How we ended up discussing the merits of promoting Filipino dishes, I can’t remember but the reason she gave that was far from hermetic is committed to memory: “It’s very meaty so it’s hard to promote,” said the PR I was dining with. Meaty – I tossed that word about in my mind. Was she serious or just callow? I lined up a series of counter arguments: Brazil’s churrascaria is an all-meat affair; China’s dishes are all-meat in every sense of the word; and pork-oriented Balinese cuisine is highlighted by the popular babi guling (roasted pig). Aren’t the Scottish dishes very meaty as well? Reading through the sub-text, it hit me that she really meant unhealthy. I am not big on pork or beef either, but it was no reason to denigrate my country’s cuisine as being altogether “unhealthy”. I wasn’t going to get into an argument; I decided to just let her foot sit in her mouth.
That Filipino cuisine is nothing but meat is a grave misconception. It certainly has a lot of meat dishes but the hapag kainan of homes and restaurants are not solely relegated to the various renditions of pork adobo and lechon (roasted pig). Had the PR done her homework, she would have learnt that Filipino cuisine is an amalgamation of Spanish, American and Chinese cooking. Given this unwarranted reputation, it was quite heartening to read from The Jakarta Post that the culinary teams of Hotel Millennium Sirih Jakarta and its sister property The Heritage Hotel, Manila have set out to educate the foodies that have yet to sink in their teeth into a Filipino delight or two with Fiesta Filipina. And – surprise, surprise – they have been doing it for the past six years! This is no easy feat considering that the one Filipino buffet I attended at Conrad hotel in Singapore years never happened again and, if I remember correctly, was, said the organiser, fraught with tension in getting it off the ground.
Fiesta Filipina ran from June 5 to 17 and was organised with the help of Filipino Women for Art, Barong Batik and the Philippine Embassy in Indonesia. It was a veritable smorgasbord of all-time favourites led by the regal Kare-Kare, the true-blue Filipino stew of oxtail and tripe in thick peanut sauce and its cortege to name a few: Paella, fragrant rice stew with seafood toppings; Lumpia Sariwa, fresh spring roll with mixed vegetables and flaked chicken drizzled with thick sweet sauce and garnished with chopped fresh garlic; and Chicken adobo, chicken slow cooked in soy sauce and vinegar. I was looking forward digging into my much-loved pancit palabok, rice noodles in thick shrimp sauce, but it didn’t happen.
“Ay, sayang,” said guest chef Karl Dorado Fortaleza in an apologetic manner. “Kahapon sana kayo dumating kasi kahapon may pancit palabok. Pinapalitan namin kasi yung menu para iba.”
Karl Dorado Fortaleza is the other half of the guest chefs that annually man the kitchen of Hotel Millennium Sirih located on Jl Fachrudin 3. He’s the voluble one, walking about and, if the diner is willing, engages in small talk, his sentences punctuated with the polite “po”. Karl doesn’t hesitate to go out of his way to satisfy the diners. Case in point: he personally peeled, cut and served my gal-pal with her desired hilaw na mangga (green mango) and bagoong (shrimp paste) brought over from Manila. His partner-in-culinary-crime, Rogelio Armas, is the reticent one who shyly smiles, waves and quickly disappears into the kitchen. He, I surmised, wasn’t the celebrity chef type who craved the glare of the klieg light. He’d rather let his cooking take centre stage.
Putting into play what I called “strategic eating”, I focused my attention on the dishes that were hard to come by in Jakarta so that meant my plate was brimming with paella, chicken adobo and kare-kare vegetables, and prawn-chicken molo soup in a separate bowl. I was still tetchy about missing the pancit palabok but the dessert station more than consoled my crotchety disposition. The dessert station of any buffet, in my mind, is the benchmark to gauge the success of a buffet. Being a Filipino buffet, the legendary leche flan, or sweet milk-egg custard, should take centre stage and the two chefs didn’t disappoint this time. They pulled out all the stops in the dessert station, filling it with halo-halo, a melange of preserved fruits, shaved ice and milk, and topped with leche flan, maja blanca (corn pudding) and halayang ube (ube pudding). Did I forget to mention that iced lemon tea was free flow? Given the cornucopia of dishes and the free-flow beverage, it was a good deal at Rp165, 000++.
Rounding off the dining experience was a raffle draw. One of the crew, dressed in Katipunero garb, handed us pieces of paper, which we gamely filled up while calling on Lady Luck to work her magic on us girls. She was listening: my gal-pal received an elegant batik barong, a barong with a batik design, in the mail a few weeks later.