The Filipino Way
We Filipinos, our lives revolve the dining table, and we’re very nurturing people. We love to feed you – all the time.
Margarita Forés might be the most famous chef in the Philippines nowadays, but lately she has found herself sharing secrets from the Filipino kitchen further afield than her homeland.
The woman crowned Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2016 has become something of a culinary ambassador, propelling Filipino food into the limelight as it enjoys its moment on the world stage.
The question was always - why did it take so long for our food to get out there?
But now out there it is. Filipino restaurants can now be found in cities such as Los Angeles, London and New York. And Margarita, even if she may never have expected to be in such a position, is helping to promote the Philippines’ culinary heritage, having cooked for world leaders like Barack Obama and Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.
Margarita has traced an atypical path to stardom. Her family moved to the states during the 1970s. “We transplanted ourselves from Quezon City, and we just created that same family environment in New York,” she says.
Since returning to the Philippines in the 1990s, working in catering and launching her first restaurant, a casual Italian place called Cibo, Margarita has drawn on her experience in Italy to become a vocal champion of Filipino farmers and indigenous ingredients.
“I started to question why the only vegetables on plates were carrots, green beans or potatoes when we have all these beautiful vegetables, like the wing bean and squash blossoms,” she says.
Mango from Cebu, salt from Pangasinan, milkfish from Bulan, sugarcane from Negros: being able to identify and honour our best ingredients is the lesson I’ve applied.
Now at Grace Park, her standalone restaurant in Manila’s Makati neighbourhood, she has combined her love for Italian food with her pride in the Philippines. “I like to do Italian food in its purest form, but I use Filipino ingredients. Because you’re in the Philippines, right?
People should discover our iconic ingredients.
Those include massive river prawns from Bulacan, Job’s tears from Mindanao, marlin from Bohol, those beautiful squash blossoms, avocadoes made into creamy sweet-savoury pies and local ginger beers, including one flavoured with turon, a famous Filipino dessert made with bananas. She also professes a fondness for the special fat from baby crabs in Pampanga.
If I was eating my last meal, I’d just have that crab fat on rice.
She also makes one of her favourite dishes using that ingredient: crab ravioli with crab fat. “I conceptualized it when I was in Italy. I would use water spinach to make the pasta green and calamansi to make citrus cream, and I would top it with the crab fat. It kind of embodies the essence of my cooking. It is a very classic Italian dish, but it elevates Filipino ingredients.”
When sourcing ingredients or inspiration Margarita is “very partial to the Farmers Market in Cubao. It’s one of the nicest and cleanest markets in Manila. It has an area on the side where there are restaurants that have been there forever and you can actually bring them the produce you buy at the market and they cook it on site.”
Margarita Forés on where to find the best regional Filipino cuisine
Margarita notes that in Negros, the vinegar, a common souring ingredient found in every regional cuisine in the Philippines, comes from sugarcane. “We add yellow and blue ginger to our vinegar – we call it sinamak – and we use it to marinate the chicken that we grill. At the same time, we have an amazing range of sweet things, such as our napoleon.”
For an older taste of the Philippines, she points to Pampanga. “Pampangan cuisine – they call it ‘cocina sulipeña’ – is very complex. They’re landlocked, so they eat crickets, duck and rice birds, and a lot of Spanish influence remains there.” She recommends trying the Pampangan version of paella called bringhe.
“The cooking in Bicol is also very interesting. The three main ingredients are coconut milk, chillies and taro leaves. They dry the taro leaves and use them to make laing [taro leaves stewed in coconut milk and seasoned with shrimp paste and chillies]. It’s uniquely Filipino.”
Margarita says many of the producers she buys these artisanal ingredients from are now Millennials, too, a new wave of young professionals who have returned to the soil. And she is seeing greater interest from diners in the many regional flavours of the Philippines.
“I happen to think that the food from my province, Negros, is really amazing. It’s sugar country. Even our kinilaw, our unique ceviche, tends to be on the sweet side.”
Above all, Margarita believes the rising popularity of Filipino food worldwide, no matter the province it comes from, is owed to the unique spirit of the Filipino people.
“When you come here, especially if it’s your first time, it’s all about feeding you. We’re the type that, we may be having lunch now, but we’re already talking to you about what we’ll have for dinner.
That nurturing, giving spirit is reflected in the way we see food, and it’s why we want you to try everything.