Salo sa Taal: Sharing Chef Yana Gilbuena’s version of Filipino food in Batangas

  
Chef Yana Gilbuena is behind the Salo Series, where she spent 50 weeks travesting all 50 US States, whipping up a Filipino feast in each one. She was in the Philippines last June, originally for research, vacation, and to visit the school she’s sponsoring in Capiz, Panay. She got to do two out of three.

“I’m so tired. I don’t think I took a vacation,” Gilbuena says cheerfully.

Gilbuena is always cheery, attacking everything with curiosity and zeal. Her friendliness has helped her get to different places and meet interesting people. It’s certainly helped with her research. “I think people find me, or I find them, and I think that you just talk about things that you like. ‘I know someone who does this.’ ‘Cool! Can I go?'”

The reason for her trip to the Philippines, first and foremost, was to visit the school she was raising funds for. “I wanted to meet em personally,” Gilbuena says. “That was the whole point of being home. And then the rest of it was to explore, because there’s so many islands, so many provinces that I have not been to, and obviously each one will have dishes that I don’t know about, that I’ll want to bring back so I’ll have a fresh arsenal.”

Her current fascination? “I love the kakanin. They’re so different in each region, it’s ridiculous.”

She also got to visit Cagayan de Oro. “I’d never been to Mindanao, so that was the other thing I wanted to do, just go down south.”

She’s been hosting pop-ups around Manila, all of them always sold out. I was lucky to be invited to the last one, held in Villa Tortuga in the heritage town of Taal, Batangas. The event was help in cooperation with Kalel Demetrio, a beverage consultant and instinctive mixologist, who crafted Filipino-themed cocktails specially for this event. 

Villa Tortuga is a heritage house turned bed and breakfast. It also hosts dinners by appointment, serving a selection of Taal specialites. What makes it uninque is the photography studio on the first floor, where guests can rent Spanish-era costumes and have their pictures taken. They can also wear the costumes to dinner, if they please. There could not have been a better place for Salo’s last leg. 

The meal started with a surprise amuse, a light salad  of tomato, pineapple, and radish. 

Surprise amuse: radish, onion, pineapple, tomato; @saloseries Taal.

A photo posted by @yvette_tan on

This was followed by Sinuglaw, local fish with gata, vinegar, dayap, red onions, and ginger topped with grilled liempo. “I personally love the sinuglaw. The pork with the kinilaw and the coconut milk. So good,” she says. “Everything that you would want in a dish, it’s there. The fish is fresh, the pork is grilled and fried, it’s like, ‘Yeah!'”

Then came my personal favorite, Tinolang Tilapia, seared tilapia served with grilled papaya, roasted squash, and malunggay. Basically a fish binakol, the tilapia and veg were served first, the binakol–chicken broth whose natural sweetness us heightened with coconut water–poured over everything after. I kept going back for more broth. 

After that, there was Mango Escabeche with Local Dried Fish, a different take on both escabeche and daing. 

Mango escabeche with local dried fish from @saloseries sa Taal.

A photo posted by @yvette_tan on

Last was Suman at Mangga ice cream from Manila Creamery. “I found Manila Creamery at Gourmand Market in BGC and I was just freaking out over the Mangga’t Suman,” Gilbuena says. “‘Why didn’t I think of this? It’s ingenious!'”

Suman at mangga ice cream from Manila Creamery for dessert at @saloseries sa Taal.

A photo posted by @yvette_tan on

Salo sa Taal was an interesting exercise in a reinterpretation of Filipino cuisine, your grandmother’s recipes infused with a decidedly American mindset. 

“I don’t know (when I’ll be back),” Gilbuena says. “That’s why I really wanted to take advantage of the time that I’m here, get to know as many people as I can, get to see what people here are doing. It’s so awesome.”

This charming town: Taal life and food at Feliza Taverna y Cafe

Sinaing sa Tulingan

Sinaing sa Tulingan

My first time in Taal was in 2009 as part of a media food tour. We toured the town, visiting shrines and museums, and of course, tasting Taal’s specialties.

The best cup of coffee I have ever tasted happened on this tour, a footnote to lunch, something optional. It was a cup of barako, the liberica variety that Batangas is famous for. This particular cup, on which I have based all the coffee I have drunk since, was deep, dark, sweet, and faintly smokey. I asked if there was any sugar in it. There wasn’t. It had been brewed from freshly ground beans bought that morning at the nearby market. I have always wanted to return.

