"When you move to L.A., you'll miss our fiestas, and the taste of lechon, bibingka, pansit and lumpia ; you'll miss all our good restaurants and turo-turos (point-point delis)," friends warned Cecile de Castro when she left the Philippines years ago.
Like most Filipinos living in America today, she misses the big religious and holiday fiestas. However, there are always little feasts--weekend parties hosted by home cooks that offer a sampling of native favorites. There is also one big celebration--Philippine Independence Day--that provides the opportunity to cook up fiesta foods. And it's coming right up.
Spain ceded its colony to the United States in the Treaty of Paris on Dec. 10, 1898, liberating the Filipinos from 300 years of Spanish rule. But June 12 has become the symbolic date when independence is celebrated.
Many of the seafoods, fruits and vegetables native to the Philippine Islands are not available here, but there are enough authentic Asian ingredients to make it possible to recreate a real Independence Day feast. Local Chinese and Filipino markets provide most of the ingredients to make the dishes that Filipinos crave.
FOR THE RECORD - LETTERS
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 21, 1990 Home Edition Food Part H Page 49 Column 1 Food Desk 3 inches; 94 words Type of Material: Letter to the Editor; Correction
DEAR FOOD EDITOR:
The food section contained an interesting article on Philippine food by Minnie Bernardino ("Philippine Potpourri," June 7), which, unfortunately, perpetuates a common culinary error. I refer to the recipe for Cassava Bibingka, which calls for "1 1/2 pounds of cassava or yucca," among other things. Cassava and yucca are two entirely different plants, and if you try the recipe with yucca you will surely have problems.
CLAY A. SINGER, Santa Monica
Editor's Note: Our error was in the spelling. Yucca is a familiar California desert plant; yuca--with one c--is a Central American name for cassava. We apologize to anyone who tried to cook yucca.
In spite of this, Filipino food remains relatively unknown in America. De Castro blames this on the paucity of good Filipino restaurants. "They're few and just don't compare with the wonderful ones back home," she said. "Lack of representation at the restaurants here contributes to poor recognition of our cuisine."
De Castro, a restaurant consultant and teacher in UCLA's Culinary Arts Department, is trying to change all that. When she was asked to cater a feast celebrating the Festival of the Philippines Month at the J. C. Penney store in Montebello, she welcomed the opportunity.
The fiesta was colorful, with splashy island decor highlighted by exotic tropical birds from the Museum of Natural History. A native jeepney with multihued striping and gleaming metal trim sat in the entry. Food stations were huts and carts made of bamboo and dried coconut fronds and decorated with native baskets and ceramic vases. Filipina models attired in strikingly elegant sayas (long gowns) welcomed the guests into the stations.
The most delectable attraction at the feast--the one that really makes a fiesta a fiesta--was the lechon . De Castro preordered the suckling pig, which was roasted over a charcoal pit, from a local deli. She prepared barbecued pork and chicken on sticks. There were also small pan de sal (rolls) filled with longaniza (Philippine sausage) and empanadas (turnovers). Shrimp were fried and steamed; baked mussels were served in a rich coconut cream sauce. There were tropical fruit juices. A huge array of desserts featured Cassava Bibingka, a cake made of grated Cassava root, an assortment of sticky coconut and rice cakes, and leche flan (caramel custard) that De Castro baked in a ring and filled with sweet macapuno (coconut preserve).
The menu was a good representation of Filipino cuisine, which was formed by the country's eclectic heritage of Malay, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and Western influences. De Castro feels that this heritage has not been fully exploited and that there are still many dishes waiting to be discovered. She says that producing a Filipino menu is not difficult; for her the challenge lies in discovering the dishes that appeal to the Western palate.
"We are too careful about spicing, using borderline spices," she says. Indeed, for some tastes the flavors may be a bit too bland; unlike Indian or Thai foods, these flavors aren't easily defined. Basic stir-frys, borrowed from Chinese cooking, start with sauteed garlic, onion, tomatoes and a little bit of pork or sometimes shrimp. Simple seasonings are salt, pepper and sometimes fish sauce or bagoong , very salty fermented tiny shrimp (which some Americans find offensive). On the other hand, some dishes are based on long, slow simmering adapted from Spanish cookery, such as the many tomato-based meat entrees.
These examples are easy to prepare and very satisfying to serve. De Castro, who describes each recipe in her own words, recommends them for the forthcoming independence day celebration.
Mussels prepared with coconut cream and cheese is a traditional dish with our family. In the Pampanga region of Central Luzon, where I grew up, there used to be an abundance of mussels thriving along the Pampanga River. In the Philippines, we turn to seafood especially during Holy Week, when we refrain from eating meats. But this mussel appetizer goes with almost any type of festivity (which could be just about every week for Filipinos in Los Angeles). I modified the recipe with a little Western touch of white wine and a sprinkling of chopped parsley.
BAKED MUSSELS IN COCONUT CREAM SAUCE
3 dozen green mussels
1/2 cup white wine
2 shallots, minced
Coconut Cream Sauce
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup minced parsley