They call it a culinary exchange. Every year since 1976, six winners of the Great Maya Cookfest, a cooking contest sponsored by Liberty Flour Mills in the Philippines, are rewarded with a highly coveted prize: an opportunity to visit a different country. In 1988 the destination was the United States, which stirred a tremendous response among applying cooks. "Their goal is to share Filipino cuisine and enrich their knowledge of the culinary arts of other lands," says Nora Daza, a noted Philippines cooking guru and hostess of a TV cooking show in Manila. The moving force behind the culinary exchange program, Daza led the delegation, which visited Los Angeles and Minneapolis; highlighting the trip was a visit to the Betty Crocker Kitchens in Minneapolis. It wasn't surprising to discover what the winning recipes were, noting how fond Filipinos are of adapting elements of Western culture. These were not the typical Filipino dishes redolent of sauteed garlic and onion. As expected, the dishes were very Westernized with a blend of their favorite seasonings and ingredients. Nineteen-year-old nutrition and dietetics graduate Carolyn Capacillo won first place in the cooking category for her Molded Chick-A-Roni Coup. Reminiscent of the old-fashioned macaroni meat loaf, the dish makes it clear that either the return-to-the-meat-loaf trend has been picked up in the Philippines or that the meat loaf has remained a favorite standby, as I remember from childhood days in Manila. Shaped in a ring mold, the dish was adapted from Capacillo's old family recipe. It incorporates the richness of ham, chicken and Spanish sausage with macaroni and cheese and, of course, lots of butter for the fearless eater.
A favorite island fruit, the mango was a common choice in most of the winning recipes. It was used in 13-year-old Karla Kangleon's chicken breast roll-ups stuffed with dried mangoes and cream cheese; 17-year-old Abigail Dy's cashew-flavored checkerboard--or parquet--cake filled with mango mousse, and Edna Novales' mango-filled refrigerator meringue torte.
Two of the winners were male cooks: Rodolfo Solatan, a black belt and an automobile technician back home, dished out another meat-loaf-type entree shaped into a log and served with white sauce. Archibald Umacob, a college professor who loves to bake, won a prize for his intricate mocha praline crunch torte.
Featured in 'Cooking With Nora'
None of these dishes were demonstrated, but we did taste test the macaroni loaf and the recipe is provided below. Instead, the group exchanged popular fiesta and restaurant specialties, most of which are featured in Daza's cookbook, "Cooking With Nora."
It was at Ma Cuisine Cooking School in Newport Beach last fall that Daza and the visiting winning cooks staged their culinary performance. Dressed in their colorful native fiesta attire, the young winners cooked a whole menu.
They started with Ukoy, a deliciously crisp fritter made with bean sprouts, shrimp and tofu dipped in a tempura-like batter. These can either be made into small fritters for appetizers or into larger pancake-size fritters as a side vegetable dish, served with a vinegar-garlic dip (Filipinos use this condiment with almost any type of fried item--egg rolls, for instance). The two main courses were Chicken and Pork Apritada, a Spanish-style tomato-based stew garnished with fried potatoes, and the classic Morcon, rolled beef filled with strips of cheese and vegetables and slowly simmered in a tomato-based sauce.
An exceptional dessert that receives attention for its soft and fluffy meringue and rum-flavored custard sauce is Canonigo. It's similar to a Pavlova or a floating island but the meringue is baked in a caramel-lined pan. Back in Manila two years ago, we were served a memorable Canonigo at Bistro Burgos. It was a spectacular presentation, served with fresh mango balls and the smooth custard sauce. A tricky one to make, the meringue was baked in an angel food cake pan instead of a loaf pan.
Exchanging recipes with international flair is nothing new to Cecilia de Castro, who was responsible for accommodating the group at the Ma Cuisine school, where she teaches a chef's training program and East-West cooking. "More and more students are demanding to learn about Oriental cooking," de Castro explained. The most popular recipes in her collection of Philippine recipes are still lumpia, or egg roll, and the pancit, noodles, she says. Here she shares a recipe for Shrimp-Stuffed Egg Roll with a Sweet and Sour Sauce. An interesting variation of the ground pork-stuffed lumpia, it uses whole shrimp for the filling and the spicy sweet dip tastefully complements it.