Archive for Essay

Zabb Elee, an Authentic Thai with a Michelin Star in Jackson Heights

Michelin stars doesn't always mean breaking the bank and a long wait to get a table in a well managed space in mostly posh locations in Manhattan. The 2014's 1-star Michelin list includes four Queens restaurants with one of them located just blocks away from the 'Little Manila' strip along Roosevelt Avenue. Zabb Elee, features Isan or Northeastern Thai cuisine that doesn't prominently feature the typical Thai menu items that are popular in the West. If one has an aversion to incredibly spicy foods, then this is not the place to eat. I ordered some items that reminded me of street foods I enjoyed back in the Philippines such as grilled chicken gizzard, liver and hearts. It was presented in sticks and came with a combination of spicy, sour, sweet and salty that was a perfect dip for the smoky and full taste of the chicken entrails. The price was a surprise for it was comparably cheaper than the Filipino restaurant's bbq sticks! The grilled pork came out intricately yet at the same time mildly flavored. The sticky rice was served in an unpretentious see-through plastic used in Philippine markets and carinderia that is quite unexpected of a Michelin-starred restaurant. IMG_5236.JPG IMG_5238.JPG IMG_5240.JPG IMG_5242.JPG IMG_5245.JPG IMG_5247.JPG IMG_5251.JPG IMG_5249.JPG

Peruvian Jalea

The Peruvian 'jalea' is a bed of deep fried and lightly battered sea food mix. The usual mix includes squid, lobsters, fish fillet, clam, oysters, crabs, snails, and barnacles topped with a generous layer of fresh red onions, tomatoes, onions, and cilantro. With a spritz of lemon and dash of black pepper, this is one heck of an appetizer!

This jalea version is served at Rikko, a tiny Peruvian restaurant in Sunnyside, Queens. The seafood is mixed with deed fried yuka or cassava root that serves as an effective palate cleanser from the tasty and flavorful jalea. Compared to its Manhattan counterparts the menu selections at Rikko are varied and the prices much more reasonable. Take 7 train, stop at Bliss Station.


Hot Choco on a Stick


Creamy and frothy hot chocolate. The chocolate melts in 3-5 minutes with constant stirring.

Pop Bar, an ice cream shop in Greenwich Village, gets ready to make a sell this winter by offering a hot drink addition in its usual 'handcrafted gelato on a stick' menu.

The store serves hot chocolate drink on a stick for less than $5 each. The idea is to melt a bar of chocolate, which is given separately, in a frothy and steaming cup of milk. The options are regular, dark and white chocolates.

I ordered the dark variety and once melted, the drink is just the right sweetness and very creamy! Recommended for those looking for something more than the usual hot choco drink. Definitely a no-no for dieters.

Pop Bar website

Nutella Champorado

Champorado is a Filipino porridge flavored with tablea, a cocoa tablet used for cooking or making hot chocolate drinks. It is best paired with something salty such as tuyo or tinapa. Last night I made my pairing a little more unique with Nutella! The result was an even yummier champorado with hazelnutty flavor. The dried fishes were fried to a crisp and were eaten with every spoonful of the champorado. These imported dried fishes are called 'pinka' and 'danggit' in the Philippine north. Milk is optional. I prefer mine dark and less sweet.


Meeting the Iron Chef

Meeting Chef Morimoto today was serendipitous. I was just coming out of the high tech Japanese bathroom of a high-end restaurant named after him when a handsome guy from the bar called our attention and asked casually if we were visiting. Smiling my very best and fully refreshed from using the Japanese toilet (that has the option to wash the front and rear after each use), I went straight to the bar ready for a quick 'pretend- tourist' chat. But before I can even answer his follow-up question was, "Would you like to meet The Chef?" As he said the line his arm was directed to a man gloriously clad in all white from shades to sandals. He looked Japanese but I didn't recognize him yet. When he finally spoke he said, "Are you from Manila?". I said, "No, I live here, but I used to be." Kamy, the teenager with me butted in, in an obviously star-trucked manner, "Are you really The Chef?" The man humbly said yes and we all shook his hand trying so hard to conceal our excitement. We chatted more, then he offered us his new line of sake. The bartender even joked about checking our birth dates to verify if we were all over 21. Even if I really didn't want to drink, I couldn't say no to Morimoto. I took the big shot glass, slowly sipped its contents then gave the other guy the camera to take a picture of us and SNAP! Here's the picture with the Iron Chef.

