Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Make Way for the Mongols

Mongolian Barbecue... How could a dish from such a remote country be so familiar?

Interestingly enough, the Mongolian barbecue concept as we know it did not originate from Mongolia, but from Taiwan in the 1970's. A buffet spread of thinly-sliced meats, fresh chopped vegetables and a wide selection of flavorings and sauces is laid out, wherein the diner is given free reign to concoct their own dish, to be cooked quickly on a hot griddle.

Although Taiwanese in origin, this style of cooking is believed to be inspired by Mongol warriors and how they prepared their food- by gathering huge amounts of meats on their swords and cooking it on top of their up-turned shields over a fire. Mongolian Barbecue is also very similar to the Japanese teppanyaki, which also involves cooking sliced meats and vegetables over a griddle.

So, we discover that Mongolian barbecue is neither from Mongolia nor is it what you would consider your typical barbecue. Whatever it is, it has grown to become a popular comfort food with a cult following from all over.

In the Philippines, Mongolian barbecue brings together our love for stir-fried food, rice and noodles. To satisfy the Pinoy craving for everything tasty and hearty, we integrate the typical Mongolian barbecue into what looks more like fried rice of stir-fried noodles. The result is a steaming, aromatic, sweet/garlicky/spicy (your choice, of course), satisfying meal that is quick and cheap.

If you're in the Makati CBD, you can get your Mongolian barbecue fix from No. 38 Sports Lounge & Grill. Available from 11 AM to 2 PM, Monday to Friday, the eat-all-you-can Mongolian buffet is unbelievably-reasonable at P249 only.

Note: No. 38 Sports Lounge & Grill is owned and operated by my sisters, our husbands, a cousin, and I. I have always been a fan of Mongolian barbecue, even as a young(er) foodie: I loved eating it at the Bahia in the Intercontinental Hotel during family events, and at Sweet Inspirations when I was in college. I promote No. 38's Mongolian buffet not just as an entrepreneur, but as a fan of this particular style of cooking. I do hope you all end up loving it as much as I do.

No. 38 Sports Lounge & Grill
114A Jupiter St.
Bel-Air 2, Makati City
Tel. No. (632) 5191806

Monday, April 18, 2011

Deciphering the Carbonara Conspiracy

My love affair with pasta began at a very young age: I believe I was around 7 or 8. In fact, I remember it quite vividly.

During one of my shopping excursions with my mom, we stopped for an afternoon snack at a department store cafĂ©. Having always been an adventurous eater, I look through the menu, and spot something which seemed incredibly exotic to me at the time- Fetuccine Carbonara. I asked my mom if I could try it, and she raised a skeptical eyebrow at my request. After all, the only kind of pasta I have had before that was children’s-party-variety “Spaghetti Bolognese”, prepared Filipino-style with slices of hotdog in a sweetish tomato sauce. I remember her being supportive though, and watched me intently as I had my first bite of the creamy, flat noodles tossed with bits of mushroom and ham. Needless to say, I was hooked on everything pasta from then on.

But, as my maturing palate made me crave for food that is “bigger, better, more authentic”, I soon discover that my beloved Carbonara is not what it claims to be. Real Carbonara has no ham, no mushrooms and (gasp!) no cream. A traditional Carbonara from Lazio (where Rome is located) in Italy is made simply of the following ingredients: whole eggs or egg yolks, olive oil, guanciale (unsmoked bacon made from pork jowl or cheek) and Pecorino Romano cheese. (Guanciale and pecorino are easily available in the Lazio region, but when these are unavailable, acceptable substitutes would be pancetta (salt-cured pork belly) and parmesan cheese.) I also just discovered that fetuccine pasta is not a suitable match for this kind of sauce because it is too delicate. Italians are very strict in using only spaghetti or bucatini (sometimes penne) for Carbonara.

