Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
Expecting me to discuss food from Australia? Perhaps placing another “shrimp on the barbie?” Or maybe the nutritional qualities of Vegemite? Nope. I’m describing down under as relative to the Motherland. And I don’t mean the Ryukyu Islands. Slightly further south in that archipelago comprising over 7,000 islands, the Philippines.
Why the Philippines? Well, our Christmas dinner was created by Elena’s restaurant in Waipahu.
I don’t cook for the holidays anymore since it’s just the three of us (unless Mom and Ms. S are fine with just pupu) and Mom doesn’t keep a lot of leftovers. So for the past two years we’ve been just ordering take-out. We could take Mom to one of the many buffets offered on Christmas but what is the favored protein on Christmas? Prime rib, and Mom doesn’t consume beef if it’s still red. No medium-rare, no medium and not even medium-well. It has to be well done. When a pathologist can’t find any traces of DNA, then it’s properly cooked for Mom. She also doesn’t consume any raw seafood and doesn’t really care for crab legs since they’re “too messy” to eat in a restaurant setting. And she also doesn’t like to “dress up” even if that simply means wearing a mu‘umu‘u. So Christmas buffets don’t offer Mom a lot of options. However, since most dine-in settings are now fully open, there weren’t many take-out options on Christmas day. You either had to pick-up on the 24th or order take-out from a Chinese restaurant. There were three other options this past year: Zippys, Ige’s Lunchwagon and Catering and Elena’s. Mom decided to let Ms. S decide – I’m pretty sure Ms. S didn’t want to go back to work and say “we had Christmas dinner at Zippys” and the Ige’s menu stated that it was meant to feed 10 to 15 people, which mean eating leftovers into the New Year so she selected Elena’s.
Back in 1969, Elena and Theo Butuyan immigrated from Dagupan City, Pangasinan, in the Philippines to O‘ahu. For five years they opened Elena’s Restaurant with just a small kitchen, a counter and six stools. The restaurant eventually expanded to three food trucks then their current location in the Tropicana Square Shopping Center. Then in 2014, that food celebrity Guy Fieri with the spiky, blond hair that does a show on Diners, Drive Inns and Dives visited siblings Richard Butuyan and Mellissa Cedillo, who are the second-generation proprietors of Elena’s.
The Christmas take-out special was $89 and included the trademarked Pork Adobo Fried Rice Omelet, two pounds each of Pancit, Shrimp Sarciado, Squid Guisado and Lechon Special, a little over two pounds of Sari-Sari and one pound each of Pork Adobo and Pork Guisantes plus 10 scoops of rice.
Mom’s favorites were the Pork Adobo Fried Rice Omelet and Pancit – I also enjoyed these but deferred to Mom and let her keep the leftovers. The broth in the Sari-Sari was very savory and Ms. S was relieved that Mom didn’t also ask for the Sari-Sari – she promptly cleaned up the leftover the next evening. Both the Shrimp Sarciado and Squid Guisado were dishes I never sampled before and both contained the whole animal with head-on shrimp, which flavored the tomato-based broth in the Sarciado and whole squid with innards intact (the Japanese have shiokara, which are salted seafood innards, most commonly squid served at izakaya). That also added a richness to their “special seasoning.” My only regret is not finishing the Lechon (roasted pork belly) as lechon on the second day after refrigerating turns into a congealed, fatty conglomeration instead of the delightful, crispy nuggets they are on the first day. I chopped the leftover Pork Adobo and refrigerated the leftover rice to make my version of a pork adobo fried rice the next day. It was a very hearty and filling Christmas meal and beyond. Basically $89 for about six or seven meals that everyone enjoyed!
Most of the Filipino dishes locally are influenced by Spanish and Chinese cuisine with the one constant being vinegar. It likely stemmed from the tropical climate where refrigeration wasn’t always available, hence, acid preserving the food for longer periods. Along with vinegar, acid also is delivered in the form of calamansi, which is thought to be a hybrid of kumquat and mandarin orange. Salt is usually delivered in the form of patis (fish sauce) or shoyu and most dishes also contain garlic, ginger, bay leaves and black pepper. The one ingredient you’ll likely only find in Filipino cuisine are the leaves of the moringa plant or kalamunggay, which I usually add to chicken papaya soup or munggo bean soup.
The classic Filipino noodle dish pancit has probably as many recipes as there are cooks. On Wikipedia alone, there are 36 variations of pancit and probably each variation has another dozen or so versions depending on how your family cooked the dish. The first time I tried pancit was at a housewarming party well over 30 years ago. The hostess actually purchased two large trays (I never got the name of the restaurant) and she stated that the restaurant made a special version that took three days to prepare. It contained both the Canton-style or wheat and egg noodles as well as the Bihon-style or thin rice noodles, a lot of sliced vegetables and I recall the distinct flavor of bacon or roast pork at the very least – the restaurant likely used drippings from lechon as a fat source instead of plain vegetable oil. Since then I’ve always stir-fried my own pancit using both types of noodles – I do purchase soft yakisoba noodles in place of true Canton-style noodles as the authentic Canton noodles in the supermarket are flash fried in palm oil just like instant ramen noodles and the yakisoba noodles have the same texture but a lot less saturated fat. I have served my “non-Pinoy” version to former co-workers who are Filipino and they have stated that my version qualifies me as an honorary Pinoy…
Non-Pinoy Pancit Bihon
About two pounds of noodles – I use about 2/3 cooked yakisoba noodles and 1/3 cellophane pancit noodles (soaked in water for about 15 minutes)
4 cups sliced mixed veggies – I use sliced carrots, celery, onions and sliced shiitake (soaked in water for at least 1 hour saving liquid)
1 pound lean pork or chicken thighs, finely sliced
1 tablespoon cooking oil (my favorite is garlic infused macadamia nut oil)
1 tablespoon. shoyu
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon. patis (fish sauce)
3 tablespoons shoyu
2 teaspoons. patis
1 cup water from the soaked shiitake
Marinate the pork or chicken in the oil, 1 tablespoon shoyu, 1 teaspoon patis and garlic for at least 1 hour or up to overnight. In a large stir fry pan, set on medium-high, add the pork/chicken and stir-fry until brown then add the mixed vegetables and continue stir-frying until the vegetables have softened. Add both noodles and toss until the noodles, protein and vegetables are mixed then add the remaining shoyu, patis and water cooking just until the liquid seasonings are distributed throughout the noodle and veggie mixture.
Because there’s not a lot of animal fat, this dish can be served hot, warm or even cold during those stifling summer days. This makes roughly four servings.
Ryan Tatsumoto is a retired clinical pharmacist. However, he and his wife still enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”