Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Black Dog Roasting on an Open Fire

Christmas is a holiday celebrated around the world.  So when you think of Christmas food, the first food that comes to mind probably isn't Filipino food.  But listening to the radio this past week, they've been playing Frank DeLima's "Filipino Christmas" pretty frequently, and somehow it gave me a craving.   I think it's that one line (to the tune of Mel Torme's Christmas Song), "Black dog roasting on an open fire.   Bagaong boiling on the stove."  Somehow Frank's resonating tenor, although menat to be humorous, captures the same warm mesmerizing quality that Mel Torme's did, and invokes the same desire for festive food.  Not that I really had a craving for black dog (something I've never actually tasted), but for Filipino food in general.

Filipino food has a bad stigma attached to it, I think.   It gets a bad rap, and people are afraid to try it because of dishes like black dog, and balut (or unhatched baby duck eggs).  While they certainly exist in the cuisine, and there really isn't anything wrong with either of those dishes (except that they defy the Western notions of what should and should not be eaten), they are not all encompassing of the entire cuisine.   But, because it lacks the popularity, Filipino food just doesn't have the prominence that Japanese or Chinese food has, even here in Hawaii.  However, it certainly is readily available if you want to go get some.

Ironically, it isn't even in Hawaii that I first developed a liking for Filipino food.   It was when I was doing work for the Department of Education in Guarm.  Being very far from home, my traveller's instinct kicked in and I really wanted to explore, especially the food scene.   For lunch, my contacts there took me to a popular Filipino fast food chain called, Jollibee.   While basically a burger joint, their flavors are definitely Filipino, and they offered Filipino favorites like palabok and Filipino style spaghetti (which is disarmingly sweet).  This naturally piqued my curiosity, and for dinner one night, I went searching for more traditional Filipino dishes, something I found at one of the little vendors at the night market in the Chamorro Village.  With Guam being only an hour flight away from the Philippines, it should be no real surprise that I found good Filipino food there.   But I figured with our huge Filipino population here, we must have similar food here.   So when I returned I promptly made a visit to the defacto headquarters for Filipino food here, Golden Coin Bakeshop and Restaurant.

Golden Coin is pretty much the definitive Filipino plate lunch in Hawaii.  What Patti's Chinese Kitchen was to Chinese food, Golden Coin is to Filipino food.   A beloved and treasured, local favorite.  Even the ordering concept is the same, with a choice of starch and 2 to 3 choices from long rows of delicious, and foreign looking foods.   However, instead of chow fun, you get pancit as your starch.   Instead of choosing beef broccoli or lemon chicken, you can choose pinakbet or dinuguan.  In fact, many of the Filipino dishes have Chinese roots.  But they all have a very distinctly Filipino flavor.

Palabok from Golden Coin
Driving past Golden Coin on King St. in Kalihi, they had a big banner advertising their palabok.   As this was one of the featured dishes at Jollibee as well, it was one of my first jumping off points for Filipino cuisine.  Unfortunately, while comfort food for the Filipinos, the palabok really didn't excite me.   It is basically a bed of very thin translucent rice noodles (much thinner than our local chicken long rice).  On top of that they drown the plate in this thick, gloppy, corn-starch laden gravy, which to me really didn't have that much flavor.  On top of that are the condiments of boiled eggs, shrimps, minced pork rinds, and some minced green onion.    All in all, it's not a bad dish.  But was pretty tame, and not at all threatening like black dog.  I can easily see how it would be great comfort food for people who grew up with it.  For myself, not having grown up with it, I found it an interesting hodge podge of toppings, but not that interesting a dish.  The gloppy, messy gravy just wasn't flavorful enough for me.

Fried Bangus from Golden Coin
The one dish that really impressed me the most in Guam, was their fried fish.   On my plate, I was basically served a whole fried fish.   When done right, all of the fins and tail have an almost potato chip like crunch to them.   So the next thing I tried at Golden Coin was their fried bangus (or milk fish).   Bangus is pretty much he national fish of the Philippines.  It is on practically every menu.   The bangus at Golden Coin was tasty.   However, it must've been a different fish from the one I had in Guam.   It wasn't fried nearly as crispy.   In fact, the skin on the fish, usually one of the best parts, was a little touch and scaly.   But the meat was very nice and white, and the bones were easy to pick out.  