Recently, I chanced upon fellow food blogger Miguel’s Facebook page and he expressed his frustration on the lack of authentic Spaghetti Carbonara in Manila. He was surprised to discover that even in the better Italian restaurants, their Carbonara is prepared with cream. This made me wonder: Why is it that such a simple recipe (it practically contains just four ingredients) has been bastardized to such horrendous proportions that the “wrong” version is often believed to be the standard one?

I ask a chef friend about this, and he suggests that it could be brought about by foreign cooks adapting to what is available to them. During earlier times in the UK, for instance, cream is more accessible than poultry products, hence the switch. In my research over the net, angry purists blame greedy restaurant owners for using pricier ingredients in lieu of Carbonara’s otherwise regular cupboard fare to justify the additional zeroes in their prices. Being a guilty conspirator in the practice of “creamed” Carbonara, the reason could be as simple as this: Carbonara is easier to make with cream. A cream sauce can conveniently be prepared a bit earlier and re-heated when ready to serve. The traditional Carbonara, however, should definitely be cooked ala minute, very quickly, or else it could easily turn into an omelette.

I will not feign snobbery and say that putting cream in Carbonara is bad. In fact, give me a well-prepared cream-sauce Carbonara and I would be happy to eat it. I just think that, if you are a restaurant serving what you claim is authentic Italian cuisine, you must prepare Carbonara the same way they do it in Lazio.

As homage and “Oh-My-God-I’m-So-Sorry” to the pasta dish that started it all for me, I would like to share a recipe of Spaghetti Carbonara, done the traditional way. This is based on a couple of recipes I have gathered- all approved by some kind of Italian organization that protects the authenticity of their food- and tweaked according to availability of ingredients and personal taste.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

250 g. Spaghetti
1 clove garlic, peeled
2 teaspoons olive oil
200 g. pancetta, cut into cubes
2 whole eggs and 1 egg yolk, beaten
100 g. parmesan, grated
Salt and pepper for seasoning

- In a big pot of boiling water with salt, cook the spaghetti for 7-8 minutes, or until al dente. When done, remove from the water, draining the pasta water into a bowl and set aside to be used later.
- Mix in 2/3 of the grated parmesan into the egg mixture and season with a pinch of salt.
- In a separate pan over medium heat, cook the cubes of pancetta in the olive oil. Include the garlic, and remove before it turns brown. (Note: This will impart a subtle garlic flavor to the oil which will not overpower the dish. If you do not care much for garlic, you can skip the garlic part all together.)
- When pancetta has been nicely toasted, dump the spaghetti into the pan. Mix the spaghetti and pancetta mixture quickly, and then remove the pan from the fire. Stir in the egg and cheese mixture continuously until it acquires a beautiful, creamy consistency. If the sauce is a bit dry (or “tight”, as chefs call it), add a few spoonfuls of the pasta water.
- Move the pasta into a big serving bowl and season with some fragrant, freshly-crushed black pepper and top with the remaining parmesan cheese.
- Serve immediately.

It all seems simple enough, and it really is. I do need to stress the importance of mixing the egg mixture continuously to attain the creamy texture of the sauce. I myself began to panic when I noticed some parts starting to come together like an omelette, and I remember going “f_ck, f_ck, f_ck” under my breath. DO NOT PANIC. Just keep stirring, and the minute the sauce is creamy, it’s done. Buon Appetito!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Ramen Dreams are Made of These...

Ramen is not extraordinary in the local foodscape.  In fact, you can go to any supermarket or convenience store and grab yourself a pack of instant noodles.  This has become such a staple in the average Filipino's diet, that we do not think much of it- nothing more than a hangover helper at the wake of a long night or a quick snack during a break at the office.

However, I join the long line of Manila's food bloggers who can't help but sing this bowl of soup praises.  Ramen in Japan is nothing short of an art form- centuries old recipes passed on from generation to generation, each bowl distinct in flavor and characteristics.  In the movie "Ramen Girl" starring the late Brittany Murphy, it illustrates how mastering the preparation of ramen not only takes samurai-level cooking skills, but engaging that ability to harness your deepest and most authentic emotions in order to make the perfect bowl of soup.  Intense, I know, but when it comes to the Japanese and their food, they do not kid around.

