`Memories of Philippine Kitchens' by husband and wife restaurateurs, Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan is, with a few important differences, cut from the same mold as the two latest books from another husband and wife team, writer Naomi Duguid and photographer Jeffrey Alford. The major difference is that while Duguid and Alford are exceptionally talented journalistic `outsiders', Besa and Dorotan are writing from well inside the Philippine cuisine, both being natives of the Philippines, albeit now working in a Manhattan restaurant specializing in Philippine cuisine.
I'm especially interested in this book, as I lived and cooked in a Philippine household for almost three years, with my first experience being that old war-horse, `The Philippine Cookbook' by Reynaldo Alejandro, from whom I got my first adobo, pancit, lumpia, and sinigang recipes. This period in my life also rekindled my interest in cooking, and my first impressions of the Philippine cuisine compared to those of France, Italy, China, India, and even Mexico and Thailand is that it seemed a bit monochromatic. Oddly, I felt the same way about Irish cooking. This may not be as odd as it seems, as both cuisines are heavily based on a white starchy food, rice for the Philippines and the potato for Ireland. The centerpiece of our Philippine kitchen was a rather large hamper for dispensing rice which could easily hold 50 pounds of rice, which we bought in 25 pound bags, three to four at a time. And, one bag generally lasted about three weeks, as a rice cooker full of rice was made at virtually every meal. This impression of low variety was reinforced by visits to Philippine restaurants in New York and San Francisco. It is no surprise that our favorite restaurant was not Philippine, but Korean. Philippine cuisine almost seems like the anti-Mediterranean cuisine, with no cheese, wine, citrus, or tomatoes to speak of, and little wheat based culture. And, the primary vinegar seems to be apple rather than grape.
Like the dozen or more Irish cookbooks I have reviewed, this title goes a long, long way to dispel the notion that Philippine food is uninteresting. Not only do the authors give us a great selection of recipes and heartfelt, firsthand stories of their Philippine families, friends, and sources, the book is organized in exactly the right way to best refresh my memories of this cuisine and introduce the cuisine to people who may have not yet experienced it. It is far, far better than the Alejandro volume and the other Philippine source I have reviewed, `Filipino Cuisine' by Gerry Gelle.
In spite of the differences, it is no surprise that all three books begin with recipes for adobo, the one Philippine dish that is known around the world. It is no surprise that Raymond Sokolov, the eminent New York culinary journalist, who also did the Introduction to this book, put chicken adobo as one of his 101 most important recipes in `The Cook's Canon'. Fortunately, Besa and Dorotan give us a whole new approach to chicken adobo. Unlike Gelle, Alejandro, and Sokolov, who all treat it as a simple chicken braise, Besa and Dorotan begin prep for the dish by doing a two hour to overnight marinade. I immediately guess that this will go a long way to making a tenderer dish, as it will have almost exactly the same effect as brining the chicken, due to the high salt content of the soy sauce.
Another thing all three authors have in common is their story of the influences on Philippine cooking. While all touch on the subject, I give the highest marks in this area to Besa and Dorotan, as they do the best job of associating specific dishes and techniques to sources. The discussion of the Mexican influence is especially good, as the authors give us Philippine versions of empanadas, escabeche, Rellenos, and menudo. The Spanish influence is also felt in the Filipino love of canned meats such as Vienna sausages and corned beef and custards such as the Spanish caramelized flans plus Spanish paellas
They even go so far as to discuss the rather unfortunate influence of American culture on Philippine cuisine, which is all to heavily weighted toward the `fast food nation' end of the spectrum, just as we Yankee homies are weaning ourselves away from slavish adulation of the golden arches. On the positive side, the Yanks did imbue the Philippines with a love of chiffon cakes and cream (banana, of course) pies.
While the authors make no attempt to make this a complete study of regional differences, there are several regional highlights in many chapters.
The only thing I miss in this book is a good recipe for the Chinese speciality, dumplings with barbecued pork filling. The empanadas come close, but they are not the same as the soft, bready Chinese style our Filipino household would buy from the local Filipino / Asian market, frozen.
I always love a good bibliography, and the authors have given us one, including a number of more obscure Filipino sources. It also has a wide selection of books on the cuisines of countries which have influenced Filipino cooking, such as `My Mexico: A Culinary Odyssey' from Diana Kennedy and most of the works by the Duguid and Alford team.
If you are looking for a Filipino cookbook, this should unquestionably be your first choice.