Monday, November 12, 2012

Bale Dutung - The Anthony Bourdain Menu (July 2011)

My mother in law celebrated her 80th year. And it was a foodfest that went on for days. 

4 days after the sensory overload at Pinto Art Museum, 3 days after the pig out brunch at Legaspi Market, we were off to Angeles, Pampanga for another slow food experience. 

For most of us, this was our second time at Claude Tayag's Bale Dutung.

After the first one, I swore I'll never come back. The 5-way lechon feast was a fabulous culinary experience, but that time at Bale Dutung was truly the most stuffed I've ever been in my lifetime, and we all know I have a pretty much world-record-able, bottomless esophagus with an amazing capacity for food. I felt then it was possible to die from too much food.

But like a lot of broken promises, when it comes to things that are too good for me, I had to swallow my oath and force myself to participate in this family activity. The sacrifices I make for my loved ones!

This time, with lessons learned, I knew I had to lay off the second servings of the dips and pace myself really well. And it's either my esophagus got longer, or I got smarter with food pacing, that I felt I just had the right amount of food. Well, right amount being still a thousand times above any daily recommended allowance.

Bale Dutung's house drinks with iced moscovado; that way the ice does not dilute the sweetness while it melts. 

This time, we had the menu that was served to Anthony Bourdain when he came to visit the Philippines. As such, these are their signature dishes, those that they feel best represent the richness of Philippine culture.

Claude and Mary Ann put a lot of thought into the planning of the menu, programming it to have a transition and build-up of flavors, with each dish more complex and more flavorful than the previous.  It started with the light and refreshing Pako (Fern) Salad, which was followed by the BBQ Paldeut (Chicken tail) with Lemon Grass Marinade served with Crab Fat Rice. 

The menu got heavier when they served the Adobong Pugo (Quail) and more complex when they gave us their version of Sushi, which used local ingredients like Crab Fat, Catfish, and Fermented Sauce.

The menu built up to even more complex, incredibly interesting, and flavorful dishes. Their take on the Lechon (Roasted Pig) is to shred and fry it to a golden crisp then wrap it in a soft tortilla together with varied flavors like kimchi, basil, onions, and salsa. This is a more generous version of the one they sell at Mercato because it's served buffet style and you're free to pile up the ingredients. Mine had lots and lots of basil.

By the time they served the Papaitan (Goat Stew), our palates were primed and ready for more exotic flavors.

To me, the most interesting dish was the Bulanglang Kapampangan na may Tiyan ng Bangus, Ulang, Sugpo, at Tadyang na Baboy. (Milkfish belly, crayfish, prawns and spareribs) dipped in a thick, gooey bulanglang soup made of guava. And this is where fine cooking and excellent menu priming can open up your palate to appreciate flavors you won't normally like. I hate the taste and smell of guava, but I loved this dish. 

The savory segment is capped by the Kare Kare, gorgeous to look at, and incredibly delicious to eat. 

Serving Kare Kare is a tricky thing. Most people consider their family recipes as the best. And the standard for good Kare Kare is high in the Alampay-Sugue family. My mom in law Lydia's signature Kare Kare is made using traditional methods and is hard to beat by any restaurant version. Bale Dutung's gorgeous Kare Kare did not try to beat anyone's family version. This is just a different and utterly delicious take on the dish. The peanut in the sauce is not too finely and evenly ground. This, plus the coconut incorporated into the dish, gave it a very interesting texture. A wonderful climax to the menu's savory components.

Mary Ann Tayag still sets the bar for being the hostess with the mostest, ever gracious and ever ready to serve and to share fascinating information about Philippine food. 

The experience is again made richer by a peek at their home and the wonderful stories that accompany the viewing.

At the end of our long, satisfying lunch, Mary Ann brought a bilao (native platter) of Tibok-Tibok, something like the maja blanca but uses carabao's milik, with a birthday candle. 

Mommy blew her birthday candle and wished for a 3rd Bale Dutung visit. And I swear I'm coming with her on that 3rd trip.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Cagayan de Oro and Camiguin in Bullet Points

(Transferred  from Multiply. Original posted June 3, 2008.) 

