MANILA – For local celebrity chef Myke “Tatung” Sarthou, simplicity is the key element in the cuisine of Puerto Princesa, Palawan.
The man behind the Filipino restaurant Alab in Quezon City was tasked to prepare a meal celebrating Puerto Princesa’s flavors during a recent dinner hosted by the Mama Sita Foundation and the Ateneo de Manila University’s Cultural Heritage Studies Program for the "Mga Kuwentong Pagkain" campaign.
Sarthou’s initial approach was to be as innovative as possible, given his Cebuano-Bicolano heritage. But in the end, he realized that the best way to tackle Puerto Princesa’s cuisine is to focus on the basics.
“When I was told about this project, it really was a challenge. As a chef, I can’t help but get my creative juices flowing, to interpret [the cuisine] and tell a story,” he explained. “But after doing my research on Palawan, I realized that for me to present Palawan food, I have to remove myself from the process.”
So instead of coming up with unique recipes and interesting twists, Sarthou humbly took a step back and prepared the elements of the very simple four-course Puerto Princesa meal, letting his guests savor each ingredient.
He started by serving plates of raw fish, shellfish, shrimp and seaweed, different kinds of vinegar from Mama Sita, vegetables and some coconut cream for some do-it-yourself kinilaw, a dish that is similar to ceviche.
His interpretation presented different flavor combinations – spiced vinegar types provide more heat, cashew vinegar lends some bold notes, while the coconut cream adds another layer of texture, for instance.
“It’s up to you to play around with it,” he said, noting Puerto Princesa’s focus on fresh seafood and minimal spices. “It’s a communal setting and it allows you to be more engaged in the process of preparing your food.”
Before the dinner, students of Ateneo presented their respective research on Puerto Princesa’s cuisine, which is said to have three major streams – Tagbanua, or “forest food” in tune with the rhythm of nature; Cuyonon, or fresh seafood or meat seasoned with fruits and lemongrass; and Palawan-Vietnamese, which features sweeter, stronger and bolder flavors than the parent culture.
Sarthou took off from here and presented Puerto Princesa specialties, using only one cooking method for each dish.
After the raw kinilaw, the chef showcased the distinctly Palaweño laoya, a soup of pork hocks boiled for three hours with jackfruit, onion and lemongrass.
The dish was surprisingly light and left guests wanting more of the mild sweetness of the pork and the comforting soup.
Staying true to his meal’s simple theme, Sarthou proceeded with the main course – chicken inato and pork belly served with puso, or organic rice wrapped in palm leaves.
There were no special seasonings or added frills – the chef only relied on salt to bring out the flavors of the tender chicken and meat while grilling.
For dessert, Sarthou served his signature Egg Yolk and Honey Custard topped with toasted Palawan cashews and steamed sticky rice balls with coconut milk and ginger.
The sweet and sticky ending was washed down with local Palawan craft beers made with indigenous ingredients.
With his self-imposed limitations, Sarthou was able to open his mind to a different way of cooking through Puerto Princesa’s cuisine which, he said, is about respecting fresh ingredients and flavors.
He said that the simplicity of the dishes is exactly what makes Puerto Princesa’s food special.
“When I was in Palawan, ganoon lang ‘yung mga tao, simple lang… It’s for you to see how the food changes, how the character of the food changes with the addition and exclusion of different ingredients,” he ended.