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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Friday, April 29, 2005

entry arrow2:47 PM | The Invasion of Spice

Sometimes you feel there are no hopes about educating the typical Dumagueteno about the cultivation of a certain culture of dining out, the way the truly cosmopolitan soul cultivates it. "We live still in barriotic tyranny," Kuya Moe once told me.

Often I feel he is right.

I once met a local who, upon learning that a coffee shop has opened in town, once quipped, "A coffee shop? I would rather go home and make myself a cup of Nescafe instant coffee." That's practical! you can exclaim -- which essentially gives you away as a "taga-bukid" troglodyte who only thinks of cafes in terms of simply coffee, instead of the "cafe culture" that is often the hallmark of great civilizations.

Go to Paris, to Vienna, to Madrid, to Rome, to New York, and you will find that great centers of culture have the Cafe in its very heart: it is often the gathering place of innovators and artists and geniuses, and where many great ideas are essentially born. The famous Algonquin Round Table group, which rose to prominence in post-World War II America, was basically a friendly gathering of some of New York's brightest minds. A group which included such luminaries as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Robert E. Sherwood, Alexander Woolcott, Edna Ferber, Peggy Wood, Franklin P. Adams, George S. Kaufman, Heywood Broun and Marc Connelly (and which also influenced such writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway), they often met for coffee and wine, gossiped and argued over their brew or spirit, and fundamentally changed the intellectual and cultural map of America of that time.

Things have since changed, of course. Silliman Avenue Cafe -- that wonderful coffee shop -- has since gone out of business, coming as it did into a city who was still very much in love with its barbaric instant coffee. But people here have since learned to embrace a kind of cafe culture. And other shops have since taken Silliman Avenue Cafe's place. Cafe Memento's barako is the best in town, but I also enjoy the coffee, and the bread, at Lee Cimbali.

Dining, too, has seen a revolution. More and more Dumaguetenos are getting out of their own kitchen to sample the culinary delights of, say, Royal Suite Inn, or Lab-as. Among the increasing number of new (and fantastic) beach resorts dotting Dauin, people have now become privy to the fantastic food, and relaxing elegance, of Private Residence.

And for something increasingly international, people are slowly discovering the Japanese take of Wakagi (you have to sample their delicious maki), the European bistro of Why Not?, and the Mexican offerings of CocoAmigos. (Some people, of course, have taken note that these places are not "authentic" enough -- but I always say "baby steps for the Dumagueteno"!) I remember there was a Korean restaurant around here once, and I also remember Dumaguete people making the long trek by car to Tanjay to sample the Thai delicacies of Sawasdee. The latter transplanted itself in Dumaguete soon after, but the Amigo branch died a silent death -- not because the food was horrible (it was to die for), but because the whole place seemed too much like a regular carinderia. Nothing Thai at all about the ambience -- plus your table jostled space with racks of ready-to-wear clothes also for sale. And if there is one thing about Dumaguetenos entrepreneurs need to know, it is that we love our surfaces.

Restaurants with a foreign slant have yet to really make their mark on the Dumagueteno food consciousness. We were talking about this once with Mrs. Cecilia Helen Bruce D'Huys, a local resident of Indian descent. We surmised that many people in the city still seemed trap in one basic mental frame of what is "cooking" and what is "eating experience." Will that soon change? We hoped so. If only to add spice to our everyday lives. Pun intended.

A few months ago, Cecilia took us to task to help her make a cookbook that would put "spice" to everyday cooking. I was the book designer of the whole project -- and the one thing I truly got from the whole experience was that I knew so little of spices, and how they made the simplest of recipes the best culinary experiences there could be. Now I know very well my coriander, my basil, my cinnamon, my cumin, my mint, and my turmeric or kurkuma. Laying out and designing everything in that cookbook, I knew what it was to salivate over such dishes as spicy chicken in Caribbean-style, enchiladas, Malaysian chicken, Morrocan chicken stew, fish filets in Thai sauce, prawn masala, shrimp and mango salsa, spicy clams with coconut, stir-fried shrimp, Hungarian goulash, moussaka, avocado salad with pineapple, Aubergine with peas, brown rice, scrambled eggs with ginger, spicy pumpkin, spinach with soy sauce, and tomato salsa. Cecilia's own favorite from the bunch was the tuna with capers, tomatoes, and basil -- because of the festive color of the dish, and because it tasted so good, full of Mediterranean flavor, she said.

"Through several years of travel," Cecilia once wrote to me of the book project, "I have met many people and made some really good friends in Belgium -- the country of my husband -- and other places where we’ve lived. Being an Indian, I learned to cook European food, and enjoyed discovering other types of cuisine. At the same time, I enjoyed cooking Indian food for family and friends. For many of them, the spices were a subject of curiosity and caution. Is it hot and spicy? Or is it just a particular flavor that one tastes without having your mouth on fire?

"But 'spicy' for me does not automatically mean 'chili-hot' -- although this can be achieved, too, without the use of a fiery chili. I once made empanada and accidentally added extra black pepper. Needless to say, the empanada turned out very hot and spicy, indeed. But despite the 'spice' debate, many of my friends were interested in Asian food and would try out recipes at home. However, they told me they were often left with the remaining spices without quite knowing how to utilize them in other dishes that were not Asian. This was the remark I heard from time to time, 'What do I do with them?' Hence, this was the basis for why I made this cookbook: as a compilation of simple everyday recipes from other cuisines for family and friends to try out, and with spices and ingredients that are easily available in any big supermarket.

