The first things that arrived on the table were the deep-fried pastries. From their appearance, my palate jumped to conclusion of what it would taste: crackling on the teeth as they break through a brittle encasement, a filling of curried, starchy vegetables would come oozing out, heavy on Indian spices and perhaps interspersed with green peas or minced meat.
Only because, my sight deemed, they looked characteristically like samosas.
Try one, Claude insisted. Happily obliging, I pinched one parcel and took a bite. The wrapping succumbed to dental pressure and fractured spectacularly; then, out of nowhere, irony spinach – swimming in a flavour solution of smokey fishiness and nutty notes.
My presumptuous self, bruised and shamed.
I shared my assumption with my host; Claude simply smirked. “And the kids think like that too – and it’s how we get them to eat their vegetables here!”
By “here”, Claude could mean anywhere we were sitting on. The Philippines, say – and it is an inventiveness about her cuisine that I’d learned throughout my days there, that I was now engrossed in conversation about how every Filipino dish are created for a purpose, or function. Or, perhaps, the province of Pampanga, where Claude hails from, dubbed the food capital of The Philippines.
Though I suppose he specifically meant Downtown Cafe, his recently-opened eatery on Nepo Quad, Angeles City’s new food strip and extension of its shopping mall.
Even the establishment was like the triangulos, the samosa-like crispy parcels I just ate: on its outside, Downtown Cafe was masked nostalgically with 60s chic; a lone jukebox faced the pin-pushed couch booths opposite, surrounded by the vintage posters and advertisements adjourning the walls. Battered metallic Coca-Cola signs triangulated with an old-school soft-drink dispenser. Two ceiling fans swirled overhead, as reminiscent of colonial designs as the Mexican-esque mirror menu.
But what I’d taste was anything but American diner grub or lacking the contemporary flair. The menu, printed on stapled-together paper as well as illustrated and captioned on framed photographs hung all over one wall, was Claude’s artisan interpretation of the traditional Filipino cuisine.
Or his take on international dishes, kissed with a Filipino touch.
“Do you have Peking duck or crispy aromatic duck in London?” asked Claude’s sister, who joined me, Claude, his wife and Julius, my Pampanga tour guide, for the luncheon at Downtown Cafe. Yes, we indeed do, thinking the question was merely a continuation of our conversation about my home city – until the second plate showed up on our table.
“This is Claude’s version.”
After all, Claude Tayag is an artist and furniture designer raised in a creative household; as the ninth child, his parents aptly called him Claude Nine – so you know the preferred pronunciation of his name.
If he was married to art, then cooking was his childhood sweetheart cum lifelong mistress. From his family home kitchen originated his earliest fascination with food and gastronomy, which he crafted and experimented on throughout his life; even without formal training, he has guest-starred in professional kitchens hosting one-off showcases of his culinary inventions.
After establishing a reservation-only dining experience at his residence, Bale Dutung, Claude finally decided to set up his own restaurant – and from what my palate was gathering, Downtown Cafe was well on the path of becoming a mecca for the Pampangan food pilgrimage.
“It’s considered normal here,” Claude shrugged off his apparent culinary talent; “Pampangans, men and female, are expected to be great cooks – from the moment they can walk into the kitchen. And that’s how Pampanga keeps its status as culinary capital of The Philippines.”
But why is it considered so? The explanation came along with the third dish.
Young, curling fern stalks: ones I’ve always considered as New Zealand’s iconic flora, not so much an edible entity. But there they were, accompanied by red onions and quail eggs, to be garnished with a mango vinaigrette.
And it wasn’t just me who found it alien: the fiddlehead fern was widely forgotten as an ingredient in Pampanga, where it’s commonly found in the wild – and it’s Claude’s personal mission to reintroduce it to the public, in the form of ensaladang pako.
“What makes Pampanga a culinary capital: its biodiversity.” Surely no random conjecture – Claude has written a book about it. “Everything that grows from the fertile lands here – plants, animals – many of them aren’t found anywhere else in The Philippines, especially in the South where the soil quality is poorer. When the Spaniards came, they brought some of their best chefs to Pampanga and made its cuisine famous – but it’s because of Pampanga’s variety and availability of ingredients that they came, instead of anywhere else.”
So an agrarian reason then, I remarked. Yes, came the reply, but more than cultivation: it’s what they also hunt, what they also forage – like the fiddlehead fern crackling under my molars.
Then the fourth, fifth and sixth ‘courses’ landed in our midst, along with Claude’s commentaries of each’s constitutions, origin stories, representations.
The kare-kare, prepared with braised oxtails in peanut-y coconut sauce, is a designated national dish of The Philippines; as the Tagalog-Filipino language has a tendency to use a repeated word to imply imitation, kare-times-two is a lookalike of the kari introduced by Indian labourers – though it tasted anything but alike, especially when garnished with a shrimp paste.
The tilapia, a freshwater fish considered as another epitome of Pampanga’s river bio-abundance, was served with burong hipon, the fermented rice, once again a local produce – a highlight of the Filipinos’ penchant and expertise in food preservation techniques. The two paired splendidly, with a rice vinegar-like acidity cutting through the crusty crisp of the fish, awakening its freshwater-sweet flavours.
The baby crab, shell tenderised after the hot oil bath, perched on the pinnacle of a talangka rice mount; another feat of his, it was the crab fat he distilled and bottled that lent utter crab-ness to the fried rice – yet another prolongation of ingredient that ends up augmenting its flavours in longevity.
Before the food ever appeared, before I had gotten acquainted with the names and meanings of the dishes I’d later savour, they were but spells Claude had cast and beguiled to materialise on the table.
But then, his gaze turned away from the waitress to me, he asked if I wanted to try anything.
There was, actually: the “pork belly adobo confit”, appearing on the menu and in a picture frame, had captured my curiosity. From what I understood, adobo, the Filipino dish of meats slow-cooked in a vinegar-based broth, and confit, a French long-simmering process under low temperature in animal fat, were both invented as a food preservation technique; wouldn’t an adobo-confit end up…double-preserving?
That was one last cunning he saved till the seventh and final delicacy.
The adobo confit was a matrimony of gastronomic wits, derived from two distant families of culinary conventions: first, the pork belly was left to soak up the adobo marinade; then, saturated in the brine’s flavour, it was slow-cooked in fat and oil to mouth-melting tenderness.
“Then I return the meat to the pan with a little adobo marinade, sauté it until the exterior caramelises. I also call it the wet-dry pork – you’ll see why.”
I cut into the piece; it hardly resisted the knife. It was truly tender, juicy; but not before breaching an outer crunch, where the meat had browned and crusted. And the crackling, its bone-dry crisp with an added ascension of sugar-burnt sauce – my sort of delight.
And it summarised how Claude’s innovation was what kept Pampangan cuisine and its identity alive, just as Filipino food is battling for its rightful place on the arena of international gastronomy. It can evolve, but with constant glances behind the shoulder; it can appeal, domestically and worldwide, but only if the chefs understand its preparations as well as its components, where they come from, what purpose they serve.
I couldn’t have been under a better tutelage in the Filipino cuisine than an afternoon with Claude Tayag and his delectable creations.