Sunday, April 24, 2011

Traveling The Philippines & KCC Challenge: Diniguan & Pinakbet Pizza

I'm sitting here in my Lola's living room... the breeze of a swaying fan keeping me cool-ish on this hot and humid evening. I missed this, and uncomfortably endure the 94°F with a smile. I've been in the Philippines for about two weeks now, and finally have a moment to sit down and write a little something. I've seen, experienced, and EATEN so much already! My journal is exploding with random impressions, scribbled recipes, and spur-of-the-moment sentences. I can't imagine how much I will end up writing about this trip.

I'm starting off with the 4-day road trip I just took with my family. Thirteen-deep in one van. 12 hours of driving. Lots of pee breaks. Not to mention the 6 who followed in a second van, and lastly our cousin who took the overnight bus to meet up with everyone for only one day. Whew.


We drove from Manila to the Ilocos Norte region of the Philippines. It's where my "true roots" stem from, with Sarrat as my family's hometown. We passed by all of my Lola's properties in Sarrat, and even visited the now demolished lot (right across the street from the Marcos Museum) where my great grandfather's house once stood.


We had lunch above the river where my mom, aunt, and uncles used to play in and bathe when they were younger.


Munching on Filipino empanadas and tupig - an Ilocano rice cake made by cooking a mixture of glutinous rice, buko (young coconut), coconut milk, and sugar inside a banana leaf - we beat the blazing heat by relaxing in the coolness of the flowing river.





One of the stops along our 12-hour road trip up to Ilocos Norte was in Paoay. I'm skipping to this point in my Philippine travels because it ties in perfectly with this month's Kulinarya Cooking Club theme. One of the main attractions of Paoay is Paoay Church, an over 300 year old, virtually impenetrable mass of brick and coral. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this church boasts nearly 2-meter thick stone walls and 24 massive buttresses that classify its architectural style as "Earthquake Baroque". Seriously, this thing is solid. 





This month's KCC Challenge is brought to us by Lala at This Little Piggy, and April's theme is: DECADENCE. A few words immediately come to mind: over-indulgent, luxurious, gluttonous. Filipino food has been widely categorized by Western cultures as a cuisine rich in meat and rice. While there certainly hasn’t been a lack of meat and rice during my past two weeks here, there has been a wide abundance of vegetables and fruits. 

To give a glimpse into both sides of the Filipino health spectrum, I give you something good and something bad, but dually decadent. Across the street from Paoay church was Herencia Café, where our herd of 20 hungry road-trippers stopped to have some dinner. The house specialty: Pinakbet Pizza.

Since my last KCC post just-so-happened to be pinakbet – this was a perfect dish to up the ante and take it to the next level. Between 7 cousins we ordered two pinakbet pizzas.


The pizza was better than we all imagined. Green beans, eggplant, okra, and tomatoes all cooked until shriveled and then piled atop a thin crispy crust and smothered with cheese.


To balance out all the “healthiness” we also ordered another over-the-top specialty, Diniguan Pizza. Diniguan is traditional Filipino dish made by stewing pig parts in it’s own blood. It may sound a little, um, how should I put it… - different - to many, and trust me, even my aunt (who is American) loved it… until we told her exactly what it was. Oops. Hehe.


The diniguan pizza was just damn naughty. A thick layer of pig’s blood was slathered over the crispy crust, topped with the stewed pork bits, melted cheese, and a healthy (haha) sprinkling of chicharonnes (crispy pork skin). I got weak in the knees before I even took a bite. I think we all went a little nuts. Everyone at the table with a camera started snapping away as if we were the paparazzi. 


Final verdict? We all agreed; the pinakbet pizza was much tastier than the diniguan pizza, but both rightfully earned their spot in the decadence category.

Kulinarya Cooking Club Members:

Kath –
Trisha –
Trissa –
Olive –
Caroline –
Ninette –
Asha –
Malou –
Cherrie –
Acdee –
Valerie –
Sheryl –
Divina –
Anna –
Dahlia –
Joy –
Maribel –
Jen –
Pia –
Malaka –
Mimi –
Erika –
Kat –
Lala –
Selfie –
Connie Veneracion -
Oggi -
Katrina -
Rochelle Ryan -
Marica –
Diona –
Rowena -
Theodore –
Gianna –
Mireille –
Marishka –
Annapet –
Boyet –
Adora –
Yaz –
Marvin –

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ironically Perfect Timing

I've been debating whether or not to write about this, but seeing that is a pivotal moment in the journey of this blog... I feel I must. For most of you who know me, you know my reasoning for coming to Paris. For those of you who don't, I did as most love story clichés play out. Met an amazing guy on a whirlwind weekend, and two weeks later, he moved in with me. Fell in love, quit my job, and moved to Paris with -but not completely for- said guy. Then the plot reached the climax, where the two who were once so carefree and crazy about each other realized it just wasn't meant to be.

Crazy at the beginning... and crazy until the end.

This all of course, happened on April Fool's Day. I couldn't have picked a worse day to change my Facebook status. Seriously. I spent the next two days explaining to my friends that yes, we did break up, and no, it's not an April Fool's joke. Joke's on me.

