This is a transcript of “Episode 03: Rediscover Philippine Ingredients With Amy Besa” (Click the episode link for the audio!)
Welcome to Exploring Filipino Kitchens. I’m your host, Nastasha Alli.
Today we’re going into the kitchens of a restaurant where old ingredients collide with new techniques, and a thirst for knowing where all those old ingredients come from, governed with kitchen and service, bring taste to the Philippines to your plate.
Shortly after moving to Toronto, I was at a Chapters Bookstore downtown when I first saw the spine of a hardcover book called “Memories of Philippine Kitchens.” It was a book by Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan. Amy and Romy owned a restaurant called Cendrillon in Manhattan in the early 90s. This was back when Philippine cuisine was unheard of in North America, outside of Filipino homes.
That day I debated whether to get Barefoot Contessa, Nigella Express or this intriguing Philippine cookbook that I’d never heard of. It was the first time I remembered seeing a beautifully photographed book about Filipino food on a bookshelf with other beautifully published books that I coveted. Of course it drew me in.
Beyond the recipes and stories of food traditions that were generations old, what Amy really taught me was to think about “food that was always ours” and “food that was borrowed and made our own.” This perspective – or lens – of thinking about Filipino food has carried and informed my own kind of self-paced study about food from the land I grew up in.
When I decided to write reviews of Philippine cookbooks on my blog – because I couldn’t find any online – I wrote about Memories of Philippine Kitchens. I contacted Amy through the Purple Yam website. (Purple Yam is the restaurant in Brooklyn and Manila which Amy and Chef Romy now run.) And one year later, here I am, finding I’m about to share a really meaningful and downright delightful conversation with Tita Amy about food from the Philippines.
Life can be pretty awesome.
So today, we’ll explore Philippine flavors, ingredients, and foodways with Amy Besa.
In this interview, Amy and I talked about Philippine flavor profiles. About how what grows around is what’s used in cooking, and how those ingredients that grow around are what become the preferred flavors that seemed to be embedded in our DNA.
We talked about serving Filipino food, about how sawsawan – a Tagalog word for dipping sauce – was such a definitively Filipino way of customizing a dish to your taste.
Amy’s stories of life at Purple Yam Malate – the restaurant whose walls where the place that Amy spent her childhood – now a place that literally exudes that homey feel that so many restaurants try to convey. That story stuck around with me for weeks!
When Amy talks about sourcing Philippine ingredients, it’s like I feel little shivers of delight working their way up from my belly. And this huge smile spreads across my face whenever I listen to her talk about the importance of working with agriculturists, with farmers and local cooks directly. The Philippines is like a treasure trove of these types of folks to speak with and work with, and it just excites me to no end.
We talked about what Filipino food is. How the “show, don’t tell” approach fits getting people to understand the value and beauty of our food culture. “To get a sense of how land shapes food traditions, we can even start with a map,” Amy says, and take a look at how climate and geography dictate the foods that thrive in the Philippines.
She talks about looking at a map and observing the contours of the land, noticing where the cliffs begin and the shores start, understanding how food traditions in certain regions or provinces are shaped by those contours of the land. That was fascinating!
Amy and the Purple Yam team are gifted storytellers who use a dinner plate as their canvas. They tell stories about Filipino people, of the ones who grow, harvest, and process the ingredients brought into their kitchens. Then in turn become these captivating works of the Philippines on a plate, a form of edible artistry.
04:35 “It’s so easy to win Filipinos over”
AB: It’s so easy to win Filipinos over to something like that because it’s an adventure.
NA: This is how my conversation with Amy began.
AB: When you have friends, and friends talk to you, you need to listen. When you hear, you need to listen. When you look, you need to see. I always say that. So I find a lot of stuff at the back of my head. Then I remembered a friend who once said, “I have a brother who’s based in Dumaguete,” and then I said, “I knew Dumaguete is a source for siniguelas.”
NA: Siniguelas is a Spanish plum.
AB: So I contacted her and said, “You know, I need siniguelas from that part of the country.” “Yes, your brother..” It was like that.
