If Filipino cooking is known for anything, it is that it is famously ignored, despite being from the 12th-largest country in the world.
A disclaimer is in order. Before last week, I had never tried Philippine cuisine in my life, nor did I know anything about it other than the fact that it draws heavily from Spanish influences. A little research revealed that I am not the only ignorant one, with many articles on prominent food websites discussing its lack of international acclaim. Even Filipinos are said to make fun of their cuisine.
“For hundreds of years, when we’ve had guests in our homes, we’ve apologised and said to them: ‘I’m very sorry, I can only serve you Philippine food’,” a Filipino chef told the BBC. Still, those who have tried it tend to praise it – celebrity food critic Anthony Bourdain ranked the country number one on his “Hierarchy of Pork”.
But regardless of the quality, sampling a national cuisine for the first time is not a comfortable position for a restaurant reviewer. Without a reference point, it is like reviewing an entire country alongside the restaurant, so it was with some trepidation that I headed to Mang Boy’s Lechon and Restaurant.
The restaurant is located in a nondescript house on Street 95 just north of Mao Tse Toung Boulevard, with the dining area located on the front terrace underneath a green tarp. Plastic chairs and tables serve diners, while a lime green colour pattern adorns the floor. Although it was lunch time, the restaurant was empty.
A kindly Filipino man with a Ho Chi Minh beard greeted me when I entered. Instead of giving me a menu, he simply asked what I wanted.
“Errr ... what do you have?” I replied.
“Pork, beef, chicken, seafood...”
Having no idea what form any of the aforementioned meats would take, I gambled and asked for the pork. About 10 minutes later, a huge platter of delicious deep-fried pork legs with a soy-vinegar dip was produced alongside generous portions of vegetables and rice. The meat, although simply prepared, was very tender and had crackled skin that tasted like pork rinds. After being given the cheque, I learned that the dish is called pata ($7.50).
I returned that evening for dinner and went through the same routine with the owner. This time, he suggested that I order the spicy beef stew, which the bill later revealed to be called Kaldereta ($4). The stew was very thick, spicy and hearty, complete with tomatoes, onions, potatoes and bell peppers.
Utterly unlike any other Southeast Asian dish I had tried, both the pork and stew reminded me of Caribbean dishes I had encountered in Cuba and the Bahamas – the stew was particularly reminiscent of a “Jamaican curry” I once ate in a run-down hotel off the main tourist beat in Nassau, while the pork echoed country cooking I sampled in Pinar del Río on Cuba’s westernmost tip .
Although no expert, I can now call myself an initiate of Filipino cuisine. A little-known landmark on the Asian food map, and an interesting one, it ought to do better on the international restaurant circuit.
Mang Boy’s Lechon and Restaurant, #59 Street 95, Boeung Keng Kang 2