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.

Ghost stories from a Taal native

We met Irene at the ruins of a crypt that dated back to the Spanish era. Our hosts had brought me and my friend there to catch a glimpse of the Taal not yet accessible to tourists.
The structure was discovered last year. Irene’s father, Mang Bernard, was the first to explore its depths, lowering himself down a hole in the dome atop the crypt, dropping into a small cavern that contained a long rectangular table surrounded by chairs. “They say it contains a tunnel that leads to the basilica,” Irene said in Tagalog.

“Have you always known about the structure?” I asked.

“Yes. I grew up here. We always knew it existed,” she said.

“Have you experienced anything strange?”

She gave me a weird look. “What do you mean?”

I waved my hands vaguely; I tend to do that when I’m embarassed. “Strange things. Supernatural things.”

Irene brightened. “Oh!” Her tone said, ‘why didn’t you say so.’

“I saw a kapre once. I think I was in grade five. I opened a window and there he was, standing outside.”

He was extremely tall, she said, with broad shoulders and red hair so thick it looked like fur. Something glowed in his hand; she guessed it was the cigar the beings were never seen without.

“And then what happened?”

“He ran away.”

We chuckled at the thought of a small girl startling a big monster.

“Was that your only experience?”

She told us about the house she grew up in, when the family would hear a baby crying under the floorboards in the middle of the night, even though it had been years since the youngest child was a toddler.

“Were you scared?” I asked.

“Of course I was!”

They eventually asked someone to send it away. “The cried grew louder before slowly disappearing,” Irene said. “You know they’re leaving when they sound near. They’re nearby when they sound far away.”

She waved a hand at the family house in a clearing just beyond the ruins. “We’ve found a lot of bones here. I guess it used to be a cemetery, probably the part where they buried folks who couldn’t afford the crypt. Our neighbors found bones while they were constructing their houses, too.”

I wanted to hear more stories, but it was time to go. “You should talk to my father,” Irene said. “He’s seen things.”

I said that I would love to one day. Goodbyes were said, and we returned to the car.

I always love hearing about people’s brushes with the supernatural. I may not be sure such beings exist, but I continue to hold out hope that they do. The world would be far less interesting, otherwise.

Now where did I bury that treasure?

A photo posted by @yvette_tan on

Zambales: Why I say ‘yes’ to spur-of-the-moment invites

It was a spur-of-the-moment thing; my friend asked if I wanted to go to the beach the next day and I said, “Why not?”

Sometimes, when you say yes to spur-of-the-moment things, you get this.

I have almost always never said no to travel. There is an allure in seeing new places and discovering new things. Plus, the promise of being able to dip my toes in the ocean was too good to pass up. There were six of us on this trip; five introverts and one extrovert, all of us happy to be out in the sun. We checked into Circles Hostel in San Felipe, Zambales, whose bare-bones accommodations and rustic, artsy theme was precisely its charm. There were no private rooms; you had a choice of either a bunk bed or a hammock, all of them cooled only by ceiling fans and the Zambales breeze, a mosquito net your only protection from the elements. Someone had written “I threw up in this bunk” on mine; I fervently hoped he or she was bluffing. The hostel was filled with graffiti; almost every nook and cranny decorated with pictures and words of encouragement and hope, someone’s thoughts come to life, left behind.

This cat is exactly where it is supposed to be: in everyone else’s way.

We dumped our bags on our beds; to heck with lockers, and ran to the beach. I don’t have to describe the beach. You can see it for yourself in the first photo above. While we were laying down blankets, a guy wandered by and asked if we could watch his belongings for him. He had jumped on a bus from Manila, hoping to run to the sea to forget. He hung out with us for a while, swimming in the ocean, playing Cards Against Humanity while having lunch, then just napping the afternoon away before he had to catch the bus back to Manila. “I’ll find you guys on Facebook,” he said as he waved goodbye. We read and told stories and listened to Beck’s new album and napped some more. “Time moves so slowly here,” my friend said. “I love it.” We found ourselves at the beach again after dinner, this time sitting around a bonfire on a clear night. There were stories, and food, and booze, and a guitar, but most of all, there was company.

We went through a lot of ‘Lord of Light’ and ‘Midnight Society’ jokes very quickly.

We fed the fire and fed ourselves; our hearts, minds and bellies full of friendship and poetry and corn chips. We left the beach just after midnight, somehow making it back to fall asleep in our bunks. We woke the next day, each at his or her own time, everyone slowly converging in the common area to lounge some more, some sprawled on the bean bags that littered the straw-matted floor, some on the hammocks that swung from the posts, and others, myself included, clustered around the hostel-provided bananas armed with cups of coffee and a jar of Nutella that someone had thoughtfully brought along. And then it was time to head home. As we loaded our bags into the cars, we knew that we had been part of something special; a magical sort of nothing that manifests, not in extreme emotion, but the lack of it, a total relaxation of the soul. Suddenly, we knew what it meant to be chill. Absolutely nothing happened on this trip, and that was what made it beautiful. I would not have been able to be part of it if I hadn’t said yes to my friend’s invitation, hadn’t been ready to leave in less than a day’s notice, hadn’t been afraid to survive without internet, hadn’t been brave enough to just be. In fact, from the way my friends told it, the whole thing had been a spur-of-the-moment decision on their part too, which just goes to show that sometimes, especially when it comes to vacations, the best courses of action are those that require the least planning.

Buhay na Bato in Leyte’s Rafel Farm


Leyte Rafael Farm_1

A few years ago, I found myself in Rafel Farm in Leyte. The farm is a beautiful events place where one can hold elegant parties and host casual but classy lunches.

After such a casual yet classy lunch made up of Filipino favorites, we were left to explore the breathtaking surroundings.

I was looking at the garden near where our van was parked when one of the guys on the trip, a seasoned news photographer, tapped me and surreptitiously pointed to a nearby rock.

“That’s a Buhay na Bato,” he said. “If you look closely, you’ll notice that the crags make it look like a human face, but you’ll only see it if the elemental that lives in the rock lets you.”



Buhay na bato means “living rock,” he explained, and refers to rocks inhabited by earth elementals. You can tell th by their vaguely humanoid features, which come from having been inhabited by an elemental for so long. He learned about living rocks durung one of his many trips to Mt. Banahaw, one of the most mystical places in the Philippines. The mountain is rife with them, he said, one of the reasons why travelers in the wilderness must always watch where they step.

“Can you see its face?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“Look closely,” he urged. “I’m sure it will show itself to you.”

I waited, wondering just how crazy my companion was to be talking aboy stuff like that, and how much crazier I was for believing him.

And then, I saw it. Two shadows for eyes, a sharp jut of nose, the ridge of a knitted brow, mouth set into half-frown.

Maybe I imagined it. Maybe my brain willed my eyes to see what they wanted to see. All I know is that my companion told me to snap a picture, which I did (he said the rock wouldn’t mind), and whenever I look at it until now, I can still see that elemental’s slightly annoyed face posing for me.