Pork Adobo, Lechon, & Pancit Bihon Plate from Golden Coin
What Golden Coin does really well, is their 2-choice or 3-choice plates (the same as Patti's or Panda).  Instead of getting a chow mein, I went straight for a pancit bihon.   Their pancit also utilizes translucent rice noodles, like the palabok.   It's somewhat similar to Singapore noodles.   The best pancit I ever had, was of course, homemade by a Filipino lady who used to give us dance lessons.  Her pancit was a completely addictive, chewy texture, almost similar to pad thai.   But then, no fast food pancit could compare to her homemade goodness.  And the pancit at Golden Coin was pretty on par with any other fast food noodle.   Besides the pancit, I decided to try the quintessential Filipino dish, pork adobo.   Their adobo was, not unlike beef stew from L&L in terms of texture.  It's soft, but not melt in your mouth kind of soft.   The gravy that it sits in is almost the same consistency as local style as well.  However, instead of a tomato and carrot flavor, there's a vinegar and pepper flavor.   The adobo is pretty much the classic version of adobo in my mind.   It's the same style of adobo that every other plate lunch place that offers it, tries to achieve.   But no one captures the tenderness of beef, or the classic vinegar taste, as well as Golden Coin.

Besides the pork adobo, I really wanted to try the lechon.   I first saw lechon when watching Anthony Bourdain's adventures in the Philippines.  The whole roasted pig slowly turning on the bamboo spit, getting glazed and golden brown, with skin as crispy and addictive as candy, made me literally drool.   Mainly though, I wanted to see how it compared to Chinese siu yuk (roast pork).   Unfortunately, I was a bit disappointed.  Other than a different dipping sauce, the flavors of the lechon were essentially the same as any siu yuk you would find at a Chinese fast food place.   Though they may use different herbs and seasonings, they weren't really pronounced enough to make the lechon taste different from siu yuk.   Worse, the lechon suffered from the same flaws as all Chinese fast food places.   The fat was congealed and hard, and all around unappetizing.  When you cut off the hunks of fat, the meat you're left with is decent, but a little dry and not that tender.   The skin was good though.  Always the best part really.

Roast Pork from Duck Lee
Maybe I'm just culturally biased, but I think I like Chinese siu yuk better.   Or it may be that having frequented more Chinese restaurants than Filipino ones, I just know who offers the best siu yuk and haven't yet found the equivalent lechon.   Hands down the best roast pork on the island, is the suckling pig served at dim sum at Royal Garden.   But then, that's yuu jyuu, not siu yuk, so it's a different dish.   My favorite Chinese restaurant to get just a plate of siu yuk over rice, is still Hung Won.  But then, comparing a little family restaurant to fast food is not exactly comparing apples to apples.   The best take out, Chinese fast food, siu yuk can be found at Duck Lee in the Market City Shopping Center.  If you can get it while it's still fresh and hot, it's just delicious.   The meat is nice and soft, and the skin is just perfectly crunchy.

Roast Duck from Duck Lee
Speaking of Duck Lee, the best thing that they do is their roast duck.  It's probably one of the best Chinese fast food dishes around.   Each piece is just glistening with fat, juice, and the light sauce.  The duck isn't just all bones.  It's meaty and succulent.  The skin, is not crispy, but just melts in your mouth, the same way that the skin on good shoyu chicken does.   Best of all is the sauce they glaze the duck in.  It's just the perfect blend of salty, sweet, and plum and star anise flavors.  It doesn't overpower the duck, but really brings out the duck flavor.

It's kind of ironic that this Portuguese man is able to emulate the sounds of the Filipino language so well, and was able to set off such a quest.  Then again, maybe it isn't that ironic, considering how well Frank knows Hawaii, and all of its people.  In today's ridiculously oversensitive environment of political correctness, I'm sometimes surprised that Frank's ethnic humor can still survive.   I have never been a fan of the political correctness movement.   To me, instead of stimulating respect and tolerance for other cultures as it should, it fosters an environment where it is too easy to offend other people.  People take themselves way too seriously.  In Hawaii, we've learned that being able to laugh at ourselves is the key to cultural harmony (something that a few shows, like Avenue Q, have recognized).  It's not meant to offend, it's meant to bond.  And Frank's observations are funny because they're really accurate.  Local Chinese really are thrifty to the point of excess.  Local Japanese really are like how Frank personified as Glenn Miyashiro.   The only ones who get bent out of shape listening to Frank, are the newcomers to the islands.  But they too quickly learn that, humor and food are the keys to the racial harmony that we pride ourselves so much on.

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