything.) Make arrangements with your resort for your transportation between the airport and resort. This isn't JFK; you can't hail cabs straight out of the airport.

What to bring, other than your surfboard and swimwear: I highly recommend mosquito-repelling lotion, and pants to wear at night. I brought back 22 mosquito bites as lovely souvenirs. I don't recommend you do the same.

How to find a surfboard and an instructor: Just hang around Cloud 9 and they will find you. The instructors never tried to hustle us and had a standard rate of P300 per hour. Stores and resorts around the area will say that they rent out boards for P200 an hour and P500 for the whole day, but this is the Philippines so you can haggle. Rentals farther from Cloud 9 will give you a board for P200 for the entire day. A spot right at Cloud 9 will bring it down to P300 if you negotiate.

What else to put in your belly: The chicken barbeque on the island is cheap and delicious. Seek out Ronaldo's for some yummy grub (and grab some Yo Ho Ho mango rum at Patrick's across the road). If you're looking for a more peppy night out, wander over to Boulevard for chicken and karaoke. What? You're in Asia. Karaoke was gonna happen, sooner or later.