In Makati, we are lucky enough to get piping- hot, authentic ramen from Ukkokei Ramen Ron.  Not having been to Japan (except for those three-hour stopovers at Narita where I get to stuff my face with tempura udon and sushi), I judge the ramen's authenticity based on the fan base (hard-core food lovers and Japanese expats) and the serious-looking Japanese ramen master behind the see-through kitchen.  

The menu is deliberately limited, serving a selection of ramen and a few short order dishes.  For the ramen, you can have either of three soup bases- shio (salt-seasoned), shoyu (with soy sauce), or miso (thickened with miso paste).  Toppings are mostly pork, seafood and vegetables, not much else.  

On my first try, I opted for a shoyu ramen, wanting to try something basic.  That already was quite exceptional, with the aromatic and flavorful broth and firm noodles.  

However, what got me hooked is the same ramen that has Manila's foodies going gaga- the Tantanmen.  This particular ramen's distinct taste is inspired by a noodle dish from the the Szechuan province of China called dandanmien.  Apparently, Tantanmen also uses some Chinese ingredients which truly sets it apart from the usual ramen.

Ukkokei's Tantanmen is the first I have ever tried, and like many others, I was immediately smitten.  I was captivated by the lingering aroma of sesame upon first whiff. Having a sip of the creamy broth, the miso paste adds a substantial richness to the soup, the flavors of which are a complex mixture of spicy, tangy and garlicky.  The little bits of ground pork make this dish even more hearty, as you slurp long strands of perfectly-cooked noodles from the ladle.  This dish is heart-stopping, wet dream-inducing delicious.  And I do not exaggerate, judging from the number of people I know who try to arrive at exactly 6pm in order to partake of one of the ten bowls of Tantanmen a day that Ukkokei serves.

Taking my cue from other Ukkokei fans, I top my Tantanmen with aji tamago- or soy-seasoned soft boiled eggs.  As if the ramen dish is not rich enough, the addition of the aji tamago takes your dining experience from sublime to decadent.  

If you are looking for a light, refreshing meal, Tantanmen is not the ramen for you.  The thick, rich broth with it's complex flavors and spices is not for the faint of heart.  But, i suggest that you do give it a shot.  Maybe you'll like it, maybe you won't.  Honestly, I almost wish that you wouldn't.  That just means more Tantanmen for me.

Ukkokei Ramen Ron
G/F Tesoro Bldg.
Pasay Road, Makati City
Tel. no. (632) 856 4588

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Rant Alert: An Ugly Jacket in "Civilized Society"

A certain wine and food organization's wine fair is one event I was looking forward to since I attended the first one a year ago.  I look back fondly at the time spent with good friends, chatting and laughing over a decent meal and tasting some really good wines.  It was so much fun and left quite a good impression on me that when I was invited to this year's wine fair, I told more friends to join me and promised that they would have a good time.  Even Matt, who was not present at last year's event, I convinced to join because I said it will be a great party (which he is always a big fan of) and we get to hangout with some friends of ours whom we haven't seen in a while.  So, tickets were bought, and we were all set.

The night of the event arrives and it started out nice enough.  Matt and I arrived and we did a quick round to greet the people we knew at the event, both suppliers and the organizations members and officers.  Good friends and lovely couple- Weinmeister and Mrs. Weinmeister- introduce their charming sons to us, and we decided, of course, to join their table.  I set my black pocketbook down on the seat beside Weinmeister (I assume it was his since his camera bag was on it) since it was decided that we will be sitting there.