Kamy Reyes, Debbie Quintos and Maricar Tangonan cozy up with Masaharu Morimoto aka 'The Iron Chef' at his restaurant in Chelsea Market

The sake was bittersweet and smooth, the type that didn't ferment too long. I mentioned that I also ferment my own rice wine. He smiled and looked surprised. By then I guessed that they were probably conducting an impromptu survey to see how consumers, particularly women, will warm up to Morimoto's new line of sake that his company plans to roll out to liquor stores soon. Then one of the guys told us that Morimoto will soon get ready for the taping of the newest season of the Iron Chef. (I should have asked to be part of the studio audience. Darn!) That was our cue so we said our goodbye, wished him well and left the man and his sake sitting quietly at his very own immaculately white bar.

The Iron Chef show is filmed at the Food Network studio located at the 2nd floor of Chelsea Market in New York's Meatpacking District.

“Savor the word. Swallow the world.”, Doreen Fernandez, 1994

The late Professor Doreen Fernandez is by far one of the most interesting essayists of our era. She wrote about many topics, but was most famous for her food essays and research. Here's an article written in New York City about Ms. Doreen Fernandez. A Tribute to Doreen Fernandez by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett of New York University.

Hardin ni Monsignor Romy

Kay hirap paniwalaan na sa gitna ng siyudad na tinaguriang kapitolyo ng mundo, sa isang likod-simbahan ay may munting hardin na hitik sa bunga ng mga gulay na tunay namang nakakagiliw. Sino ba ang hindi mapapangiti sa mga luntiang dahon at naglalakihang ampalaya, mabibilog at makinis na kamatis, malalagong talbos ng kamote, mangilangngilang mapupulamg sili, atbp...?  Ang nagpasimula ng hardin ay si Monsignor Romy Montero, isa sa mga kura paroko ng Our Lady of Pompeii Church sa Greenwich Village.  Sa mahigit na anim taon na nyang pamamalagi sa Lungsod ng New York  ay talaga namang giliw na giliw at nangungulila pa rin sya sa mga gulay na nakalakhan na nya sa Pilipinas. Noong nakaraang Miyerkules, matapos ang lingguhang  Novena Mass para sa Ating Ina ng Laging Saklolo ay napagkatuwaan naming mga miyembro at tagapagtaguyod ng Filipino Pastoral Ministry (FPM) magkuhanan ng larawan sa kanyang hardin.  Matapos ang katuwaan ay ang inaantabayanang kainan na ang pinagsaluhan ay ang mga bunga ng kanyang pinaghirapan.  Kapareho ng mga gulay, masarap at sariwa ang mga ala-ala ng Pilipinas na bumabalik sa aking isipan. Salamat, Monsignor Romy! Salamat sa pagkakataong magkasama-sama ang mga Pilipino, mula sa mga munting salu-salo pagkaraan ng mga pagpupulong mula sa ating Lingguhang Novena at Misa.  Mula sa Eukaristiyang pagkain ng aming kaluluwa hanggang sa mga gulay na pagkain ng aming katawan, tunay kang aming tagapagtaguyod-- ang aming pastol.