It was completely mutual... but the sting still lingers here and there. I'd been denying to myself that our problems were anything serious for quite some time. The whole move to Paris wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. I blamed it on the weather. I blamed it on the language barrier. In the end, it was much more simple. We both just wanted different things in life. For me, the fact that our relationship was heading towards the breaking point didn't come into focus until this trip to San Sebastian. I just realized how much more "myself" I was in Spain. More carefree, more outgoing, more me. Maybe it was the sun, or the ocean, or the people, but something about San Sebastian just felt... right.

So here I am, 2 weeks later... about to board a plane. Strangely, the timing couldn't be any more ironic. For the next 5 weeks, I'll be visiting my family in the Philippines, exploring Taiwan, and spending a week in Shanghai with some great friends. It's the perfect time for me to clear my head. Reboot my life. And when I return? I'll be heading back down to San Sebastian.

My goal in this whole life change was to push myself. To find myself. To experience new cultures. To cook new things, speak a different language, and travel. I don't regret a thing. I've done a lot in the past 10 months. I've semi-learned to speak French, and I can understand it quite well. I've traveled a bit, and learned a lot about French culture. I've eaten a lot of things I've never eaten before and cooked a lot of things I've never cooked before. Even still, I don't feel I've fully accomplished what I came there to do... even though I don't exactly know what that is. I'm not ready to go back to the States, which is why I'll be spending the summer in Spain. It's something I need to do for myself... a stop before going back home. Wherever that may be.

What about the blog? Well, yes, it sucks that the namesake of this blog doesn't quite fit the bill anymore... but I'm not giving up on it. I love it too much. So instead of teaching myself how to walk, talk, and cook like the French, my purpose for this blog will be a journal of my travels, eating experiences, and understanding what it means to be misunderstood. Heck, I may even throw in a recipe or two.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

San Sebastian - Paella


When in Spain, one usually thinks of paella, right? Earthy, creamy, saffron-infused rice that's speckled with all sorts of ocean creatures. Yeah, I think of it too. A few of us were hungry for a little more substantial meal (pintxos aren't always very filling), so we went in search of a good paella joint. Apparently, San Sebastian is not known for it's paella, but we were determined to find a decent one. I mean, it has to be more authentic than the paella in Paris.

Three of us set out on this paella adventure. Walking through the parte vieja (old city), we took a turn down a small alley-way and stumbled upon a hole-in-the-wall that had a menu out front with paella for 10 Euros. Not too bad, we agreed. Plus, the place looked like one of those family run establishments... mother running the register and daughter waiting tables while dad hacks away at huge slabs of beef with a meat cleaver. 

Errota Txiki

We went inside and sat down in the corner of the restaurant, chatting to each other about just how hardcore the man with the meat cleaver was... and how excited we were about this paella. The daughter-waitress brings us the menus, and before we even open them, lets us ever-so-kindly know that they are out of paella. Of course. Glancing at each another with a look that only says, "Do you think we should leave?" our friend Tim suggests we stay. We were all starving. We can get paella another time. 

The rest of the menu was quite expensive compared to the reasonably priced paella. Both Quentin and Tim ordered appetizers... I think to try and save money, but I went all out and ordered the prawns at 20 Euros a plate. Eeeek. I figured for 20 Euros, I'd definitely get enough food to fill me. I was picturing grilled prawns on a bed of something with a side of something... and after waiting what seemed like forever, our plates started to come out. First came Tim's cured meat. Yes, that's how I'm going to describe it, because he actually thought he was ordering fish... but to his surprise was handed a plate of about 12 thin slices of meat. That's it. Ok, it was an appetizer... so then Quentin's blood sausage came out. A plate of about 8 slices of blood sausage. That's it. 

I was starting to worry about my own plate, not because of the quantity of the food, but because what I had ordered was about three times as expensive as what the guys ordered. I held my breath as the plate made it's way to the table. 

Let me just preface this by saying that I would like to go back to this restaurant again. As my plate hit the table I looked down to see about 10 medium-sized prawns in a neatly grilled row on a clean, white plate. Yep. That was it. No veg, no starch... just 2 Euro a piece prawns staring right back at me. Oh, there was a basket of bread on the table, but we later figured out that we had to pay for that as well. We all looked at each other in utter shock. Did we do something wrong? Is there more food coming that we don't know about? We took our sweet time nibbling on our measly plates and grabbed the bill and got out of there.

Later we were told by Sara, the girl running the hostel, that we went to one of the best restaurants in San Sebastian. That old man with the cleaver? Apparently he's the master of the grill. All we could do was laugh.

Paella count: Zero.

Still starving (what, 10 prawns fill you up?), we figured we would give paella another go. Earlier that night we walked past a place that was advertising about 10 different variations of paella. We hesitated going, as it seemed like more of a chain-restaurant. The back-lit plastic "picture menu" on the wall reminded me of those fast food Chinese joints... and I wasn't very optimistic. But after the ridiculous "meal" we just spent a fortune on, we just wanted a little bite of paella, no matter how bad it was going to be.