We all return to the business of tasting wines, chatting, laughing, having a great time.  Soon, our friends Sanju, Cutie and Mark arrive and everyone is getting into a party vibe.  I was truly happy to see my husband and friends enjoying themselves, having their fill of the wines being offered, feasting on artisanal cheese and the lechon at one supplier's booth.  

Weinmeister approaches us at one point and tells us that they will begin dinner as the two boys are already hungry.  He tells us that if we are ready we can place our orders as well so we can all eat together.  As we figure out our seating arrangements, Sanju points out that there was a jacket hanging at the back of one of the chairs.  We ask Mr. and Mrs. Weinmeister to whom it belongs to, and they both say they do not know.  Somebody suggests that the jacket be moved.  So Sanju does just that.  

Within seconds, the angry owner of the jacket approaches us, this Austrian fellow.  I knew who he was, having met him at other wine and food events, the last of which was the organization's luncheon at La Tienda.  I don't know a lot about him, I never really felt the need to.  Anyway, he starts his tirade about not liking the fact that his things were being moved around.  "This is civilized society, we do not do these things", he said in a huff.  

He claims that his one jacket was placed there to reserve four seats, and then widens his eyes like giant saucers and focuses his glare at me.  I glare back, and point out to him that my one bag was also there to reserve our seats.  He says he did not see my bag there.  At fthis point, my blood was boiling and it took all the strength in my body to stop me from clawing at his big, bulging eyeballs.  "I will not fight with you, (name concealed)", I tell him curtly,  then turn around and leave.

We find seats at the next table, and we refused to let his angry stares ruin our evening.  As we chat up the friendly Australian and American and their dates, we try to brush the incident of the ugly jacket and its owner off our sleeves and enjoy the rest of the evening.  And that we did with gusto.

What was funny, though, was that Austrian guy was doing his rounds, apparently trying to get the rest of "civilized society" to gang up against poor little me.  Really funny, since a good number of the people he spoke to are friends of mine, some I have been wining and dining with for almost a decade.  

I heard that he was wondering who invited me.  The fact is, I was invited by, not one, not two, but THREE different members.  I was surprised that he did not notice I was the only female invited to that La Tienda luncheon, after which I was given an open invitation to attend the ones that are yet to come.  Unfortunately for him, his "friends" seem to like me.  I doubt if any one who knew me in that room had something against me.  Which, unsurprisingly, I cannot say the same about him.  He has only made an enemy of me for less than 24 hours and so many people are only too happy to dish out dirt about him left and right, including a big guy in the food industry.  People do not seem to like this guy, to put it mildly.

He talks about "civilized society" and yet he goes about his business disrespecting people, when things could have been handled in a more reasonable manner.  To begin with, why did he pounce on me?  I did not TOUCH his jacket, and I will never even dream of touching that eye-searing monstrosity (a feeble attempt at being fashionably eccentric) with a ten-foot pole.  Why did he not snap at Sanju?  Is it because he can't pick fights with men, so he starts one with the Asian chick?  Not so "civilized" behavior, even a truck driver from the boondocks will tell you that.

My opinion about this Austrian guy does not in any way reflect how I feel about the organization (or Austrians, for that matter).  The reason why I started coming to their events is because I have always liked the people in it- fun-loving, gracious gentlemen (and ladies) who share my  love for good food and wine.  I have met so many wonderful people within the society, people that I look up to and emulate, and many I have been lucky enough to call my friends.  Its disappointing to realize that there really are people like him in these organizations.  That's why it saddens me when the little time I get to spend in the company if it's more gracious and genuinely accommodating members is sullied by the presence of a man who seems to have a different concept of what the group is about.  That, or he's just really a prick.  

Anyway, the night was not completely lost.  As I mentioned,  we still had a grand time, and our little party moved to the bar after.  Some of the younger suppliers even followed, and celebrated a good showing at the wine fair with some cocktails and burgers.  The bar was packed, and the vibe was amazing.  Life could not be better.  And not even a petty little Austrian man with a bad attitude can ruin it for me.