Bitter is Better for Ilocanos

Ilocanos love  bitter veggies making the  parya (ampalaya or bittermelon) as its centerfold in most meals. I can't count how many ways we cook the parya leaves (sometimes with the flowers, too) or its fruit in any dish. In New York, parya leaves are sold in frozen packets in most Asian groceries. Pictured below are the three common varieties I spotted in New York plus its leaves, of course.   The fruit is available all year round but is best bought during summer when it is considerably cheaper. Preparation To prepare the fruit, some people will soak it in brine water prior cooking (10-20 minutes) to remove bitter taste. Some would even squeeze the bitter juice after soaking. Ilocanos would usually eat it as it is. No squeezing or soaking. When they cook the authentic Pinakbet Ilocano the seeds are not carved out of the fruit to preserve the bitter taste. Bitter is definitely better. Cooking the ampalaya leaves is tricky. It is bitter with aftertaste of sweet when cooked right -- not overly done nor undercooked. Timing is crucial. The leaves are usually thrown into the pot in what my lola would say as 'huling kulo' (literally means the last boil) which is when everything else in the pot is almost ready. Don't simmer. And a superstition states that when you smile as you pour the leaves, it will not be very bitter. Here are standard Filipino viands that make use of ampalaya: 1)Dinendeng - a very Ilocano method of cooking seasonal vegetables. Flavoring is the bagoong or monamon alamang 2)Pinakbet - there are 2 kinds: the authentic Ilocano and the guisado 3) Ensaladang parya - boiled or cooked together with steamed rice. dipped in bagoong and best eaten with fish. 4)Guisadong mongo - soup of mung beans with either pork or shrimp 5)Suam - soup of glutinous corn with pork or shrimp 6)Beef Tausi - great with Korean spices 7)Tofu tausi- same as beef tausi minus the meat, for vegetarians 8)Pork spare ribs with ampalaya fruit 9)Bulanglang - sauteed with alamang or another version is with coconut milk 10)Pork binagoongan with ampalaya fruit 11) Paksiw bangus with ampalaya fruit 12) Guisadong itlog with amplaya 13) Chicken sotanghon with ampalaya fruit 14) Frog stew with amapala leaves -- EXOTIC!   Here's a list of avant garde dishes using ampalaya. These are meals borne out of dormitory halls. 1)Corned beef with ampalaya 2)Red sardines with ampalaya - Ligo sardines is highly recommended 3)Button mushroom soup with ampalaya - use the fresh mushrooms 4)Ampalaya leaves omelette - not for everyone! 5)Guisadong ampalaya leaves with onions and tomatoes -- again not for everyone! 6) Pansit pakbet - a version of the one served at Isdaan Restaurant in Gerona, Tarlac. (   There are more possibilities. Let me know if you have one in mind. For inquiries about recipes, email me at  

What Makes Ilocano Food Ilocano

Ilocanos are notoriously known for being frugal. Born of an area bereft of  resources, who can blame them? As far back as Pre-hispanic times, they scrimped to survive the harsh living conditions of the northern Philippines. If it were hard times for the entire archipelago, it was much harder for them (and yes same is true for some of our brothers in Visayas and Mindanao). They migrated vigorously.  Families moving in droves to south, and males boarding ships to Hawaii, Alaska and California to fill foreign labor with their entire clan following suit. Motivation to go find better life is the major reason why they are one of the most dispersed ethnic communities in the Philippines.
These hardships and lack of resources reflect on the Ilocano table. Food preparation was always simple, and ingredients never expensive if not FREE for most ingredients were  locally available. And fortunately for them, the selections were very healthy and green. They cooked the slimy saluyot, picked flowers and made them edible, and basically took every free growing weed into the pot then flavored them with the smelly buggoong and armang. As compared to the Ilocano taste, Filipinos in general are a culture of meat eaters. The healthy roughage, overly simple and flesh-scant Ilocano viands don't appeal to the common Pinoy tongue. Onlypinakbet and bagnet have made it to mainstream Filipino cuisine. In fact, have you ever seen a popular faithfully Ilocano restaurant chain that serves dinengdeng? Nope. Some Tagalogs aren't even aware that such mix of bitter vegetables and leftover fish tail could be so deliciously addicting.
Scavenger Cook
I'm an immigrant Ilocano living in the States. In US, ingredients are easily available, food is relatively affordable, but it's hard to shake off traits that have been socially and culturally ingrained in my head. Plus, I admit I miss the bitter veggie stew my grandmother used to cook. In one of my sentimental weeks, I actually spent more cooking Ilocano comfort foods whose ingredients have otherwise been free if cooked in my hometown in Tarlac, but since New York has a climate that wouldn't perennially grow  ingredients like saluyot, I splurged on ingredients that turned out to be more expensive than the regular American steak.
I don't cook often, but whenever I do my method of cooking is green in the recycled sense. I cook whatever is in the fridge. I cook whatever is left from last night's dinner. I cook the takeout leftovers. No fancy ingredients. No elaborate trappings. No running to the store to buy missing ingredients. I make my fridge as sustainable as possible. Simple and economical are my two governing principles. On this page, do not expect popular Filipino foods. I only do creations born out of hunger. Food that is cooked because I was hungry and at the same time have this creative tendency to see how a certain leftover will taste if mixed with something I don't want to throw out from the fridge.
I have been programmed to be frugal, so frugal I will be. I am your friendly, feisty, and most frugal Ilocano SCAVENGER COOK.