The Philippines is blessed with a substantial body of good food writing, both serious literature and research by the likes of Edilberto Alegre and the late Doreen Fernandez, and less 'learned' but nonetheless enjoyable books by professional and amateur food lovers. An hour spent browsing the shelves in the food writing/cookbook section of a Manila bookstore never fails to deliver something surprising and delightful.
In December I found a couple of gems: a thirty-year-old publication by the Philippine Banana Export Industry Association called 100+1 Banana Recipes, and a slim paperback called Pulutan: From the Soldiers' Kitchen. The first is what its title suggests, a straightforward collection of recipes (written in both Tagalog and English) featuring banana as the main ingredient. Included are fairly mundane dishes such as banana muffins and banana pudding, as well as recipes for more curious (to the non-Filipino, at least) concoctions such as banana omelet, banana-stuffed bangus (milkfish), banacorn soup (made with corn grits, unripe banana, and green onion), and banana chicken with ubod (palm heart). It's a quirkily enjoyable illustration of the centrality of the banana in Philippine cuisine - for less than U$5.
Pulutan: From the Soldiers' Kitchen is, perhaps, an 'only-in-the-Philippines' sort of creation: a book of anecdotes and recipes written by two junior military officers serving time for their alleged involvement in what is referred to in the Philippines as the 'Oakwood Mutiny', an event in which some 300 soldiers took over the Oakwood Hotel in Makati (Manila) and declared their withdrawal of support from the government of current Philippine president Gloria Arroyo. The recipes in the book are all for pulutan, a category of food perhaps best explained by the authors:
'Pulutan conveys many things Filipino. That is probably why there is no English word that truly captures the concept of pulutan.
Finger food is not quite accurate because many pulutan are eaten with a fork or with a spoon. Neither is appetizer quite right because pulutan is a meal by itself. In fact, when the plate stops being replenished, that means it's time to go home.
Pulutan conjures comraderie. A drinking session is the Filipino concept of breaking bread. Pulutn is the bread.
The word pulutan has also evolved to mean being a main topic of conversation. If one is absent in a drinking session, he gets talked about and becomes the pulutan. (p. xv)
Each chapter ('All Time Favorites', Goat Meat, Lasang Exotic, 'Not the Usual Parts', etc.) opens with a discussion that mixes memories and anecdotes ('For my twenty-sixth birthday in 2005, I wanted something different to celebrate it with classmates who were also fellow detainees. I didn't want the usual spaghetti and fried chicken.'); Philippine food-related factoids (humba, a pork and vinegar dish, is often served at festive occasions in the Visayas, and a Philippine drinkers' tale says that fathers cook better than mothers because while the latter only learn to cook when they marry, the former learn to cook as soon as they start drinking alcohol); and kitchen tips (when preparing Bloody Belly Grill, an Ilocano dish, 'the swine's blood must be fresh and pure. Do not add water to increase the volume').
Many of the recipes are for dishes that might be 'challenging' to the Western palate. I doubt that I'll ever cook Vampires' Delight, a pork loin preparation that also includes intestines, liver, and fresh blood, or Sinigang na Adidas, sour soup of chicken feet (nails removed). But Ginataang Kuhol (snails cooked with coconut milk, squash blossoms, ginger, and chilies - mussels or other shellfish might be substituted for the snails) sounds delicious, and how can you go wrong with Steamed Stingray?
I love books of this sort for the highly focused and sometimes offbeat slices of culinary culture that they offer the reader.
Ginataang Kuhol (From Pulutan: From the Soldiers' Kitchen, Ellen T. Tordesillas and Yvonne T. Chua, eds.)
30-50 pieces edible snail
2 Tbsp. chopped garlic
4 medium onions chopped
2 Tbsp. grated ginger
1 cup gata (coconut milk)
4 pieces siling haba (finger chile)
1 cup water
1 cup squash shoots and/or flowers
1. Wash the snails in boiling water and set aside.
2. Heat oil in a pan then saute garlic, onions, and ginger.
3. Add snails. Cover pan and cook for 10 minutes.
4. Add coconut milk, siling haba, and water. Cover pan and bring to the boil.
5. When the sauce is thick, add squash shoots. Season to taste.
6. Turn off heat but leave the pan covered for 5 minutes before serving.