I can't even remember the name of this place, that's how much it left an impression on me. The three of us split one order of paella, and ordered some much needed beers. I can't tell you if it was good or not; in crazy starvation-mode I burned my entire mouth on the first bite. I couldn't even taste the rest of my meal. Fail #2.

Still craving paella.

The next day we did what we should have done in the first place. We asked Sara, the girl working at Urban House, for a paella recommendation. Of course, she knew a really good place that wasn't too expensive. We took another friend along to join in the paella-ness. As we got down near the marina, we found the restaurant, Txoko (pronounced "choco") and grabbed a table inside. Being very optimistic, we did it up big... and ordered two plates of fried calamari, paella for four, and a bottle of cider. 


The paella came out, and so did our cameras. 


This thing was beautiful. Steaming, golden-yellow rice with mussels, langoustines, and prawns peeking through... we were so happy.


This time, I made sure to let my food cool down before shoveling it into my gullet. It was delicious. Lusciously rich with bright, fresh crustaceans. Yum. It might not be the best paella in all of Spain, but it was by far the best paella I've had to date. 

So fellow travelers, take my advice. It never hurts to ask a local.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

San Sebastian - Pintxos

A breath of fresh air... and a sigh of pure contentment. I don't know how else to describe San Sebastian in words other than to call it perfection.

Playa de la Concha

I'd been planning this trip to San Sebastian for a while now. Yes, being the foodie that I am, Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations episode on Spain sparked my interest in the city... but after reading up on it, it became more than just a food pilgrimage. I'd been having a hard time with the bitterness of the Parisian winter... and images of sandy beaches, sunshine, and waves were calling my name.

La Playa

We spent the first two nights at Urban House hostel... a homey place with a warmth that overrides the need for a five star breakfast and turn down service. I knew I was in the right place when Sara, the girl working the desk, actually wrote me a list of where to go and what to eat... complete with sketches.

Sara's List

Originally, I was planning on going a little overboard, splurging on the 5+ course tasting menu at the world renowned Arzak. After battling back and forth in my head on whether or not I should spend that kind of money for one dinner, I came to the conclusion of not going. I would much rather spend a little more money on each meal than shelling out the big bucks on one meal and spending the rest of the week eating at McDonald's. Good thing I did.

Pintxos (tapas) are the attraction here. Little 3 Euro bites of pure, unadulterated bliss. In my personal opinion, you don't need to sell your first born to go to all the 3 star Michelin restaurants that are in an earshot from San Sebastian. If you can afford it, hell, go for it. For me, I experienced so much more crawling from bar to bar... eating a few plates here and a few plates there.


Usually at pintxos bars the food is set out on multiple plates along the bar... and you pick and choose as you wish. In some places you have to order as you go - which can be a bit more expensive, but you're most likely getting fresher and better quality food. The first pintxos bar we went to, Borda Berri, is head up by an ex-chef at El Bulli (known to be the greatest restaurant on Earth). To me, that's more exciting than 3 Michelin stars. There were no plates on the bar here... which is usually why it gets passed over by tourists. Thankfully, Sara told us about this place, and exactly what to order.

Risotto Negro con Txipipron... Squid Ink Risotto. Even though it was made with orzo, and not rice, it was still incredible.

Squid Ink Risotto

Magret de Pato Asado Lentamente... Slow roasted duck breast. Drool.


Vieira Asada con Puré de Coliflor... Scallops cooked perfectly with the smoothest cauliflower puree I've ever had in my life.


... and then there was this:

Beef Cheek

Carrillera de Ternera al Vino Tinto. Beef Cheeks braised in Red Wine. This literally melts in your mouth. To. Die. For.

For pintxos that look as fabulous as they taste, we headed to A Fuego Negro. With the list from Sara in hand, we ordered everything she wrote down... and then some.

A Fuego Negro

The Menu

Mini Kobe beef burgers cooked to a beautiful medium rare. If only they were bigger... 

Mackobe with Txips

Mini Kobe Burger

The famous Jamón Ibérico on a crostini with goat cheese and sun dried tomates...

Jamón Ibérico

... and enormous green olives with peppers and anchovies. Yum.

Olives, Peppers & Anchovies

Dove breast so tender and juicy, with a wicked presentation. Complete with beet blood splatter and edible bullets.

Paloma, Tiro, PUM!

Risotto like I've never experienced before... full of flavor from all the herbs and with hidden sprinkles of puffed rice, which gave it a surprisingly fun crunch.

Risotto with Puffed Rice

... and then there was this chocolate & licorice thing... oh my goodness...

Regalize It!

The name of this dessert was called "Regalize It!"... a play on words as the Spanish word "regaliz" means "licorice." A seemingly strange combination, especially in my case as I'm not a huge licorice fan, but once I put it in my mouth, everything clicked. Like an electrified Oreo. Trust me.

There were plenty of pintxos bars we popped into for a bite, but these two were by far my stand-out favorites (and this post would get really long if I talked about every single one). So ta ta for now... I'm breaking up this trip into multiple posts... stay tuned!!!