SINGAPORE, eve of New Year – The analogy is simple. If Americans go through hell and high water to get home for Thanksgiving, Filipinos will go through the same length to get home to celebrate Christmas and New Year. However, unlike the Americans, Filipinos have a chance to catch up with the twin holidays. By this I mean, if Filipinos can’t make it for Christmas, there are still the New Year festivities to come home to and vice versa. In my case, I chose to be home for Christmas. I would have wanted to stay until New Year, but circumstances didn’t permit thus I found myself welcoming 2010 in the Garden City.
Reeling from a devastating break-up, I steeled myself for another lonely New Year in squeaky-clean, fast-paced Singapore. My family was in Manila and my friends were scatted all over the world viz. Ireland, Malaysia, US, New Zealand, France and Canada. Like Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, which is, I heard, currently being filmed in Bali, with Julia Roberts in the lead role, walking the streets of Italy as she forged on with her new life away from ex-husband and lover, I mentally mapped out my activities (hit the bookstores, meet up with people, reflexology, eyebrow-threading) in Singapore, including how to keep in high spirits in my hotel room alone. It’s best to keep busy, I was told before to stay the knives of the past.
Understand that these mental goings-on happened weeks before I boarded the plane to Singapore. Then the universe intervened as its wont to without so much as a heads up, and put things in order. Its wicked sense of humor was conspicuously absent. First, I wasn’t going to be holed up in a hotel all by my lonesome self. It neatly arranged for me to be temporary roommates with an old flat mate from Stevens Close, P, and our mutual friend, A, at his place in Eunos. His flat mates were in Manila thus there was space for two transient guests. [Aside: It occurred to me on hindsight that every time my life was upended, I’d end up in Eunos. Could it have something to do with fengshui and Eunos possibly being a bed of positive energy for my jumbled up life?]
Second, I wasn’t going to be alone on New Year’s Eve.
“What are your plans for New Year’s Eve? Ate P* will be in Penang by then,” he asked pointedly one night.
“I haven’t really thought about it. Maybe I’ll stay at home,” I answered non-committal.
“You’re joining me and my friends at Bonifacio,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s masarap (delicious) and reasonably priced compared to this other Filipino restaurant. The last time we were there we couldn’t finish the liempo (grilled pork belly). The serving was way too much.”
Thus I welcomed 2010 happily and auspiciously the Pinoy – slang for Filipino – way although sans, thankfully, the toxic, ear-drum busting paputok (firecrackers) and stray bullets. Surrounded by compatriots – the nicer and saner ones – and dinner at Bonifacio was as Filipino as it can get!
Named after Filipino hero Andres Bonifacio, it struck a reminiscent chord in my heart, bringing me back to my university days when the students’ allegiances were questioned, Jose Rizal or Andres Bonifacio. A is unapologetically a Jose Rizal supporter, the bourgeois mestizo who, together with his illustrado compatriots, lobbied for the Filipinos’ assimilation into Spain and recognition of the country as a state of Spain. He spent most of this time in Europe, cultivated a reputation as a ladies’ man, and wrote the Philippine classic novels, El Filibusterismo (The Filibuster) and Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), which were required reading in high school and university. He was executed by the Spaniards for, if I remember my history correctly, treason against Spain. I still remember that comic book drawing where, against the line Fuego, Rizal, whose arms were tied and as the bullets pierced him, twisted his body to fall a certain way. An ex- high school teacher said that it was a symbolic gesture of Rizal who, apart from wanting to die facing the rising sun, hoped for a better future for the Philippines until his death.
A tour of Intramuros, the walled city of Manila, showcases his cell and the number of steps he made to the spot of his execution. The shoe prints painted on the pathway numbered up, I think, to 100 or so. A colleague had our students walk in Rizal’s footsteps during a field trip to Intramuros, and a question had the two of us smiling at the innocence of youth.
“Why did he walk so slowly, Sir?” he asked in all earnest.
“Dear boy, he was walking towards his death. He was in no rush,” answered my then co-teacher.
I was with the Bonifacio camp, the proletariat founder of the revolutionary group KKK, who lobbied for Philippine Independence. Inspired by the French Revolution – he was an autodidact – he envisioned the country free of the yoke of colonialism and his compatriots living freely and not relegated to a status not befitting even an animal. His working class background became a bone of contention especially when the issue centered on the “right” leader of the KKK. He was an illiterate in the eyes of the illustrado class therefore not eligible and suitable. KKK eventually splintered into two factions, one falling under Bonifacio and the other under Aguinaldo. History has it that Bonifacio was betrayed by the head of the other faction and was killed, together with his brother, in Mount Buntis.
Resurrected like the Argentinean freedom fighter Ernesto Ché Guevarra whose face adorns t-shirts, bags, posters and pins, Bonifacio is back as a Filipino restaurant elevating Philippine cuisine from the depths of oblivion and the misconception of being unhealthy, and keeping Pinoys sated in Singapore. Ensconced in a refurbished shop house, the décor was Christmassy with a blinking Philippine lantern and a tree standing proudly in a corner. Framed images of Bonifacio – naturally – and other Philippine landscapes decked the stucco-color walls complementing the similarly hued seats and tables.
The menu is for the pork lover. Fish and vegetables are on the menu, but they play second fiddle to pork, which is cooked several ways. A had his heart set on kare-kare bagnet, deep-fried pork chunks (including fat and skin) in peanut sauce that’s paired with steamed rice and its condiment bagoong (Filipino shrimp paste). Presentation was different – I was expecting a clay pot brimming with kare-kare bagnet or, at least, a deep bowl. But Bonifacio had the peanut sauce-drenched kare–kare bagnet sitting on a square plate and the vegetables neatly arranged on the sides. Kare-kare bagnet is a variation of the traditional kare-kare – tripe (tuwalya in local parlance, which means towel because it resembles one) swimming in peanut sauce.
I decided on calamares, deep-fried squid rings, and fresh lumpia, vegetable spring roll doused in thick brown garlic sauce. Bonifacio’s version had a porky twist – Chorizo sausage was mixed in. No problem – I unwrapped the lumpia and weeded out the chopped Chinese sausage. Shared appetizer was kilawin, roughly Philippine sashimi except that the diced tuna reposes on a river of vinegar when served. Normally dished up in a bowl, Bonifacio placed it in a wine glass.
A meal is not complete if there’s no dessert to end it, I always say, so to end on a sweet note, I ordered turon, wrapped banana fritters drizzled with caramel sauce. Apparently, Bonifacio and I were on the same wavelength and gifted us with a plate of Spanish doughnuts with hot chocolate sauce.
Although away from kith and kin, my New Year at the Garden City was far from desolate, with much thanks to A and Bonifacio.Bonifacio – Modern Filipino Cuisine 35 Kreta Ayer Road Singapore 089000 Tel: +65 6222 6676 | Fax: +65 6222 6746 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: www.bonifaciogroup.com | www.facebook.com/BonifacioRestaurant
Photography by Apo Aguila Jr.
*Ate (pronounced a-teh) is a form of address, which means big sister in Filipino.