Finally, I have regained the right to call myself Islandhopper. Went last May to Cagayan de Oro to conduct 3 workshops at the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. I decided to reward myself with a 2-day vaycay to Camiguin. No reservations. Armed with little else than my Lonely Planet Philippines guidebook. Here’s the blow by blow of that Cagayan de Oro-Camiguin hopping:

Cagayan de Oro – Day One

  • Arrived at CDO on the first flight out of Manila. Charming provincial airport looking like most provincial airports do. Taking the cab from the queue, I asked before entering if it was a metered taxi. Someone said yes it was. That someone wasn’t the taxi driver though. Captive, whizzing through parochial roads that seem too far from the city and too scary to be stranded in, I had no choice but to negotiate the flat rate from 250 to 230. Woow, power negotiator me.
  • Arrived at Willshire Inn, which is quaint and unpretentious. Yes, those are euphemisms.
  • Napped, then took the jeep (and my husband gasped knowing how I hate taking public transport) to Limketkai Mall to visit uhm… their version of National Book Store, and Japanese Home Store, and Watson’s.
  • Then, while I was browsing through Watson’s I thought how about checking out SM’s version of NBS. Nobody seemed to know how to commute to SM, so I had to take a cab. Gasp! Almost 100 pesos. It’s far from downtown. Yeah, I know why am I malling in CDO? Well, it’s just my way of uhm, acclimatizing to my new environment. Or maybe I have this goal of visiting every SM branch in the country. After all, they’ve got it all for you. Shhh, don’t tell my husband, who’s declared a book-buying moratorium, but I dropped in at the Booksale branch. Not quite the reason my return home luggage was overweight.
  • Lunch at Turkish resto. Review to follow.
  • Cab back to hotel. Unpacked and then took cab to the Eco-Tourism Village. No meter again, 250 pesos.
  • Eco-village is a nice CDO welcome. You take a map of the place and walk long stretches, going through gardens and pathways, replicas of native Mindanao houses, an aviary, and a mini zoo. Built up a sweat running away from an imaginary python. Pictures to follow. 
  • Hotel car service picked me up. Goodbye 200 pesos. But driver was nice enough to bring me to the market to buy a sarong and a couple of local bags.
  • Freshened up at the hotel and had dinner at Manukan/ Jo’s, which has branches here in Metro Manila. When out of town or out of the country, I try to make it a point to dine at restos not available back home. (I don’t get it when people eat at Jollibee’s in Cebu or McDonald’s Davao. Which is not the same as my going to SM, of course.) But since I have not tried Jo’s, this was acceptable. Liked the tapioca dessert.

Let’s Speed This Up
  • This bullet point thing is too slow and detailed so I’m going to just do a time lapse sequence of the rest of the week. First day of training a bummer due to noise of the rallyists outside. Participants were from the different parts of Mindanao Very nice folks. Was afraid I’ll bore them with 5-days straight of training, but they showed so much interest and appreciation. Week ended with a very nice, touching send off from the participants. Great affirmation that training is something I am supposed to do. Within that week, I went back to the Limketkai strip a number of times to sample the local restos, visit the internet cafĂ©, and have a foot massage at Body and Sole. One night, I had a lovely dinner with an old business relation and had a conversation to refresh the soul.
  • Of course, we had to go shopping for local delicacies - bought pastel from Vjandep and chicharon from Sler's. Sinfully scrumptious both.

Off to Camiguin in a Tricyle, Bus, Ferry, and a Scooter.  
  • Saturday morning, woke up early to check out and leave for my Camiguin experience. Left my luggage filled with corporate training clothes at the hotel. Downsized to a backpack.
  • I was a bit scared. It wasn’t the first time I’ve traveled alone, but it was the first time I would be going to the beach by myself. And I wasn’t all that confident that the information I got from blogs and from Lonely Planet were still accurate.
  • But I was also excited to be doing something that I’ve never done before and going somewhere I’ve never gone.
  • Waited for a jeep to get me to Agora, which is the bus station. No jeep in sight, so took those long tricycles instead. 20 pesos.
  • Took the Bachelor Bus to Balingoan. Airconditioned. 130 pesos. 1 ½ hours with a stopover breakfast and washroom stop over. At Balingoan, took a sitak (motorized pedicab) for P10 to very nearby port. (Terminal Fee – P2.25) 

