The Philippines at Last
Growing up, as many Hong Kongers do, in a home with a live-in nanny from the Philippines, I was exposed to Filipino food and culture from a very young age. Lynn Che Che (literally “Elder Sister Lynn” in Cantonese) arrived on the scene when my parents and sister lived in Singapore; my brother and I were still in our mother’s womb at the time. With twins on the way, a mischievous toddler to take care of, and my father working long hours at the office, mom needed all the help she could get.
Lynn Che Che came armed a degree in midwifery and a motherly instinct that kicked in even before she married and had a daughter of her own. She was strict when our behavior required it but always loving. After learning the ropes from my mother, she grew to be a talented cook in her own right, executing both Chinese and Western cuisine with aplomb while introducing us to quintessential Filipino dishes like chicken adobo and torta – the latter a localized riff on Spanish potato omelets that we happily wolfed down with ketchup and white rice.
In time, her younger sister Ate Ria joined our family. Tomboyish and cheeky with short hair, a ready grin, and a penchant for wearing jeans, she’d drive my siblings and I to school and back, often while we listened to The Eagles or some pirated pop music. On summer afternoons when there was nothing to do, we would sometimes sit down with her to watch Filipino action movies starring big-name actors like Robin Padilla and Troy Montero. Once, not long after we downsized to a walk-up apartment in my late teens, Ate Ria took down the ripened fruit from a jackfruit tree in the car park so Lynn Che Che could whip up an indulgent Filipino shaved ice dessert called halo-halo.
Their generosity extended to occasional trips back to the Philippines. Without being prompted, they often brought us jars of bacon- and ham-flavored mayonnaise (I am a sucker for mayo and will even mix it with rice); a box of treats from Dunkin’ Donuts or brazo de Mercedes, a roll of soft meringue with a custard filling; and a tub of ice cream made from purple yam or ube, which to this day remains my favorite flavor for its rich earthiness and eye-catching violet hue.
In those 18-odd years, Lynn Che Che became a second mother to us, celebrating our birthdays and other milestones, enlivening the home with her laughter and perfuming the air with the wonderful smells of whatever she was cooking. But then it came time for my siblings and I to attend college overseas. Lynn Che Che cried; Ate Ria was sad too but more stoic. With a now-empty nest, mom and dad reluctantly dispatched both sisters to care for our grandparents.
I knew the name of Lynn Che Che and Ate Ria’s hometown, their home province (Iloilo), and where it was in the Philippines. I was aware of the dramatic rice terraces of Banaue and Batad in northern Luzon, the UNESCO-inscribed city of Vigan, and the tarsiers of Bohol. I’d read a tantalizing account of a kayaking trip between the karst islands of Palawan’s Bacuit Bay, marveled at photos of Mt. Mayon’s perfectly shaped volcanic cone, and heard reports of the dazzling white-sand beaches and coral reefs found in abundance across the Visayas – the Philippines’ central belt of islands. I had every intention of going, until I got sidetracked by a deepening love affair with Indonesia.
So when I was asked to go on assignment to Cebu earlier this year, I wasn’t about to say no. I’d known that this city and island in the heart of the Visayas was the place to go beach-hopping, snorkeling and diving, and that the cuisine was a boon for pork aficionados like me. Cebu-style lechon, or spit-roasted pig, is famous up and down the country, and Anthony Bourdain proclaimed it the best kind of roast pig in the world. Serendipitously, the popular House of Lechon restaurant was just a two-minute walk from the barebones hotel I stayed at the first two nights in town.
For lunch on my first full day, I couldn’t help ordering a plate of lechon with garlic rice and kinilaw, a Filipino seafood dish akin to ceviche that uses vinegar and calamansi lime juice to cure tasty cubes of raw fish. Then there was sisig, the ultimate “drunk food” from the northern Philippine island of Luzon: it comprises pork jowls, liver, and ears that are boiled, grilled, and then diced before being seasoned with calamansi and served on a sizzling hotplate, often with a freshly cracked egg on top. Bourdain was especially fond of sisig, and I had the great fortune of being treated to some by a new friend before heading to the airport. In the end the Philippines blew me away – not because of the beaches or underwater wonders (I had no time to seek them out), but largely because of the warm, hospitable people I met and the incredible stories they told. ◊