By Joseph L. Garcia, Reporter
CHEF Myke “Tatung” Sarthou, like most people, may well have been content to stay in one place. As it is, however, man has a mandate to move, and despite it being a time of rest for him, he has managed to open two restaurants in less than a year.
“Just go with the flow. Eh nag-flow (and it flowed),” he told BusinessWorld with a chuckle during our visit to his latest restaurant, Pandan Asian Café in Quezon City, a Southeast Asian joint with coolly refined interiors designed by Ivy Almario.
While his other restaurant, Talisay, is a homecoming project, Pandan serves as both substitute and souvenir for travel. Mr. Sarthou might have been in the culinary scene for about 10 years, but he points to a previous life of writing about travel for a newspaper. The recipes and techniques are gleaned from his travels, as well as his study of Philippine cuisine, which opened up several crossroads in the attempt to summarize Southeast Asian cuisine. “I’m here to recreate favorite food memories of my travels,” he told BusinessWorld.
The café’s name also points to the attempt to make a narrative about the interconnectivity of Southeast Asia, a region to which the Philippines belongs, and from there, forms a community with Brunei, Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. “[Pandan] an ingredient that lives in the same climate,” he said. According to him, we all use pandan, but in different ways: for example, in the Philippines, we use it to flavor and perfume rice, while some countries use it to flavor and wrap chicken. “It’s really about Southeast Asian diversity: how much we share, but how much we interpret it differently in our own cultures.”
For our first course, Mr. Sarthou brought out a Vietnamese Platter, featuring fresh Vietnamese spring rolls, chicken and pork satay skewers, and fried shrimp rolls. All of the dipping sauces, mostly with a peanut base of varying consistencies, were made in-house. The fresh spring rolls — shrimp wrapped in greens and rice paper — had a freshness that jolted one awake. It’s perfect for setting the stage for the chicken and pork satay, which, despite its heft, proved to taste quite clean. The shrimp rolls — combining pork and shrimp within a crispy shell — also had the same neat properties, thus ensuring a long, relaxed meal that will never over-exert the palate.
We don’t believe that Southeast Asians have a culture of courses, and everything is immediately served at the same time. This is how we came to encounter the Char kway teow (stir-fried noodles with disputed origins from either Malaysia or Singapore), and their version of Lechon Macau. We had these alongside the remains of our Vietnamese platter (which serves three for P590). The noodles, made with fish cake, sausages, and cooked on a wok over an oven flame, displayed both verve and familiarity. As for the lechon (roast pig), it’s rare for us to meet a pig so elegant: it is silky, topped with a noisy crispy skin, and dressed with a ginger and light soy-based sauce.
We guess we can see the common thread of interconnectivity that Mr. Sarthou talks about: none of the dishes share a country of origin, but all together in one plate, they blended together, each flavor strengthening each other, and all boundaries forgotten. Note to diplomats: we’re all a step closer to world, or at least regional, peace with elegantly assembled lunches.
“We have the same cooking methods,” said Mr. Sarthou in a mixture of English and Filipino. “We sauté. We fry. We grill. We boil and stew. But the dishes are so different. Imagine how raw materials and people create something so different.”
We might have a soft spot for Southeast Asian cuisine simply because it tastes like home. However, Mr. Sarthou points to another reason for taking Southeast Asian cuisine more seriously. “We should see ourselves as a region, not just geographically,” he said. “It’s an issue of food security, and it’s an issue of cultural diversity within the region.”
When he speaks about food security, he means, “Look at the Philippines right now. Who supplies most of our food? China, America, Australia. If we don’t nurture ourselves as a region, anong mangyayari sa atin (what will happen to us)?” He continued: “If you’re able to nurture that interconnectivity and interdependence within Southeast Asia, probably, we’d be more secure as a region.
“We eat the same things. Kaya ’yan (we can do it).”
Pandan Asian Café is located at 76 Sct. Limbaga St. in Quezon City.