  • 1 hour ferry ride to Benoni port (P120) in an overcrowded, rickety, wooden boat. As I was surveying the situation and pondering if the monobloc chair beneath me could float in salt water, I started questioning the wisdom of taking this trip. I was afraid it was going to be the last hour of my life and I texted my husband last goodbyes. He asked what he was supposed to do with all my books, my only valuable possessions.  Isn't he practical? 
  • Beside me in the monobloc bench was this ownerless black backpack. My seatmate and I looked at it suspiciously, trying to discern a ticking sound, feeling for unusual shapes that looked like a bomb. Oh well, I figured ground zero was the best place to be. At least I get blown to smithereens, and do not have to worry about being cast out into the sea for days and having to eat human flesh.
  • Somebody drew the tarpaulin cover down, blocking the view of the water. A bad place to be for a claustrophobe. It’s a good thing I’m not, but still it made the scary experience even more uncomfortable. I napped to shorten the ride. 
  • Whew. Arrived safely at Benoni. Walked towards the bakery and waited for a jeep as Lonely Planet suggested. Accosted by habal habal (motorcycle) drivers whom I ignored at first. No jeeps came. Figured I was wasting time waiting. I’ve got to carpe diem it, so I negotiated the 100 peso habal habal fee to 80. And that’s how I met Dodong. Dodong, my island boy.
  • The habal habal was a good idea. It was a 500 meter uphill trek from the main road, where the jeep would have dropped me off, to my hotel.
  • Checked in at Enigmata Tree House. Lovely, charming; no, not euphemisms. It’s literally a tree house; 3 levels built around a giant acacia tree. Filled with eclectic art. I was led into this huge room with a spacious ante-room. With a hammock!!! And a lovely, rustic, bed swathed in white, covered by a thinner than muslin mosquito net. Suddenly started missing my honeybabs. Reluctantly left room. Had to seize the day.
  • Commissioned Dodong to drive me around the island to the tourist spots recommended by bloggers.
  • Camiguin is a beautiful island. Astonishingly beautiful. A two-lane concrete road wrapped around the island connecting little side roads. No helmet motorbike riding wasn’t scary at all, since there were very few cars on the roads. Mostly scooters who always gave a courtesy honk when overtaking. The sea was almost always in view. One time the motorbike took a turn and there before me was a vista of green cliffs, mountains, wispy clouds, and the deep blue sea that told me why one word for blue just wasn’t enough, I felt rapturously in love. Life looked so good. What a sublimely romantic moment. It was a good thing Dodong was shorter than me and had really bad teeth or the inevitable could have happened. I could have fallen in love with this island boy. And I would be texting my husband – won’t be back, you can keep the kids.  (We don’t have kids, so don’t look at me like that.)

Tourist Trapped
  • First stop was the Katibawasan Falls. I was surprised that when we stopped the bike, there was a gate to get to the falls. Of course, there was an entrance fee being charged. I was befuddled. I thought going to the waterfall would require a long nature walk. It turns out that in the name of tourism, the falls had been made more accessible, and that meant messing with nature. The walk leading down had been converted to concrete terraces with picnic tables. The falls were beautiful, all cascading 70 meters of it. But as my eyes looked at the pool beneath it, I felt that there was something strange. And that something strange is that the natural lines of the river had been altered and cemented into a round concrete walled pool. The water still flowed out of the pool into a stony river, but I can’t help but be disappointed at the artificial aesthetic of the place. I guess that made the place more accessible to tourists, but I wish they had set a larger setback to preserve the natural terrain. Oh well, I’m no tourism engineer, so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about.
  • I didn’t stay long. Just took a few pictures then exited. Outside the gates, there were a number of huts selling merchandise. I bought a keychain and I tried the kiping smothered in caramel.
  • We then went to the Sunken Cemetery. Then, I wished I were more prepared for the trip. I was really curious to snorkel and check under the water. I also wished I weren’t alone so somebody could take my pictures. Dodong’s picture of me had the cross right above my head. 
  • My island boy and I had lunch at an Italian place. Mostly, I used my time to delete pictures because my memory card was getting full. I observed, though, that the food prices were touristy; quite expensive.

  • Dodong then drove us to Ardent Hot Springs. Since it was the height of summer, the place was jampacked with locals. A mass of humanity that would make Malu Fernandez cringe filled the place. And again, man can’t leave nature well enough alone and transformed the place into a place of concrete mazes.