NA: And just like that, we come to learn a little bit more about food in the Philippines.
AB: And they found this area in the southernmost part of Dumaguete where there are a lot of trees that are organic, nobody owns them, they’re just growing wild. People would pick siniguelas from them, bring them to market.
AB: So, for two shipments I was able to get 10 to 20 kilos of this beautiful siniguelas. They flew them, they put them on a Philippine Airlines plane and shipped them to Manila and my guy had to go to the airport…
06:17 Siniguelas fruit at Madrid Fusion Manila
AB: That was a project we worked on because we featured that in the Madrid Fusion presentation last April in Manila.
NA: Madrid Fusion is currently one of the Philippines’ biggest culinary draws. Over the last three years, chefs such as Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca, and Elena Arzak of the three Michelin-starred restaurant Arzak, have visited the Philippines, specifically to take part in this international gastronomy congress. What an exciting time to show off this local fruit. But then…
AB: It’s a dying fruit. Hardly any commercial value because it’s a childhood fruit. Nobody cares about it. They cut down most of the trees. So we decided to focus on that, and this is my kitchen mindset. If we get something like that we have to figure out what to do with it.
NA: And sometimes that involves factors like…
07:20 Doing what it takes to get the best ingredients into the restaurant
AB: Going to the airport. This is what we do all the time. We do whatever it is to get something really good. That, for me is what I live for. To figure out all these logistics so that people who come to the restaurant, they don’t need to travel all over the country. Like, “Hey we flew this in from Dumaguete, and this is the taste of the soil of that place of our country. Their siniguelas that grows there, so different from the siniguelas in Luzon.”
AB: So this is what we found out. We were tasting it. It’s so delicious. I’ve never eaten siniguelas like that in my whole life because the siniguelas of Luzon is very, very astringent. So, Romy was there at that time, and we were analyzing it. And we came to the conclusion that there were two flavors involved in the siniguelas. There’s the plum part – because it’s a plum – but then there’s a huge part of it that’s mango. When you get things like this in your mind, your brain starts exploding, my brain was like, “Oh my God! No wonder our mangoes are the best.” Our soil really is very well-suited for fruits that have this mango flavor.
NA: On sourcing Philippine ingredients…
09:15 Sourcing from small farms
AB: Everybody asks me about that. “How do you find your ingredients?” I started with a few sources. I get to meet people whose mandate is to create markets for small farmers. That’s been a very nice relationship for me because when this DOST person said…
NA: That’s someone from the Department of Science and Technology.
09:45 Benguet cherries
AB: …we have all these native cherries. I said, “We have cherries?!” I would text her, “What would they call the cherries? Is there a name for it?” Then she said, “No ma’am we just call them cherries.” That was so funny. When they came and we cut them, they were really so different. They have a lot of seeds when you cut them. They’re like cutting a calamansi, with all these seeds radiating from the center.
AB: I supposed when you’re used to a cherry here… It’s a stone fruit. It’s one huge pit and we were tasting it but it doesn’t taste so good. It’s so astringent, very thick skin, you don’t know what the pulp is like. These farmers were able to pick 20 kilos of wild blueberries…
NA: Along with those cherries…
AB: …in the forests, and they don’t know what to do with them. So, I said “Okay, I’ll just get the 20 kilos.”
10:51 Their philosophy at Purple Yam
AB: That’s the philosophy I use in my restaurant. Its seasonality, it’s based on the producer, I am very respectful of the problems and the needs of the producer. Like last year was a horrible year for us because of the drought. I had such a hard time getting stuff because they weren’t good. But thank God because of Benguet, because it’s still in the mountains, I still was able to get a lot of good stuff. But like from my other sources, it is very difficult.
NA: Even in the Philippines, it can be easy to forget that…
11:36 “Nature is not a factory!”
AB: Nature is not a factory. Nature is very challenging and it’s the best source of flavor, it’s the best cook in the world. Fortunately, one of the most popular products we have in Malate is our ice cream. Our halo-halo bar is also very popular. So whenever we have fruits like that, we just transform them into preserves. We put them in jars or we make them into ice cream.
