WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY ELIZA ESCAÑO-VASQUEZ
The morning air in the Philippines province has a hint of sweetness from tropical fruit trees and smoke from last night’s wood fire for cooking. Roosters crow at the crack of dawn and chickens roam freely, while the milkman begins his rounds delivering bottles of carabao milk just in time for breakfast. A local store will have made fresh pandesal, Filipino bread rolls, packaged in brown paper bags and still warm to the touch.
Pandesal are perhaps best enjoyed slathered in coconut jam. To make this jam, coconut water and shredded coconut meat are brought to a boil. Sugar is added and the batch is cooked until the water evaporates. Oil and fat are extracted from the coconut, and when it reaches room temperature, it is left chunky with the consistency of peanut butter.
Jake Belmonte, an instructor at University of Hawaii Maui Culinary College, remembers his childhood breakfasts vividly. Born in Honolulu, Belmonte moved back to the Philippines at three years old. The family returned to Tarlac in the Central plains of Luzon, where much of the country’s rice is harvested and produced. Found in the outskirts of Subic Bay, an American military base, Tarlac is a melting pot where one can meet Visayans (from Visaya), Ilocanos (from Ilocos), Bicolanos (from Bicol), and Kapampangans (from Pampanga). Tarlac’s diversity is naturally reflected in its regional cuisine.
While most Filipino breakfasts are savory, there are a variety of sweet dishes as well, including champorado. Champorado is sticky rice and dark chocolate. The rice is boiled until milky, then chunks of Spanish chocolate are melted into it. It’s served with a swirl of milk and classically paired with tuyo, the Tagalog word for dry, or dried, salty fish.
Another breakfast delicacy, taho, has roots from the Chinese immigrants in the Philippines. Taho is a glass of warm tofu topped with tapioca and arnibal, a simple syrup made from unrefined sugar. In the mornings, the taho vendor would balance on his or her shoulders two big aluminum pails suspended on each end of a pole. The vendor would walk for blocks bellowing “taho!” while people scrambled out brandishing empty cups, “It took P10.50 ($0.20) to fill up my tin cup,” said Belmonte. “The best thing was the way the guy would delicately and evenly scrape up the tofu from the top.”
Corned beef with egg and rice was also a big part of Belmonte’s childhood. “Corned beef is called carne norte, or the meat of the north, which refers to the region of North America,” said Belmonte. “It is an adopted breakfast item from the West because it’s one of the main things sent to the Philippines by Filipino immigrants in America. I like to add small-diced potatoes to balance the saltiness, plus scrambled eggs on top and a scoop of rice. The most important condiment is the banana ketchup.”
Many Filipino breakfast are structured around the format of rice, egg and some kind of protein. Garlic fried rice, referred to as silog (a shortcut for sinangag), and itlog (egg) can be paired with tocino, a Kapampangan specialty of pork belly cured with salt and sugar then sometimes smoked, or longganisa, cured sausage which can be sweet when it’s from Tarlac and Pampanga, or spicy when cured with vinegar and black pepper in Ilocos Norte. It can also be paired with vinegar-marinated bangus or milkfish. Given those descriptions, these dishes would be respectively called tocilog, longsilog and bangsilog.
Belmonte would buy half a boneless bangus from the grocery store and marinate it overnight. “It has to be Filipino cane vinegar, lots of garlic—smashed not chopped, black pepper, and green chilis from my backyard,” he shares. The fish is fried, then served with garlic rice and sunny-side up egg.
His most favorite breakfast, however, was his mother’s torta, or eggplant omelet. “First, she would grill the talong (eggplant) over an open flame,” he shares. “She would patiently peel the skin, which is tedious in itself, bathe it with egg, fry it with scrambled egg, with the stem still attached. Leftover giniling (sautéed ground pork and potatoes) can go on there too.” Spicy-hot or regular banana ketchup is used for dipping.
Belmonte’s family returned to Maui in 1986, when he was 15. His mom, who is now 81 years old, was a nurse at Hale Makua, a home for the elderly. While she worked there, she was popular for her atchara, pickled green papaya that is served with many Filipino dishes including the silog bowls. “I used to help her grate the green papaya, but I’d try to sneak out,” confessed Belmonte. The process was tedious when done by hand and in big batches. Once grated, the papaya is macerated with salt, left overnight, and then squeezed by hand until all the juices come out. Then, it is pickled in a jar with vinegar and spices.
With every splash of vinegar and patis (fish sauce), Filipino cuisine is now taking a seat at the table of culinary greats. Whether it’s for breakfast, lunch or dinner, vibrant Filipino flavors are basking in the spotlight, and we’re relishing every moment.