For the past two weeks, thanks to Typhoon Haiyan coverage, you’ve probably learned more about the Philippines than you ever thought you would. It can all seem so impersonal, seeing images from a tragedy a million miles away. Even as a Filipino-American, I cannot totally relate, as thankfully my remaining family there was not in Haiyan’s direct path.
While words cannot properly relay the beauty of the beaches in the Philippines, nor the indomitable, cheerful spirit of the Filipino people, one easy way to connect with a culture is through its food. It may seem crass to talk about the dishes of a people when so many of them are without food right now, but in times of distress this is what we do. We cook. And we eat. And we celebrate what we do have while giving to those who do not.
So here are three locally-available dishes to help you understand the Philippines a little better, plus a tasty fundraiser for the relief effort. If you would like to help, you can also give to organizations such as the Philippines Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas.
Four things you can thank a Filipino for: fluorescent lights, the yo-yo, karaoke (We hold the patent! Back off!)—and lechon. Other cultures may have whole roasted pigs, but we own it. Filipino lechon is so good, professional foodie Anthony Bourdain even proclaimed it his favorite form of pork … in the world.
Unlike the Hawaiian version, which is buried underground, this little piggy is rotated on a spit and continuously basted so that the shellacked skin is unbelievably crispy. Since the animal isn’t butterflied, the meat remains juicy, stuffed with herbs. It’s the staple of any Filipino celebration; there’s usually a fight for the cheeks, and the need to beat people away before it even gets to the table lest all the skin get picked off before everyone else arrives. It usually gets served with the liver-based Mang Tomas All-Purpose Sauce, which as far as I know has no other purpose than to have lechon dipped in it.
If you’re not having a party anytime soon, but still want a fix, the lechon pork belly at Café de Cebu ($8 half pound, $15 pound, 6680 W. Flamingo Rd., 538-7588) does in a pinch. A section of the belly is rolled and tied into a roulade, stuffed and roasted so the skin is that perfect crackling. Or, order a whole lechon in advance at Nanay Gloria’s. ($160-$200, 2810 S. Maryland Pkwy, 693-5863.)
It’s often called the national dish of the Philippines, but adobo is prepared in as many different ways as there are islands in the archipelago. The most common ingredient is vinegar (a preserving agent for the tropical climate), usually mixed with soy sauce, garlic, and black pepper, sometimes with sugar to balance the sour and salty notes. Chicken or pork is simmered slow and low in the pungent mixture. Ask a Filipino where to get the best adobo, and they’ll invite you to their house. But first try the adobo at Kapit Bahay. (4115 Spring Mountain Rd., 889-4922.)
If there’s one Filipino dish that could be considered soul food, it’s kare kare (kah-REH kah-REH). The peanut-based stew involves all the nasty bits that need to be braised for long periods of time until they’re tender, including oxtail, tripe and pork hocks. The sauce ends up being silky and rich, like a thinned peanut sauce that would come with a Thai satay, but with a meaty finish. The offal, often accompanied by hunks of eggplant and crunchy green beans, gets scooped up with some steamed rice (with your hands if you feel like going native). Each bite comes with that homey and hearty sensation you get when you eat food that people learned to consume out of necessity, but perfected it until it became a comfort. Try it at Salo Salo Grill & Restaurant. ($9, 3650 S. Jones Blvd., 878-7256, Salo-SaloGrill.com.)
Additionally, on December 4, Origin India Restaurant & Bar will host Chopped judge and cookbook author Maneet Chauha for a dinner to raise money for Typhoon Haiyan survivors. Her four-course set menu fuses her own Indian cuisine with some Filipino touches. Origin India will donate a portion of the proceeds to the Red Cross and ABS-CBN Foundation to assist with ongoing relief efforts. ($50, 4480 Paradise Rd., 734-6342, OriginaIndiaRestaurant.com.)