That chance came six years later. Beth Angsioco and Giney Villar, the women behind heritage restaurant Adarna Food and Culture in Quezon City had opened Feliza Taverna y Cafe, a B&B in a house that dates back to the Spanish colonization era and I thought it would be perfect to spend the Independence Day weekend there. A couple of friends and I drove down to Taal, a three hour trip via the STAR Tollway, not counting the time we spent stopping for breakfast.

@felizacafe's charming second floor/B&B area.

A photo posted by @yvette_tan on

Feliza Taverna y Cafe is named after Feliza Dionko, private secretary to Emilio Aguinaldo, and former owner of the home which now houses the B&B. The restaurant on the first floor serves Batangas specialties. The second floor has two air-conditioned rooms, a shared bathroom with two shower stalls and two toilets, a spacious living room, a grand dining room, and a lovely balcony. The house is filled with furniture and memorabilia that evoke genteel life in the 1800s, at the cusp of the country’s independence.

A room comes with breakfast, which is served on the balcony. On the first day, it was a choice of three things that Taal is famous for: sinaing na tulingan, adobo sa dilaw, and tapang Taal. Chef Giney told us a bit about each dish.

Sinaing na Tulingan

The tulingan (bullet tuna) is salted, its tail removed, its head wrapped in a banana leaf, the whole thing layered in a clay pot with onions, pork fat, a souring agent like kamias or sampaloc (tamarind), covered with water, and slow-boiled for hours. It is served with the liquid it is cooked in called ‘patis,’ a distillation of all the essences of fish, kamias, and pork fat. The fish is rendered soft by the hours of boiling; Chef Giney says that leftovers are reboiled until everything is eaten, so that the dish’s flavors get deeper over time. Its flesh is firm but yields easily to fork and spoon, the bones soft enough to eat. This is one of the dishes that Tall is proud of, one that you can find in many eating places in the area, from the poshest restaurant to the night market in the plaza.

Adobo sa Dilaw

Like its name states, adobo sa dilaw is the local iteration of what could very well be our national food (sorry, lechon). Turmeric gives the dish its distinctive yellow hue, as well as a gingery tinge to its flavor. Braised with garlic until tender, the dish is subtly flavorful; yet another way of experiencing adobo.

Tapang Taal

Made from pork, tapang taal is like tapa and tocino’s love child. It’s got the look and feel of the beef tapa that we are used to, but with the fatty sweetness you usually get from pork tocino.

Tall is a charming heritage town that is just waiting to be rediscovered. Feliza Taverna y Cafe offers a slice of small town life, but it was not the be all and end all of our visit. Taal is a place that begs to be rediscovered, each trip there offering a glimpse into our many storied past.

On Accepting Food from Strangers

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You know how your mother tells you never to accept food from strangers?

I broke that rule during my first time in Laoag, the capital of Ilocos Norte.

My companions and I were checking out Dap-Ayan ti Ilocos Norte, the hawker food court where you can get fresh Ilocos empanadas and other provincial treats, but mainly Ilocos empanadas, which are quite tasty. A mixture of meat, shredded green papaya, and other vegetables, and hopefully an egg are stuffed into an orange-colored flour-based casing and deep fried so that it’s crisp on the outside and piping hot on the inside. It is street food at its best, and the Ilocanos are very proud of it, as they should be.

We stopped at the first empanada stall in Dap-Ayan and my companions struck up a conversation with the vendors. I noticed that one of the proprietors was having dinner. She was spooning tiny fish swimming in a cloudy liquid onto a plate of rice and eating everything with gusto.

My friend asked what the lady was eating and the lady said it was kilawin na dilis (ceviche), and would she like some? My friend declined, but jokingly asked me if I wanted to try the dish.

Not being one to back down froma challenge (and from the offer of food), I said yes. The lady handed me her spoon. I scooped a few small fish with some of the vinegared sauce and put it in my mouth.

The dilis was salty and a bit bitter, not my thing at all. I’m happy the lady was nice enough to offer me a bite of her dinner. Now I know that kilawin na dilis isn’t for me, and that the way I found this out is a story in itself.

Just don’t tell mother.

Jonah’s Fruit Shake and Snack Bar, and Why I was Trying to Get Drunk in the Middle of the Afternoon

I accompanied my mom to a wedding in Boracay, which essentially meant that I spent a lot of money so that I could be slightly miserable outside Manila. I love traveling with my mom and her friends are generally cool, but after three days stuck in the Shangri La with no time to myself, I needed a drink, if only to get into my own space.