NA: It’s an approach to food that’s visibly inspired by the likes of Alice Waters in the west.
12:15 Purple Yam’s kitchen mindset
AB: For me this is one of the things I try to press on to restaurateurs and chefs. When you plan a menu for your restaurant and you think of dishes first, for me that’s putting the cart before the horse. When I get ingredients – and these have to be really extraordinarily good ingredients – I just don’t go to any market and pick things up. If you eat at our place, I source out and vetted the produce.
NA: That underlines Amy’s commitment to work with farmers directly.
AB: And if I buy from them, I know them personally. For a lot of them I’ve been to their farms. I know what their methods are, I know they are very careful. They’re people with integrity and if that changes, I no longer will buy from that. Because of that, the ingredients are very, very expensive.
NA: But it pays to find these top quality ingredients and increasingly, people are willing to pay for them.
13:29 On flavors embedded in our DNA
NA: “So why,” might you ask, “is it really worth sourcing these ingredients that are grown in small-scale farms?”
AB: I start with myself. Look at the common denominator and you’ll go back to what is growing in the environment, what people really have selected from the environment to use in their food.
AB: We share a lot of things with a lot of cultures and countries especially in Southeast Asia because people before us travel to different islands and regions and brought stuff with them, but I think it’s really the selection process, the preferred flavors. That’s basically embedded in our DNA. Even the food that grows today.
14:26 A profound concept
AB: This is a very, very profound concept that people must understand. If they look around and look at the type of rice that grows, the type of fruits that grow, they’re here today because our forefathers liked them enough to replant them.
AB: Just think, hundreds and thousands of years ago, we have all these selection of plants around and you want to farm, you want to grow some rice. Maybe you have a thousand species of rice there. But what do you grow? What do you replant? A lot of that they preferred, they liked it enough to replant. That’s very, very profound. Think of all the things and plants that are not available now. It’s because no one likes them enough.
NA: So how does Purple Yam play their part in saving these indigenous varieties of fruits and vegetables? I find myself asking, can we really encourage farmers – who struggle with their own problems of turning a profit from farming in the first place – to save those seeds and plant those nearly forgotten breeds of grain and legumes? How can we as people who might go to restaurants like Purple Yam do our part to help save these inherited Philippine ingredients from extinction? Is that even possible?
16:02 Community supported agriculture (CSAs) in the Philippines
AB: I am also on the board of CSA – Community-Supported Agriculture – called The Good Food Community. This is very recent and it’s very good for me because they work with 200 farmers in Tarlac, Benguet, and Mountain Province. So three provinces. They also need a way to push the product to market so that these farmers can earn a living. It’s difficult.
NA: And I absolutely believe it.
AB: Very problematic, because your supply is based on what the farmers produce. It’s not what you want or what you need. You get ‘this’ every week, whatever they have, and you use it.
NA: That’s so much food for thought. Amy’s stories made me think about what it might be like to work at Purple Yam Malate. When I was in college in Manila, our second year of hotel school marked the decision to major in hospitality management, culinary arts, or tourism. If that were me today, the possibility that exists in truly marrying those three subjects into promoting food tourism in the Philippines, with restaurants with a similar mindset, is fascinating.
17:28 Working with Philippine ingredients
AB: Yes! That’s why they are there, actually.
NA: “They” are Amy’s current chefs at Purple Yam Malate.
AB: That’s one of the requirements to work there. That you really want to work with Philippine ingredients. If that’s not your interest, you don’t work there. They know that my job is to keep finding connections with farmers and new sources. What I do is really make sure the ingredient is good enough for them to work with. Then they test it out. Then they go, “Well, we have a problem with this. It doesn’t hold that well, the flavors aren’t that great…” Of course, not all ingredients are equal. Just because something’s very precious, indigenous, part of the culture, indigenous people, doesn’t necessarily mean they will translate well on the table.
NA: I asked Amy if she could give us an example.