Mini Rant
  • I am all for progress and tourism development. But I think our country has to learn more about nature conversion. I mean, people from the cities flock not to see shrink wrapped versions of what used to be. We go to the islands expecting to see less concrete and more green. And if you’re going to mess with nature, at the very least, work with consultants with great aesthetic sense.

Now, This is Pararadise
  • I figured I had enough of the tourist spots and felt my room hammock calling me, so I decided to head home and enjoy my hotel.  What a splendid idea, Gege.
  • Thanked Dodong profusely not just for driving for me but also for carrying my things and being very nice. The only thing is that he is one of those, when asked about the cost of their services, would say “Bahala na kayo.” I hate that – you never know if you’re being cheap underpaying or you’re being too generous and ruining the curve for the backpackers. I gave him 400.
  • I spent the rest of the day in my room and it really was a good idea.
  • First the shower. After spending 6 days at the euphemistically unpretentious Willshire Hotel with the shower barely a trickle, I was so ecstatic to experience the high pressure cold blast of water to wash the city grime and island dust away. I literally screamed Yes, Yes, Yes! What deprivation does to make us more appreciative.
  • Chick lit. Mango smoothie. Hammock. All in the comfort of my own room. For that whole afternoon, my life was perfect. And I knew that someday, when the government has discovered how to tap into my husband’s finite fart reserve to provide enough power for the 7,100 islands and 7 million SUVs of this archipelago, and all he has to do for us to live comfortably is to eat beans and release, then we can retire early, and that hammock-smoothie-book combination will fill my days.

In the Wilderness
  • Paradise, of course, means rustic environs and communing with nature. And the no air-conditioning ambience of the tree house deeply ensconced into the eco-system means being exposed to all that nature offers–-bugs, howling wind rustling the shell curtains, and the creepiest, strangest noises that kept me up all night.
  • One time an insect landed on my fingers and it immediately sunk its tentacles into my flesh. So many little creatures in the place. I could live with that. But it did make me a bit edgy. So much so that when my camera strap slipped and moved, I almost shrieked.
  • And of course, it was bound to happen in the wilderness. As I was enjoying my breakfast with Grace Nono thumping in the background, in came an unwanted visitor that stealthily walked towards my legs. It was a cat! And those who know me know that I would hug a snake, sleep with a capre, eat ox brain, and do practically anything other than touch a cat. The little boy who served my breakfast heard my bloodcurling scream and got so alarmed thinking the cat did something bad to me--yeah, it did just by showing up. I had to finish my breakfast in my room.

Lonely Animal
  • The trip was too short for me to be homesick. But the beauty of the islands and the charm of my lodging made me miss my husband. Yes, he's the vacation nazi. But he's much better looking than Dodong. 
  • I hoped, at least, to find some social animals in the hotel.  I was visualizing carousing with foreigners, having cross cultural, intellectual discussions with people with accents, getting to know the owner of this eclectic wonder. Alas, the owner was in Kuala Lumpur. And  Enigmata's phone  was busted the whole week so no one could make reservations. So, except for the staff, who  slept early, I was the only social animal in the place. 

Camiguin's Finest
  • Then, Dodong and I were off to White Island. Technically, it was just me. Dodong just dropped me off at the shore and my boatman, aptly named Journey, brought me to the island. It was a bit scary for a moment when the waves rocked the really tiny the boat too much. But the view of White Island made the mini-ordeal worth it. Really beautiful.
  • People call this a sandbar. But it really isn’t made of sand but of crushed corals. One can imagine the amount of time (eons) to grind corals to that fineness. The time I spent there was too short, but we had to leave the island before high tide because it is one of those islands that disappear with the tide.
  • On the way back, I realized I could actually check out of the hotel that afternoon, and catch the last ferry back to Cagayan de Oro. Not that I wanted to leave this paradise, but it gave me the opportunity to sleep more the next day and spared me the stress of catching my noon-time flight. And that’s what I did.

Goodbye, Camiguin
  • As I was checking out, I realized there was a screw-up and I was given a bigger room than I could afford. I won’t go into detail, but that mistake was a happy mistake for me because I wasn’t charged extra. I’m so blessed to enjoy that huge, comfortable, beautiful room for that price.
  • And so, Dodong and I got back onto the bike and I took one last drive along the coastline and caught the last ferry out, just in time to see the sunset over beautiful Camiguin.