When we finally got the chance to go to White Beach, I said that I wanted to go to Jonah’s, hoping that my mom and her friends would think it too much of a ‘youngster’s place’ and not come along. They didn’t take the hint and followed anyway, but that didn’t stop me from ordering a piña colada shake in the middle of the afternoon.

Jonah’s Shake and Snack Bar in Station 1 is a Boracay institution, and serves the best shakes in the world. This is not an exaggeration. They have a long list of fresh fruit, cocoa, and dairy combinations, all of them extremely thick in a didn’t-scrimp-on-ingredients way. My favorite is the Avocado Shake, a mix of avocado, milk, and sugar. The texture of semi-melted ice cream, it’s both a thirst quencher and comfort food. This is normally my first choice, but it wasn’t the kind of comfort that I needed that day.

Jonah's Piña Colada Shake

Jonah’s Piña Colada Shake

The Piña Colada Shake combines pineapple, my favorite fruit, and alcohol, which I severely needed to stop myself from going crazy. It was sweet, but didn’t mask the pineapple’s tartness, and enough alcohol to get just slightly off-center.

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Jonah’s Seafood Taco

I also ordered the Jonah’s Seafood Taco, a giant taco shell packed with vegetables, cheese, and shrimp. It’s a weird pairing, I know, but the taco filled me up and took a bit of the edge off the alcohol.

I finished my shake, tipsy and in a considerably better mood, ready to endure another two days in one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

Ryuma Restaurant

Yesterday, I accompanied a friend to a meeting in Tagaytay. We drove through McDonald’s for breakfast, stopped by Sonia’s Garden so that he could buy their famous Spanish Bread, then ended the day in Makati by watching The Hobbit. But in between Tagaytay and Makati, he took me to a den of pitch in the middle of Sta. Rosa, Laguna.

Ruyma Restaurant is located on the 2nd Floor of Paseo de Rosa in Greenfield City, one of those strip malls that seem to be popping up everywhere in the South. Aside from a restaurant, Ryuma is also the name of a Japanese grocery store and baby clothes shop (that also sells the type ladies’ clothes that will end up giving them babies), all of them on the same floor.

The restaurant is part toy store, part home shop, and part museum. Museum to what? I’m not sure. Stuffed toys and toy dispensers line the entrance, a makeshift doorway into the white leather couches and formica topped tables that lie beyond. Aside from toys (all of which are for sale), the restaurant’s decorations include glass decanters (also for sale), a full suit of Japanese armor, a juke box and a dance floor. Top all these with Christmas decorations, and you have one confused eating place. This actually works to its advantage, giving the restaurant a weird kind of split-personality charm that only a Japanese restaurant can pull off. And they also have place mats that look like this:

How can you not want to eat at a restaurant with a giant flying turtle in the middle of its placemat?

How can you not want to eat at a restaurant with a giant flying turtle in the middle of its placemat?

We haven’t even gotten to the food yet. The restaurant features an extensive menu of Japanese dishes, plus set meals at fairly reasonable prices.

I settled on the Tofu Steak Teppanyaki (Php185) while my friend ordered the Seafoods (sic) Curry (Php310).

The Tofu Steak Teppanyaki consists of batter-coated blocks of tofu served teppanyaki style with three kinds of fresh mushrooms and a lovely, sweet-umami sauce with the flavor of margarine running underneath that adds richness and binds everything together, tastewise. Even my friend, who won’t eat non-meat dishes if he can help it, admitted that it was tasty.

Tofu Steak Teppanyaki

Tofu Steak Teppanyaki

The Seafoods Curry is shrimp, fish, and octopus cooked in Japanese curry sauce and served with a generous amount of rice and shredded cabbage, with raw garlic and chilies on the side, just in case you think it isn’t hot enough.

Seafoods Curry

Seafoods Curry

We were further entertained by a group of diners whose conversation was dominated by a woman who lectured about subjects as eclectic as the Mayan end of the world to self-help buzzwords such as “FOCUS – Follow one course until success,” which became our Quote of the Day (and should be yours, too). We didn’t have to talk. The menu, ambiance, and fellow diners were entertainment enough.

Sta. Rosa is quite a ways to go for decent Japanese food, but if you’re in the area, Ryuma is worth checking out. I know I’m going to be back because I’ve only tried two dishes out of, oh, lots, and if my enjoyment of the curry and tofu steak are any indication, the others are going to be pretty tasty as well.

Ryuma Restaurant

Paseo de Sta. Rosa

Commercial Center 4

Greenfield City, Brgy, San Jose

Sta. Rosa City, Laguna

+6349-5410264