18:38 New techniques
AB: So I got this new pastry chef saying, “Okay, we’ll work on getting a jam out of these.” Romy was there. Romy has this technique he’s been working with the jocotes here. The jocotes is the Mexican siniguelas. That’s the one they sent over from Mexico to the Philippines.
AB: We find them in Hispanic groceries here, frozen and all that. So, Romy actually started working with them. And you know, siniguelas is very difficult to work with. Huge pit, very little pulp, and this thick skin. Romy has three different ways to extract the flavor. He has the pulp, the skin, and the seeds. The seeds he boils them further extract more flavor. You don’t waste the seeds because he gets the flavor out of that.
AB: So then you got this pastry chef and she comes back to me and says, “If you cook this jam for this amount of time, you lose the plum. Then you come up with mango.” And I said, “No, I don’t want mango because if we want mango we’ll use mango.” Then she figured it out. She was able to figure out that using all these different things – the seed, pulp, and skin – how to do it so that when she cooks it, she still get the siniguelas part of it.
20:16 The importance of storytelling
AB: It’s funny that this is the one aspect of the restaurant I really didn’t think much about: it’s the service. We have very professional waiters working for us, and they choose to work with us. They make us their priority. They’re always on call, because we’re not open everyday. We only open for reservations. But when we get a reservation, they’re there.
AB: Whenever I am part of the service – because there are times when I host a dinner or lunch – they’ll really hear an earful from me because if they do not know the details. That’s what makes the dinner so unique. You serve three different grains of rice. If you don’t tell people what they are, they’re just not going to say, “These are grains of rice.” You say, “This is the ominio, the violet. Ominio is an heirloom rice, and it’s paired with adlai, or Job’s tears, which is not really rice, but a different type of grain. This coffee is from Bukidnon, a valley between two volcanoes…” Things like that.
21:48 “Back of house” stories
AB: And actually, honestly if you were in the back of the house – part of the kitchen – it’s really very exciting because my driver’s always going to the bus depot picking up this and that, or we get deliveries from Bicol. Everytime there is this shipment and we open the boxes, it’s always like this treasure, what is it that they’re sending, because sometimes I get all these offers.
22:23 Kitchen is like a lab
AB: That kitchen is like a lab. You are free to do whatever you want. I’m not gonna stand over here like a cop. I’m just gonna give you some guidelines. Then they come back to me and say, “Okay this is it. This is what we found.” I said, “The number one thing is you need to interact with every single thing that comes before you, because the next time you do something is not always the same. Like when you’re cooking the same grain of rice every day, don’t expect it to come out the way you did before.”
23:00 Developing a relationship with ingredients
AB: So all of them have a relationship with the ingredients they are working at the time. When they work that way, they are never bored.
NA: Given the hundreds, maybe even thousands of species of grains, legumes, vegetables, fruit that grow in the Philippines, how could they?
23:20 Training at Purple Yam
AB: Okay, that’s the training they have. A healthy respect for nature, the ingredients, the process. Everything is a thinking process, so when they come out of that experience, they are actually smarter and more knowledgeable.
AB: So I said, “When you come out of here, when you leave, if you are a lot smarter than when you came in, then it was all worth it.”
NA: And before I forget, that bit about sawsawan?
23:54 On sawsawan (dipping sauces)
AB: It’s very democratic because the final chef or the final cook is the diner. Every diner creates a different dish at the end. When he eats it, he use all that sawsawan.
NA: As a dipping sauce, that could be anything from soy sauce and calamansi, or liver sauce to banana ketchup, or the dozens of varieties of spiced vinegars available all throughout the Philippines.
AB: Then it’s his dish already because he manipulated the final taste with the sawsawan.
NA: As if decoding the Filipino palate isn’t enough.
Music for this episode is by David Szestay, Squire Tuck, Eric and Magill, and Josh Woodward. My sincerest thanks to Amy Besa for this interview. If you’d like to hear more, please visit exploringfilipinokitchens.com and share the page on Facebook, or leave a comment.
Also, would love if you subscribed on iTunes or your favorite podcast app.
Until next time, when we explore more Filipino kitchens, thanks for listening.