When culinary stylist and consultant, Chef Myrna Segismundo, asks if you can be a chef assistant for her Lasap Filipino team, you don’t refuse. The itinerary: Madrid, Paris, and Lisbon.
The promise: an adventure in cookery. Suddenly, it was Christmas in June for someone who left a longtime TV job to face the unknown.
Lasap Filipino was a mission from the Department of Foreign Affairs Cultural Diplomacy Unit, Office of the Undersecretary for International Economic Relations (CDU-Ouier), and Department of Trade and Industry to promote authentic Filipino cuisine to a global market.
Mission 1: Prepare a Filipino menu for Philippine Embassy-hosted dinners at the Hotel Intercontinental, Madrid. Diners would include Ambassador Philippe Lhuillier, embassy bigwigs, top retailers, industry experts, reporters, restaurateurs, and kababayans wanting an honest-to-goodness Pinoy meal. Through this showcase, perhaps Filipino ingredients would get attention and land precious real estate in European groceries.
I was unsure. “Why me?” Secret apprenticeships, weekend kitchen experiments, plus the 100+ food shows screened at my former job were all I had going for me. “Because you will see with fresh eyes and experience with an open mind what promoting our cuisine should be about,” Chef Myrna said. “Write about it.”
My job was dishing desserts—turon with a chocolate dipping sauce, guinataan, and maja blanca. Teammates sous chef Raul Ramos and chef de partie Anne San Diego prepared the main fare of kinilaw, sinigang na hipon, pinakbet, adobo, kaldereta, fish in coconut and crab fat sauce, and kalamansi sorbet.
Lasap Filipino’s menu was a thoughtful selection of personal recipes. Perfected over the years, these dishes, when done right using authentic Pinoy condiments and following proper cooking methods, capture the essence of Filipino cooking. On its own or done in symphony, the salty, sour, bitter, and sweet flavors highlighted in the dishes, Chef believes, will find favor among world cooks they’ll want to make these dishes and seek our ingredients.
The mission’s rock star ingredients unboxed, curious chefs started their probe of the patis, suka, toyo, kalamansi concentrate and liqueur. There was Malagos chocolate, too, and bottled langka, Don Papa rum, and a chunk of the traditional salt, duldul. “Are you cooking pancit?” one Spanish chef asked, and was disappointed when we said no. I’m surprised they love pancit. Surely the doing of the hotel’s Pinoy chefs, Marlon, Benjie, and Jerry, who must have showed off with a meal or two. By simply sharing our food on this humble world stage, these kusineros abroad make the best ambassadors of our cuisine.
Cooking for a discerning crowd in a professional kitchen abroad intimidated me. I looked for my ingredients in organized chaos. Despite the presence of Asian marts, Filipino ingredients are hard to find. Only African plantains were available. The gabi was dry (a long journey from wherever). The coconut milk was canned (fresh is best). The spring roll wrappers soft and thick (like crepe?). The bag labeled “cornstarch” was suspicious.
We made do. Chef Raul decided to make the maja blanca himself. It was tasty but didn’t hold well, so the trays were left unserved. The bananas in the guinataan came out chewy, grainy. Clearly, plantains don’t equal our saba. So, without batting an eyelash, Chef Myrna ordered, “Take them out.” She meant EVERY DICED MORSEL in the BIG POT. We were elevating Philippine cuisine to the world stage, so it shouldn’t be offered less than perfect.
Minutes before serving, I was fishing out itty-bitty banana pieces from the guinataan before scooping it into cups, while frying turon that needed to be perfectly golden brown, plus minding the melted chocolate. Fellow writer Alya Honasan took over the banana fishing expedition. I was saved!
The encounters with Chef Myrna’s flavor symphony was met with much acclaim. The empty dishes and the serving staff’s faces said it all. I slipped them extra turon.
Embassy guests were blown away by unfamiliar flavors. Vinegar and kalamansi were refreshing taste sensations in kinilaw and sorbet. The raves for adobo and turon were no surprise. The response to guinataan was, with guests intrigued by the combination of ingredients that lent to the sweetness. They wondered what was in the fish’s crab fat sauce (kalamansi!). I couldn’t get over the fact that it was the simple yet carefully prepared dishes, with true flavors shining through, that were most appreciated.
“Filipino food is a cuisine on its own, one that is now reaping praise and recognition around the globe,” Chef Myrna declared.
It was one surreal moment when the team emerged from the kitchen to face nods of approval and applause. Only then did it hit me: “I made that!” Filipino cookery has so much to offer, and as a curious world looks for new food sensations, ours could just be the new ticket.
Next stop: Le Cordon Bleu, Paris!
Photos by Alya Honasan
Illustration by Gica Tam