"I learned to make a moussaka and chicken couscous by trial-and-error, and an American friend in Kenya gave me a list of ingredients that went into the making of simple-and-easy chili con carne... In the Philippines I learned the famous adobo, and there are quite a few versions. A Malaysian friend once gave me her version of chicken rending, which was a bit different from the one my husband makes. And then there are my own creations and my versions of different Indian meals. When my two daughters exclaim, 'Oh, that was good!' I would promptly write down the recipe."

Her cookbook, A Touch of Spice, is now available at The Village Bookstore at an affordable price. It wil be launched this Saturday, April 30, 4:00 pm, at The Spanish Heritage Patio.

Also this week, the spice invasion culminates with the opening of the Dumaguete branch of Persian Palate. It was a long time in coming. Others, who regularly travel to Cebu City for that dose of metropolitan life, have known of the branches in Ayala, in Mango Avenue, in Crossroads Mall. Perhaps it was in Persian Palate that they first had their taste of pita, that disk of unleavened bread that is the staple of the Mediterranean and the Middle Eastern world.

Finally, Persian Palate was in Dumaguete, nestled deep in the heart of The Spanish Heritage building, which itself is undergoing some beautiful changes (the interiors -- newly renovated -- has become a magnificent place, something entirely new for Dumaguete). The atmosphere of the restaurant is vaguely Persian, with some touches of Indian. The paintings on the wall, after all, seemed to be from Hindu mythology.

I broke papadum -- a kind of Indian crest -- dipped in chutney (that delicious mango paste) with proprietor and head chef Ahmad Vatandoost. He was a quiet and reserved man, but clearly proud of his restaurant which, he admitted, practically grew out of word of mouth. Now a neutralized Filipino, he was originally from Iran, but came to the Philippines 26 years ago to study in the University of San Carlos.

"When I was a student," he told me, "I came to Dumaguete with some friends." Purely by accident, he revealed. He had gone touring around southern Philippines with only P500 in his pocket, and on the way home to Cebu from Butuan, they hitched a ride in a cargo ship full of pineapples. The trip took about three days, and on the second day, the boat docked in Dumaguete for a few hours. He liked Dumaguete. He liked the weather then. He likes the weather even now, and most of all, its peace and the quiet, something he does not get in polluted Metro Cebu, he said. Plus the fact that he married a Filipina born in Sipalay may have something to do with why he is extremely drawn to Negros.

In 1989, he decided to set up shop in front of Cebu's Capitol. "It was a small place," he said, "just cheap tables, and no air-conditioning even. It was just a canteen." But it was a "canteen" that was different, because it offered something entirely new for the Cebuano palate. Soon, the place was becoming the hub of some Indian expats, who asked him if they could cook Indian food in his kitchen, and in turn they would also teach him how to cook these dishes. He agreed. "It was basically a business where the customers cooked the food, and where the customers even dictated the price," he said. Soon, after six months of learning the nuances of Indian cooking, he told the customers they didn't have to cook anymore; he would cook Indian food for them.

It was unconventional business practice, but it was something that clearly worked, because by then he had prominent people -- businessmen and politicians -- coming into his Capitol canteen. For twelve years, the little canteen thrived. And soon, the move to Ayala Mall finally seemed inevitable. In 1997, that happened. The rest, as they say, is history.

All these he told me over a banquet of intoxicating food, as I became more aware of what the restaurant had to offer. For somebody clearly ignorant of Persian food, I was at a loss in recognizing most of them. One thing that was clear, though, was that the attempt here was not authentic Persian, but "fusion Persian," with food influences from the Mediterranean and India. There were kebabs and various versions of curry in the menu, as well as beef biryani, murch cholay (spicy chicken with chickpeas curry), beef qorma, nihari (spicy beef curry), chicken musala, and nan -- which is pita bread for the rest of you. The names rolled in my tongue with so much exotic flare. One had to love it.

I love the nan in all its softness. I sampled the Eggplant and Garlic, the Lamb Curry, the Tomato Rice, the Dal (or lentil) Curry, and the Raita -- a cool mix of yogurt, cucumber, and garlic that was perfect for any sunny day. Later, with Kuya Moe, Cecilia, and photographer John Stevenson, I also tried the tomato soup laced with cheese -- something that immediately appealed to me. And then there was the Gulab Jamun, a roundish dessert made from flour and milk mix, fried, and then soaked in honey or sugared paste -- a delicacy from the Iranian countrysides, one of the Iranian customers happily informed us. But it was the pale-yellow mango lassi, a drink made from yogurt and fresh mango that made my day. It was your regular shake with your regular heavenly cool taste, but something remarkably healthy you can actually feel it in your bones.

That was Thursday, the first day of Persian Palate in Dumaguete -- and already a day to behold. Customers were trickling in, and the place was suddenly festive. Something tells me that after all these years, the Dumagueteno has finally become the cosmopolitan Epicurean.

And that is something to celebrate with a generous glass of mango lassi.

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