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TO MANY people from outside the island, especially Luzon, Mindanao might as well be another country. A cooking webinar by Maya Kitchen last month found commonalities between Davao cuisine and those of the rest of the Philippines.
In its fourth stop for its Philippine Food Tour series streamed on Facebook, The Maya Kitchen featured essayist, food writer, and chef Datu Shariff Pendatun and former president of the Culinary Historians of the Philippines, Pia Lim Castillo, who discussed balbacua and Pakfry (we’ll explain that later).
“We’re talking about a region with a few provinces, Davao City included, of course,” said Mr. Pendatun. “Davao is a city of settlers,” he said, noting how various peoples, those from indigenous cultures as well as those from regions like Cebu, have made Davao their home.
“If in Luzon, there’s really a proclivity for bulalo (beef shanks in a bone broth) and lomi or mami (noodle soups), and all these things, when you go south to the Visayas and Mindanao, people have a knack for something they call balbacua.”
According to Ms. Castillo, balbacua comes from the Mexican barbacoa, itself transplanted into North America as barbecue. This used off-cuts like offal and trotters. “These are not the likely parts that you would use for most cuisines. But the Filipinos, we like to use that,” she said, noting the use of trotters in dishes like kare-kare (braised peanut stew). “You’ll get a very gelatinous soup that tastes really good.”
Mr. Pendatun said that for this recipe, they used ox trotters. To clean it and eliminate hair strands from the cow, one can use a blowtorch, a flame, or even a razor. This was placed in a pot of water, and some vinegar was poured over it. “The vinegar is not to make it sour. It’s really there to expel whatever odors or whatever things we don’t like about the ox feet,” he said. The liquid from this initial boiling is discarded, and both hosts calculated that in general, the dish would take between two to three hours to make (with TV magic, however, by pre-cooking the trotters, they shaved the cooking time to about 30 minutes).
Mr. Pendatun said that in some parts in the south of the Philippines, for reasons of economy, some families cook the dish with just ox skin. Said Ms. Castillo, “If you do it a day before, you create a dish that has so much gelatin, which is so flavorful.” Mr. Pendatun added ginger, which he pounded instead of slicing it, and he added the same rustic touch with some onions, which he chopped into large chunks. Some lemongrass was also bruised to release more flavor.
“I think the keyword when talking about things Davao, not just cuisine, is rustic,” he said.
The broth had, by this time, turned yellow from the fat. He joked, “You have collagen for the skin, and the fat for the soul.” To this he added annatto (atsuete) powder. “In terms of flavor, I would surmise that powder is just a little bit more intense,” he said, comparing this to using the seeds, which some people prepare by soaking them in warm water or cooking them in warm oil. Annatto seeds, known in Filipino cuisine to impart a fiery red color to dishes, also adds a mild peppery taste.
While the broth simmered, he sprinkled it with a little fried garlic, spring onion, and MSG. Said Ms. Castillo, “You don’t really need it [the MSG] if you cook it slowly and you allow the flavors [to come out].”
“For carinderias (streetside eateries), it’s a shortcut.”
After the broth had finished simmering, the dish was plated and served with another sprinkling of garlic and spring onion, and garnished with sliced chilies.
“We know Davao is a coastal community, so the dishes that they serve there have a lot of seafood,” said Mr. Pendatun. “Among the seafood that is most prominent in and that Davaoeños love very much is tuna.”
Mr. Pendatun asked Ms. Castillo about what goes into a paksiw (a fish stew). She said that it is fish lightly stewed in vinegar, ginger, and onions, emphasizing that this dish uses no oil. “Some people posit that paksiw is actually like an older form of adobo (a stew of chicken or pork, or both, cooked in vinegar).” However, she did reveal one of her secrets: “Fry that fish the following day, after it has soaked [in the sauce].” It turns out that…that was the very essence of Pakfry, a portmanteau that means a previous day’s paksiw that has been deep-fried.
To Ms. Castillo’s recipe, Mr. Pendatun added star anise and garlic. He also uses tuna tails, an abundant ingredient which is considered an end cut in Mindanao. After the fish had been deep-fried, the simmering liquid is added to it before serving.
“I think it’s a great thing, because it has evolved,” said Mr. Pendatun. — JL Garcia